Radiohead has always been a band who engaged the world on their own terms. From their refusal to be pigeonholed as a one-hit wonder following Creep's brief visit to the charts, to their radical artistic reinvention on Kid A, they generally did their own thing and hoped that the fans would follow, if it was good. And it stayed good; few bands have had a run of consistent excellence similar to the five Radiohead albums between The Bends and Hail to the Thief. Hail to the Thief marked the end of their recording contract with EMI, allowing them to become the true masters of their own destiny, with no label pressure to finish and release new work. By not re-signing with a label, this allowed them to develop their seventh album at its own pace, mixing recording sessions with occasional touring to try out new songs on live (and attentive) audiences.
This pace was much slower than expected, with both 2005 and 2006 being touted as the release year for the new album before slipping away. 2007 looked like it was going to follow, until, on October 1, the band posted to their official website that the album was finished, it was called In Rainbows, and it was being self-published by the band as a digital download on October 10, 2007. Not only that, but the price of the download was not set, rather purchasers were asked to choose their preferred price for the download... even if it was $0.
This trifecta of price, rapid availability, and self-publishing sent waves throughout the Internet, with pundits predicting the death of the record label, or the complete devaluing of recorded music, among others. The following announcements by Trent Reznor that Nine Inch Nails is now a 'free agent' and by Madonna that she was leaving the major labels for a direct deal with a concert promoter did little to damp the storm of editorializing. However, the lofty (and lowly) discussions about the future of music have somewhat overshadowed a rather more direct question: Is In Rainbows any good? In Rainbows Radiohead
- 15 Step (3:51)
A heavily-processed drum beat and Thom Yorke's indistinct vocals open the album with a stripped-down, mid-tempo groove, joined quickly by warm electric guitar. The song then enters the first of In Rainbows's warm, organic soundscapes, based on a thick drum/bass beat and encompassing guitars, eerie synths, and the vocals. A children's choir cheering joins towards the end, an unexpectedly upbeat addition that foreshadows the mood of the album.
- Bodysnatchers (4:02)
Half Optimistic and half Just, Bodysnatchers recalls the time when Radiohead was famed for its three-guitar attack. Thom's shouted vocals float above the battle of several guitar lines with varying amounts of distortion. Perhaps the hardest-rocking song to be found on a Radiohead album this decade, its succession of propulsive guitar leads bleed together into a textured noise reminiscent of the best songs on The Bends.
- Nude (4:15)
The mood abruptly changes with the atmospheric synthesizer opening of Nude, which opens up into a laid-back groove before a silky-smooth processed guitar leads into the stripped-down verse. This song spent ten years in Radiohead's vaults, occasionally surfacing under various titles at live shows, and finally being completed for In Rainbows. A ballad similar to, but more synthetic than Pyramid Song from Amnesiac it briefly resolves before fading away.
- Weird Fishes/Arpeggi (5:18)
A fast drum-driven song with smooth, warm guitar, where the pendulum swings more back to 'rock' from 'electronica'. Even for this album, it develops slowly, with only a short vocal interlude featuring Thom moaning about the titular 'weird fishes' breaking the organic feel of the song (and the drumbeat).
- All I Need (3:48)
Smooth and organic, with a stop-start drumbeat and a deep, bassy lead, this is one of the standout tracks on the album. The 'less-is-more' minimalism of the accompaniment and the stark vocal presentation are present throughout but find their best expression here. For the last minute a piano appears in a surge and breakdown reminiscent of a de-hypered Sit Down. Stand Up., along with some surprising major chords.
- Faust Arp (2:09)
A simple acoustic guitar song with skittering chord changes and string backing, this is the simplest song on the album. The natural, acoustic sounds provide a good break from the highly synthetic tones preceding and following.
- Reckoner (4:50)
A showcase for its shuffling, reverberant drum beat and staccato guitar noodling, this song's mellowness belies its upbeat tempo. Featuring consonant chord progressions rare among Radiohead's 2000s work, it projects an optimistic air despite its confrontational title. Listen for the soaring, near-wordless vocal lines in the latter half of the song to continue the unexpected lightness of character before the fade-out.
- House of Cards (5:28)
Another song to feature the warm, overdriven guitar that is the trademark guitar tone of this album, The unusually distinct opening line "I don't wanna be your friend, I just wanna be your lover..." sticks in the head and casts its shadow over the rest of the lyrics. When the noisy electronics join, they do not overshadow like on Kid A but fit cleanly in their chosen place among others in this well-balanced song.
- Jigsaw Falling Into Place (4:08)
Beginning with a finger-picked classical guitar lead, this song soon gains a strong, catchy bassline and drumbeat. Possibly the catchiest Radiohead song in recent memory, it eventually builds to an expected climax with twisted backing vocals and shifting guitar lines.
- Videotape (4:39)
The album closer begins as a straightforward piano ballad, a surprisingly jarring transition from the previous track. While trying to be a final reflection in the vein of Motion Picture Soundtrack from Kid A, it only succeeds in being an anticlimax. The song builds with drums but halts, choosing to fade away rather than resolve.
Radiohead's new album may not be the dramatic leap forward some were expecting, but it is a remarkable evolution for the band. For the first time they seem comfortable with the legacy of both their early guitar-driven work and their later electronic-toned albums. These sensibilities combine to make the most accessible Radiohead album since The Bends. Warm, organic, and compulsively listenable, In Rainbows is a worthy addition to Radiohead's impressive catalogue.