Thursday, February 7, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 3

In Rainbows

Just as it takes sun and rain to make a rainbow, it took The Bends and Hail to the Thief to make In Rainbows.

Integrating their live instrumentation with their programmables, Radiohead focus on refinement this time around rather than pioneering. After all, the business model was trailblazing enough.

In Rainbows is lean and brisk, clocking in at just over 40 minutes, and Phil Selway's live drums inject the album with a spryness not matched since their formative years. Whether it's the top-notch snare playing of "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" or the cymbals-and-shakers treatment of "Reckoner," he makes his presence felt. On the symbolic album-opener "15 Step," he shares the stage with the sampler, abetting its plips and plops, but by the end of the song, the sampler is overpowered, just one element in a multilayered force.

Here and there within those layers, you'll find breadcrumbs leading to the past. The programming in "15 Step" recalls that of Hail to the Thief's "Backdrifts," although the former jumps around more and the latter had that tunnel-vision synth. "Bodysnatchers" revels in the rawness and guitar skronk of "My Iron Lung." "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" lays slow vocals by Thom Yorke over a fast rhythm in the style of "Where I End and You Begin."

Radiohead's approach on In Rainbows hews more to the straightforward songwriting of the Bends era than to the experimentation of their recent years. There's even a love song or two. "I don't want to be your friend / I just want to be your lover," Yorke sings on the spare "House of Cards," encouraging a woman to put her worries to bed (and climb in with him). It's a surprising sentiment from a man long cast as distant and distracted. Kid A certainly heightened that impression. As Radiohead journeyed into the world of computers, they --- and Yorke, especially --- picked up an asexual frost. "House of Cards" feels like the thaw.

Like "House of Cards," "All I Need" concerns a romantic pursuit, although the warped piano tones warn from the start that this one isn't as benign. Over trip-hop beats, Yorke voices his cravings: You. You. You! But there are signs of peril everywhere, from the classic moth-flame analogy to his second-guessing that "It’s all wrong / It’s all right / It’s all wrong / It’s all right."

Even if In Rainbows has a lighter feel overall than most of its predecessors, its conclusion comes draped in a funeral cloak. "Videotape" takes its inspiration from two places: people's treasured memories and people's widespread fear of death. Or, if you apply them to sayings, it might be a combination of "If the Lord took me tomorrow, I'd die a happy man" and "If you're watching this tape, then I'm already dead."

As piano keys tremble, Yorke plays the role of a dying man who records his final words for someone to witness later, for, as he says, "I can't do it face to face." Backward drum rolls and a chorus of ghostly Yorkes ratchet up the tension. The drum rolls, in particular, add an eerieness to the track, sounding more like a shoe tumbling off a dresser than sticks hitting the skins. But "Videotape" is a complicated thing, for in this dark place the doomed man focuses on what has just passed, "the most perfect day I've ever seen."

Not that any of this fear-and-death stuff should come as a surprise. It is Radiohead. Look how they ended The Bends and Hail to the Thief.

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