“What’s the point of instruments?/Words are a sawed off shotgun,” cries Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke on the band’s newest studio album, In Rainbows. How true those words are. It’s not that the music on the band’s newest disc isn’t worth listening to. It certainly is, and it meets the high standards that the band always sets for itself. This time, Radiohead abandons the computer-generated, effects-laden music that had distinguished the band so on Kid A and Amnesiac and returns to a more rock-oriented, stripped-down sound found on their earlier albums. Yorke’s falsetto harmonies still mesmerize, as do Jonny Greenwood’s luscious guitar licks, Colin Greenwood’s lurking bass lines, and Phil Selway’s staccato drum beats. But what’s most memorable and haunting about this album are the lyrics.
Why is it that the lyrics, sung with such fine melodies, stick out? As opposed to the band’s previous albums—which have addressed political power, complacency, long-lost, faraway love, and, um, paranoid androids and karma police, to name a few—this is almost exclusively filled with lyrics about unfulfilled promises, lowered expectations, recurring frustration, and a sort of immobility—a stagnation that preoccupies the band constantly. No matter the tune—sweet or heavy, acoustic or electric, complex or simple—the message wracked with pessimism and disappointment does not change. “Has the light gone out for you?” Yorke asks on “Bodysnatchers,” one of the album’s best rock songs, “because it’s gone out for me.” On “Nude,” an eerie, haunting track, Yorke warns the listener, “Don’t get any big ideas/They’re not going to happen.” And on “Faust ARP,” Yorke, whose problems with writer’s block have hindered him in the past, sings, “Dead from the neck up/Because I’m stuffed, stuffed, stuffed.”
How ironic it is for a band that has, ostensibly, faced no failure to tell of the difficulties that have dogged it. Every one of Radiohead’s five previous albums—and I’m sure this one will be no different—has produced immense sales and critical respect. (Not included is the band’s universally panned debut album, Pablo Honey; yet even that was a relative sales success, thanks to the chart sensation, “Creep.”) The band has, by most accounts, produced two of the best modern rock albums, The Bends and OK Computer, and two more genre-busting chart toppers in Kid A and Amnesiac. And, predictably, Radiohead has already reportedly sold 1.3 million copies of In Rainbows (which was released on the band’s website a little over a week ago, for whatever price the listener chose). If it hasn’t happened by now, then no financial or artistic success, I guess, will allow Yorke and his bandmates to shake these scary, inhibiting feelings.
I remember thinking, upon first hearing that Radiohead’s new album was to be titled In Rainbows, that I hoped the album wouldn’t live up to its name. Rainbows are only briefly pretty, ultimately transient and forgettable. They are the softness that comes after the storm, but they lack the poignancy of the storm’s tumult and wreck. They are, in short, everything I didn’t want Radiohead to be.
When I first listened to the album, I thought my fears had been confirmed. On first listen, the majority of In Rainbows achieves an aesthetic effect not unlike a painting of haloed angels, surrounded by bow-sporting, feathered-tunic-wearing cherubs, all lying in blissful repose upon a colorful garden of fruits in the clouds—colorful, airy and subdued, but ultimately unable to strike any emotional chord.
But the more I listened to the album, the more I realized that its brilliance lies in precisely this aesthetic, in the melancholy and bittersweet that exists in the softness contained in In Rainbows—I just didn’t understand how to appreciate it. I’m too used to turning on OK Computer and having the opening chords of “Airbag” punch me in the face, too accustomed to hearing the drunken desperation of Amnesiac’s “You and Whose Army” or the haunting, schizophrenic paranoia of Hail to the Theif’s “Wolf at the Door.”
I think that Radiohead is done with the struggle, uncertainty, and commotion of their previous, and most likely best, work. “Videotape,” the album’s closer, opens with the declaration, “When I’m at the pearly gates/This will be on my videotape,” and closes with “This is my way of saying goodbye/Because I can’t do it face to face…I won’t be afraid/Because today has been the most perfect day I’ve ever seen.” Though at times a bit a gloomy, the song is uncommonly reflective and self-referential, reaching an unusually peaceful, contented resolution.
Radiohead’s In Rainbows is very much a farewell album, concerned with finality, death, and aftermath, with exploring the ambivalent satisfaction of a career nearly over. The sentiment is echoed in the chorus of Faust Arp: “We though you had it in you but no…I love you but enough is enough.”