I’m not meant to like Radiohead much – I’ve spent a good chunk of the last 16 years moaning about them not being as good as people say they are – but I’ve come to realise over the last four or five years that I really quite like them, especially In Rainbows.
I was largely nonplussed by OK Computer way back when – some of my friends went gaga for it, but I was smitten by Spiritualized and Orbital and Aphex Twin and DJ Shadow and Björk, which made Radiohead’s 1997 output seem a little prosaic, even as it was lauded to the very highest heavens by people keen on canonical rock albums and desperate to anoint something of their own (remember that Q readers poll in 1998 which voted it the greatest album ever?). (I did, and still do, love “Airbag” and “Paranoid Android”, though.)
Three years later, at university, I’d fully embraced Miles Davis, been extraordinarily excited by XTRMNTR, explored Warp Records’ 90s output even further, tasted Fugazi, read Debord and Deleuze, and basically had my horizons stretched massively, which seriously diluted the impact that Kid A had on me, even as it seemed to seismically realign other people. Over a dozen years later, though I love “The National Anthem”, it still feels like a strange beast to me, neither fish nor fowl – nods to avant-garde and experimental music and electronica and jazz, but still sounding and feeling and touching and smelling like a rock record. (I’m convinced that, were it sequenced differently, without “Everything In Its Right Place” and the title track and “Treefingers” so frontloaded, that people wouldn’t think Kid A is quite as weird and radical as its reputation suggests.)
Later, Amnesiac struck me as the outtakes record many criticised it as being (albeit quite decent outtakes), and though Hail To The Thief contained some songs I loved instantly (“Where I End And You Begin”) and others I grew to love (“There There”), it felt long and unfocused, oddly sequenced and incomplete.
So I wasn’t excited when Radiohead announced the imminent “pay what you want” release of In Rainbows in the autumn of 2007. I’d been swept up in Caribou and LCD Soundsystem and Battles and Patrick Wolf and Spoon and a dozen other things that year, and so I paid 1p for the Radiohead album, gave it a cursory listen, picked up the CD out of a sense of obligation when it arrived, and put it to one side.
I liked “Reckoner” from the off, heard it as a compressed, consumable version of Talk Talk’s mystically beautiful “New Grass”, and I enjoyed the rush and push of the opening pair of tracks, which felt physical and enervated and almost, for once, vital, which Radiohead had never felt to me before. The rest of it, I didn’t much care for at all. But slowly, over the years, I’ve found myself going back to it a lot, often picking it up as I walked out of the door to play in the car. Which isn’t my usual optimum listening situation, but, y’know. It’s practical.
And In Rainbows is a very practical album, somehow. It’s very listenable, very functional. Utilitarian? Possibly. I’ve often daydreamed about finding a ‘perfect album’, which would obviate the need (the desire?) to ever listen to anything else ever again. This is a crazy, pointless daydream, but occasionally, I wonder if In Rainbows might almost be that record – it has a little bit of almost everything I like about music, its songs and structures are listenable and rewarding without ever seeming to become predictable or over-exposed.
I never feel like I get tired of or fed up with In Rainbows. I can put it on regardless of my own mood, and enjoy where it takes me; which is nowhere, almost, in some ways. I don’t get transported by it like I might by, say, The Seer, but I do get distracted by it, in a good way – I want it to distract me, to involve me, but maybe not too much. I don’t love In Rainbows, it doesn’t strike me as a radical and amazing piece of art, or even as a catchy and appealing piece of entertainment; but it is a rewarding and compelling thing in its own right, somewhere in between. Neither fish nor fowl again, but in a good way.
In terms of the actual music, I haven’t a clue what Thom Yorke is singing about here, and don’t really care – he uses his voice much more effectively and with greater understanding here than he has before, layering it beatifically on “Nude”, finding jitteringly compelling space on “15 Step”, edging towards sublimation on “Reckoner”. The influence of electronic music melds truly symbiotically, at last, with more organic approaches; songs and textures and rhythms are in pretty equal balance, and it works amazingly well.
And oh, those rhythms – Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood are the stars of this album, for me. In fact, it’s on the tracks they’re not overtly (or at all) present on (“Faust Arp”, “Videotape”) that I feel the record wanes. On the other eight songs, though, Selway plays almost jazz-y, nervously ticking hi-hat patterns and propulsive motifs, and Colin Greenwood smashes huge waves of bass through the foundations of the songs.
For a long time I think I objected to Radiohead on the ideological grounds that they got more attention, despite making less interesting music, than a lot of the artists and musicians that they talked about, many of whom I adored. As I get older and more pragmatic, I’m starting to think that, actually, what they’re able to do is take the music they love, and build something different and accessible with it; that they act like both a gateway drug to and publicist for (rather than exploiter of) their own influences. Getting Four Tet to remix them, dragging Caribou on tour, sounding a bit like Talk Talk, name-dropping DJ Shadow… it’s not who you steal from, it’s how you steal?
So I might not love In Rainbows the way I love Laughing Stock or Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, or Ege Bamyasi, or In Sides, or any of many other albums I could name, but I do almost certainly listen to it a hell of a lot more frequently these days, which has to count for something.