How much is Radiohead worth to you?
When Kurt Vonnegut died, PBS replayed an older interview with Charlie Rose where Vonnegut mockingly admitted that the book he was supposed to be promoting was probably deserved a “C” rating relative to Slaughterhouse Five. It was a funny thing to hear coming from an artist, because one of the most natural acts in actively consuming any form of media is the assigning of value. Radiohead’s seventh album seems to be playing a capitalistic joke on this idea of determining worth. The monetary cost of In Rainbows —much like any rating of the music’s artistic value— is entirely up to you.
My enjoyment of Radiohead puzzles me. Their music nestled its way into my life by way of an ex-girlfriend with unimpeachable taste. Since our relationship took place at a time when Radiohead was firing on all cylinders (Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief all came out while we were together), our enjoyment of Radiohead developed into something significant in the fabric of the relationship. When the relationship ended, here I was with all of these CD’s that had become unbearable artifacts of a now finished period in my life. It’s been years now and thanks to this new album, it seems at last that my personal enjoyment of Radiohead can exist independently of the relationship.
The new album, In Rainbows, is refreshing in its exemplification of everything Radiohead stands for. Like Kid A and Amnesiac, ambiguously romantic and philosophical lyrics peak out from behind drum-machine beats that seem to be played through constantly peaking speakers. Meanwhile, there is also a strong presence of Pablo Honey and The Bends-era guitar work in the album's ten tracks. Imagine that Radiohead's two periods (Brit Rock and Trippy Electronics) are two nations looking at each other across a great ravine. For years, the album OK Computer served as an sensible and obvious bridge to unite those two countries of sound. Now imagine that there is a horrible storm that blows the OK Computer bridge away—gone forever. As the people of Radiohead-land begin the rebuilding process, they decide to use the latest technology to build a new bridge between the two countries. That new bridge is In Rainbows. It might not have the magic newness of its predecessor, but it sounds like they were a whole lot happier while they were making it.
This is the thing that nails me every time I listen to In Rainbows. Radiohead have always been the masters of mellow melancholy. But this album is a new kind mellow for the group. It's a contented mellow. There are these unapologetically sunny snatches of guitar in every song, coupled with such appreciative lyrics like "you're all I need" or "I'm in the middle of your picture"—as if this person's picture is SO striking, that you can take a break from evaluating its aesthetic qualities and finish doing so at a later sitting. This newfound optimism even manifests itself in the line "No matter what happens now I won't be afraid, because I know today has been, the most perfect day I've ever seen," a jarringly unflappable end to the most somber track on the album, "Videotape".
So there is the unbridled optimism and there are the two music styles, but there are also the usual inspired quirks that turn each song into a half-story: the joyful surrender in a song about zombies, the sensation of drifting in a song about bizarre marine life and a song where the dead protagonist is confronted by videotapes from his life. The band has to be careful here, because if you make a commitment to being charismatically “weird” on every album, each album must contain “new weird”. Unfortunately, some of this weird is “old weird.” As I understand, Radiohead has been touring with a number of these songs for years now, so it isn't surprising that sometimes the tone is a little out of sync. Ultimately, Radiohead knows from out of sync and I’ll trust them to take me there anytime. I keep buying their albums as long as they keep recording songs like "The Reckoner," the tempo and fluid texture of which largely make me feel like the Silver fucking Surfer—shiny, invincible and moving at light speed.
This album has been a great tool for reacquainting myself with Radiohead. Maybe for some of you, it'll just be "more of the same old weird" or a "C" effort relative to OK Computer, but to me it's worth a lot.