First impressions of a record are notoriously unreliable. It makes the whole practice of writing about music seem (even more) futile (than it actually is) when you dismiss an album outright and find it growing on you steadily in the following months. This doesn’t happen too often, fortunately, but it does happen.
So as one of the 1.2 million who downloaded In Rainbows on the first day of its release (perhaps ‘availability’ is a better word), I was tempted to throw in my tuppence along with the thousands of other reviews that appeared that week. But there was a problem: I couldn’t decide if I really liked it or was just being an annoyingly blinkered fan.
When I got round to putting it on my MP3 player, I’d listen to it on the walk to work, really love the first three tracks and tire of the rest. Or I’d be awake late at night, give it another listen and find new worth in the tracks I’d previously skipped. Any new Radiohead album is especially susceptible to this kind of oscillation of opinion. They’ve scaled such heights in the past that it’s impossible to listen to it as you would an album by an unknown – you want it to be good so much that you lose your critical distance.
But now, after a few dozen listens, I think I’m in a position to place In Rainbows in the grander scheme of things. It isn’t uniformly excellent, but I believe it’s their finest album since OK Computer. That doesn’t mean I was one of the bleep-haters who turned against Radiohead when they went a bit Aphex Twin on Kid A and Amnesiac. Admittedly, some of Kid A just didn’t work for me, but Pyramid Song is my favourite Radiohead song full-stop, and I loved Eraser, Thom Yorke’s glitchy solo album.
Anyway, here’s my slightly overdue review of In Rainbows, in a track-by-track format with ratings out of ten, because they’re one of the rare bands that deserve such geek-like scrutiny…
1 – 15 Step.(9) The perfect opener. Quintessential Radiohead: an inventive Phil Selway beat, a multi-layered guitar line, a menacing bass and Yorke at his sardonic best: “You used to be alright / What happened? / Etcetera, etcetera…”
2 – Bodysnatchers (8) Keeps the standard high, and then some. A scuzzy, syncopated guitar line is developed with Kid A-esque effects, but ‘the moment’ arrives with that unexpected, minor-key turning point, where Yorke sings, “Has the light gone out for you? / ‘Cos the light’s gone out for me / This is the 21st century.” Sounds like it was probably conceived not long after Hail to the Thief.
3 – Nude (9) Sure to join No Surprises and Fake Plastic Trees as a live favourite. Perhaps Thom Yorke’s finest moment as a vocalist – his voice has never sounded so ethereal. The sentiment is classic Radiohead: “Don’t get any big ideas / They’re not gonna happen.” Never has mundane realism seemed so transcendent.
4 – Weird Fishes (6) I like it, but it saps some of the album’s early momentum. It’s fairly uninteresting for the first three and a half minutes before that echoey drumbeat kicks in, followed by a foreboding bassline and token eerie electronics. Anyone who has the guts to write a song about being eaten by fishes deserves a bonus point.
5 – All I Need (7) Another that follows the familiar but oh-so-effective Radiohead song structure: moody, steady intro > fucking huge, spine-tingling climax > melodic come-down. Except this one stops abruptly after the fucking huge climax, in which the prevailing synth motif is drenched in pianos and cymbals.
6 – Faust Arp (5) With its irregular rhythm and strings, this is reminiscent of Amnesiac. On its own it’s pretty nondescript, but it serves a purpose within the album as a quick pause for breath.
7 – Reckoner (10) My personal favourite. That metallic cymbal beat, with a clean, minor guitar riff and Yorke at his most emotive. The bridge with the hummed harmonies reminded me a lot of the ‘Gregorian chant’ section of Paranoid Android. When the percussion strikes up again it’s just brilliant. A song I’ll never tire of.
8 – House of Cards (7) An upbeat song by Radiohead standards, with that unlikeliest of opening lines: “I don’t wanna be your friend / I just wanna be your lover.” It does rise occasionally from its repetitive base, but one of the more conventional efforts here.
9 – Jigsaw Falling Into Place (4) I’ve heard people call this their favourite track on In Rainbows but it doesn’t work for me. It’s probably the sharpest song lyrically, but I listen to Radiohead for the sounds first and foremost. Unlike most of the other songs, it didn’t really surprise me at any point.
10 – Videotape (4) The final song suffers from the complaint that afflicted Radiohead post-OK Computer and turned many off: if you want to be wilfully experimental, you damned well need a strong song to support it. And in this case, an unchanging piano sequence isn’t interesting enough to support that backward-taped drumloop. A disappointing closer, given that Radiohead used to save some of their best till last (Blow Out, Street Spirit, Tourist…).
So, by the law of averages, In Rainbows receives a rating of 6.9. How very Pitchfork.
I actually thought I liked it more. If you judge it against other new music of 2007 I think it deserves a higher rating, but within the Radiohead oevre perhaps 6.9 is fair. In true Radiohead tradition, there are some amazing moments, but there some undeniably average tracks here too.