#387: In Rainbows, Radiohead
What a Radiohead album to end on. All of their records that we’ve reviewed so far came before In Rainbows. Then, in 2004, their contract with EMI expired, and they were under no obligation to release any other records. So for a while they just didn’t — they even went on tour to procrastinate. Honestly, it’s a fascinating position for an active band to be in; the NYT called them “the world’s most popular unsigned band.”
So rather than finding another contract, they made an unprecedented, revolutionary move: they self-released In Rainbows on their website with no warning, and allowed fans to pay any amount they wanted, making it essentially free. That’s right, Radiohead paved the way for Beyonce to surprise-release two albums, and also for U2 to guerrilla-release one.
Believe it or not, the music industry was not entirely happy with them. Tons of musicians spoke out about it, from Lilly Allen to Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth actually said that it “makes everyone else look bad for not offering their music for whatever.” Little did they know that soon, getting music for free would be the norm. (Spotify had only just launched a year earlier.) In my opinion, Radiohead was just trying to be democratic. They even held a contest for fans to create their music videos — Thom Yorke said the video that won for “Reckoner” was “one of my favourite video things that has ever happened.”
Whatever you think of their release schedule, you have to admit that all their procrastination paid off. This album isn’t distant or cold or political in any way. Instead, Thom Yorke explained that his intent was to capture “that anonymous fear thing, sitting in traffic, thinking, ‘I’m sure I’m supposed to be doing something else.’” And he achieves that: from opener “15 Step,” which walks around on a stilted & strange drum track, to closer “Videotape,” where he wistfully wishes for the ability to preserve his life on an obsolete VHS tape, Yorke describes a life both beautiful and alienated.
I found myself thinking that this album explores more layers of the band than some of their other albums do. They range from guitar art rock (“Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” “Bodysnatchers”) to stilted acousticky ballads (“Nude,” “Faust Arp”). There’s even a few terrifying love songs: he calls himself an Animal trapped in your hot car on “All I Need,” and juxtaposes The infrastructure will collapse with Kiss your husband goodnight on “House of Cards.”
We haven’t even gotten to my favorite part yet: the conspiracy theory! Called the Binary Theory (or the 10spiracy), it basically amounts to this: OK Computer and In Rainbows are meant to be experienced as one album, listened to by alternating songs from each. The song “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” is pointed to as solid evidence that this was Yorke’s intent. The theory does have some haters. Here’s a link to a playlist that meshes them in the correct order, if you want to test it out for yourself.
I’ve always wanted to love Radiohead, and I think I’m finally getting there. They have this epic, chaotic, artistic energy. And a conspiracy theory? I don’t even care if it’s true or not, I’m getting my tinfoil hat.
One Last Note: They made an In Rainbows (Disk 2) as well. Radiohead: the band that keeps on giving, whether you like it or not.