Issue 38 - 11/16/20
In Rainbows: A Guide/Love Letter
Everybody's heard of Radiohead. This comes in a few major flavors:
- You know that they're championed by your uncle, your math teacher, and kids that are not quite stoners and not quite emo or anything and are pretty chill even though they wear the same hoodie every day, but it's 2020 and none of your friends listen to them.
- You know Radiohead and solo Thom Yorke each make inexplicable appearances on the Twilight soundtracks. No one is upset about this but no one really understands it either.
- You believe they are the greatest band in history, are massively influential across several milestones, consist of great people who shirk the mantle of rock star, or are probably actually aliens from space.
Quiz: at the end of this issue, try to guess which category I fall into.
For the uninitiated, and at the risk of over-reliance on lists this early into the issue, my abridged story of Radiohead off the top of my head goes as follows:
- Some random kids and their little brother meet at a school in Oxfordshire. They start a band that entails doing vaguely polka bits with a brass section at the local pub. They look like this:
- After splitting up for college, they return and decide to continue being a band against all odds and accidentally write Creep in 1993 which accidentally becomes roughly as famous as Creep. On tour for Creep & Friends, frontman Thom Yorke almost drowns after jumping into a pool while shooting MTV Beach House for some reason.
- Launched suddenly ¾ of the way to stardom (primarily in the US), they buckle down and write The Bends in 1995, widely considered a 90's rock staple despite being slightly rushed. Part of this tour includes a stretch opening for Alanis Morisette which sees them road testing such famed pre-teen girl hits as Paranoid Android with minutes-long organ solos to unexpecting captive audiences.
- From here they decide that they're tired of Creep and that they should literally complete guitar rock as a genre with 1997's OK Computer, commonly cited as the first or second best album of all time.
- Touring nonstop for half a decade and being hailed as the biggest band in the world inexplicably gives Thom a mental breakdown and the band takes a couple years to tear everything down and start fresh with Kid A, one of the most famous left turns in music history. This album includes such time-tested musical tropes as: grating your voice through a faulty vocoder because you hate how pretty you sound; drawing lyrics out of a hat about the shadows at the end of your bed and the rats and the children following you out of town and heads on sticks; and of course instructing your brass section to essentially act like they're having a stroke and then performing this on SNL. Kid A is commonly cited as the greatest album of the 2000's for its seamless melding of the electronic and the acoustic and for its prescient future-facing paranoia.
- Having found a somewhat more comfortably weird niche to occupy, from here they quickly release Amnesiac in 2001, recorded alongside Kid A but somehow simultaneously more typical and more bizarre, and Hail to the Thief in 2003, a messy and overstuffed album recorded mostly live over just two weeks partly for fun and partly to finish up their fifth and final album owed to the record company whom they are eager to part ways with.
- This is the point in the story where interpersonal drama and media controversy and endless drugs and partying start to rip the band asunder, except Radiohead has none of this at all because they're all polite English dads who are intensely private, don't like being celebrities, and mostly stay inside and read. Sometimes Thom is critical of the government and one time Ed posted online about drinking wine while recording. The sheer scandal.
- Taking a break and finally free of obligation, Thom releases his first solo album partly to get some of the excess bleeps and bloops out of his system and Jonny Greenwood, expert at guitar and every other contraption found in the studio's haunted basement, turns out to also be a brilliant film score composer (There Will Be Blood and virtually every subsequent Paul Thomas Anderson film).
- The band reconvenes periodically but has a tough time nailing down a new direction despite ample unfinished material. Eventually they lock themselves away in a dilapidated and abandoned mansion in the English countryside and iron out 2007's In Rainbows. Although the album most often seems to be brought up due to its famous pay-what-you-want scheme upon its release, it is a common fan favorite and their most broadly reaching, accessible work.
- From here they continue to take long dad breaks, eventually producing the oft-maligned but beautiful techno-natural jumble The King of Limbs in 2011 and the bleak, watery, spiritual successor to In Rainbows, 2016's A Moon Shaped Pool. For fun they clone their drummer around 2011.
- Thom, Jonny, Ed, and Phil also continue to pursue solo careers to varying extents, while bassist Colin can be found hovering ominously in the darkest, dankest corners of pubs the West Midlands have to offer or swimming the English Channel on stormy nights pulling pranks on unsuspecting fishing vessels.
They say (they being actual studies, but I'm not going to go find them so you'll have to make your peace with they) that your lifelong musical taste is established around the age of thirteen, both in terms of what you get into and what is going on in the music world around that time. This is not quite accurate. The truth of the matter, scientifically speaking, is that your musical tastes are primarily informed by what your older brother's girlfriend was into when you were around thirteen. Danielle, your time with us may have been considered controversial in our household ever after, but I owe you a great deal.
In Rainbows is, I think, the first music I would steal and take a liking to from this eventually vaunted vintage. While I loved music back then, I wasn't particularly worldly; growing up all I knew was Christian rock, and it wasn't until I used U2 as a bit of a gateway into the sinful secular world in 5th or 6th grade that I actually garnered a bit of proper culture. From there I mostly persisted on popular rock acts like The Killers and Franz Ferdinand while also gobbling up crumbs from such sources as my brother's 15 music videos saved on iTunes (AFI) and FIFA soundtracks (early Muse, Keane, etc.) One time I bought a ringtone of Somebody Told Me and it went off full-blast the next day in science class and it was exquisitely embarrassing. So that was me. Bit of a hot mess, minus the hotness seemingly implied by that phrase.
I remember listening to In Rainbows for the first time, though. I think it had found its way onto my chonky 2005 iPod Video via a dump of gigabytes of mystery stuff left around by my aforementioned brother, and I don't know what prompted me to give it a go, laying in bed at night dreading school the next day, which was my only hobby, but I remember thinking it was interesting. Maybe I'm slandering my younger self, but I feel pretty confident that I gravitated to tunes that were more immediately catchy in some way. Radiohead wasn't quite that, and yet my frantic puberty-addled brain could tell there was something more to it - layers, intention, subtlety that rewarded attentive listening. It all moved in such a strange way that it gave me my first ever pretentious chills moment. After this I promptly tossed it back into storage to wait in the wings for a few more years, perhaps anticipating that sometime in the near future I would find myself more in need of cerebral adult curiosities, while in the meantime I was still busy watching The Office DVDs on repeat and trying to remember which Crystal Method song had been on the soundtrack to Need For Speed: Underground. You're correct! The answer is I didn't smooch anyone until Junior year.
Perhaps I digress.
Later, I remember driving with my brother to the mall (but like, the one that's a little further away) one summer evening to see, I don't know, probably Iron Man 2 or something. I spotted his copy of In Rainbows and put it on remembering my brief emotional affair in years past. The ripping guitar of Bodysnatchers and the echoing waves of aMbIaNcE from House of Cards melded with all of the mall's giant neon spaceship future lights and I found myself feeling, correctly, that this was essentially the peak 2000's aesthetic, perfectly balanced between nostalgia for the recent past and envisioning the future and taking the best of both. From then I was hooked, and Radiohead would be destined to soundtrack heartbreak, blooming romance, and countless of both the best and worst of times.
Soon, naturally, the album's significance to me would evolve and mold itself to me as all art does, constantly revealing new details and nuances. Our interpretations of such things, and certainly of any overarching meanings where music such as this is concerned, are singularly our own, and I'm certainly not trying to assert anything in this guide as being objectively true, but rather simply sharing what the album evokes for me.
In Rainbows is very much a product of its time, both in terms of the music landscape of the mid-2000's and in terms of where Radiohead found themselves as a band. However, as previously established, I was a dumb middle schooler in the mid-2000's and roughly as unaware of the music landscape as one can be without emigrating to dark and insular back corners of godforsaken woods for decades at a time (which, in fairness to godforsaken woods, is becoming a fantasy of mine more and more each day.) Ending a four year stretch between albums, the longest of the band's career up to that point, it also marked an opportunity for the band to reinvent themselves to whatever extent they desired.
It's a contradiction of an album: light yet dense, upbeat yet dark, urgent yet relaxed, tight yet circular. Sounding like it could have been released today, 13 years later, and we wouldn't bat an eye at any of the production choices or quality, it feels ageless, of both the past and future. It's probably for this reason that In Rainbows is usually proffered as being the most accessible Radiohead album, being immediately light and punchy, and yet beneath the colorful veneer harboring questions of fate, death, the devil, and all that is inescapable. But we'll get to all that in time.
I don't know how many people who aren't already fans will be interested in reading this, but I hope I've succeeded in making a guide that helps to get the juices flowing for the record's first-time listeners and hundredth-time listeners alike. Happy reading and listening.
15 Step belongs to a common category in Radiohead's discography: an opening track which isn't necessarily going to be in many people's top ten favorite songs, but which functions as the perfect opener for its album, capturing you immediately and setting the tone for what's to come, to the extent that you probably hear its opening notes when you think about its album.
15 Step also belongs to an extremely uncommon category, which is "Radiohead songs featured in Twilight." Don't ask me. Say what you will about the franchise but it shares some common goals with In Rainbows: being vaguely romantic, angsty, and, above all, moody as hell. It's also a good running song. Take from that what you will.
As an album, In Rainbows varies pretty drastically in terms of pace and energy, containing plenty soft vibes as well as louder rock. It begins pretty front loaded here in terms of energy, its drum machine both glitchy in its beat but clean and crisp at the same time. Keep in mind this is the first new Radiohead song since Hail to the Thief, which was generally distorted and muddied and gloomy in between its scattered peaks of piercing guitar rock. Even compared to earlier albums, In Rainbows' production feels clean, sparse, and open, and that starts early with 15 Step, especially notable when Thom's voice quickly emerges loud and clear and center stage.
After the initial lines are sung, live drums come in to augment the drum loop's beat to immensely satisfying and energizing effect. In Radiohead's past, much fuss had been made over the synthesis of and balance between electronic, computerized distortion and the raw instruments at the foundation. This was pushed to an extreme extent on Kid A, resulting in many scratched heads. With this album, though, the arrangements immediately felt more comfortable, not because they'd given up and abandoned the electronic shenanigans, but because they seemed to have learned to implement them more naturally, as a tool and not the focus. The flipside to this, then - as Kid A came about partly because of how uncomfortable Thom had grown with hearing his own voice - was that they therefore needed to also be comfortable with themselves in a more raw state, which I guess is how you refer to barebones and basic rock setups when you have absolutely no fluency in musical terminology.
Point being, within the first minute of the album we're presented with such a natural and organic melding of rock and gentle augmentation that it feels like this is what Radiohead's career trajectory had slowly been working towards for the previous twelve years. I wasn't really around at the time of release, of course, but I imagine that for the fans who were, it would have been surprising and exciting to be greeted with this new incarnation of Thom sounding, at long last, comfortable in his own skin and not even particularly upset (see again Hail to the Thief.)
Once you get past feeling out the new musical direction, you're presented with another new enigma in the lyrics, beginning with:
How come I end up where I started?
How come I end up where I went wrong?
Won't take my eyes off the ball again
You reel me out and then you cut the string
We're met with a singer who, like the music, is both familiar and new. It's fair to say Thom's lyrics are typically somewhat veiled, more impressionistic poetry than clear stories or manifestos, and it's no different here. There's even a sense of the cyclical, reminiscent of OK Computer's opening with surviving a car wreck in a strange new world and ending with a speeding tourist and a ding. How come I end up where I started indeed? What is this new loop that we're stuck in?
This verse repeats, and then does so again to close out the song. It's pretty un-Thom-like to repeat lines, let alone entire verses; although his words often seem intentionally obscured, he's always seemed to value lyrical real estate and make as much use of it as he can. This only contributes to the cyclical element apparently at play; the singer (or Thom, or narrator, or however you want to think of them from this point on) is stuck and beginning to feel desperate.
I suppose if I dug into musical and lyrical themes as soon as they presented themselves, the entry for the first song would be ten times longer than all the rest, so I won't tarry. In short, the feelings laid out in this opener are those of suddenly lacking certainty, coming unwound, and repeated failures. You used to be alright / What happened? acts as something of a thesis, asking us what we used to have on lock but have now lost, be it direction, passion, or satisfaction. Did the cat get your tongue? / Did your string come undone keeps things a little cute and playful, again a more comfortable departure from the violent and doomed political ravings of Hail to the Thief.
One by one
One by one
It comes to us all
It's as soft as your pillow.
Oh is this about death? Yeah, this is definitely about death, in either a literal or figurative sense. These lines layer on a sense of doom and inevitability while, again, still keeping the imagery light, even deceptively cheerful. We're at home, everything is familiar, and yet everything is unraveling, and this comfort could be the death of you. Such suburban paranoia was even a clear focus of the artwork for this album before resident Radiohead artist Stanley Donwood decided to change directions (see the small Xendless Xurbia series).
The next verse only augments this ominous combination of the mundane and the threatening, going so far as to sample a children's choir cheering before 15 steps / And then a sheer drop, which seems to be gallows imagery. It's also worth noting that the number 15 pops up a few times in Thom's lyrics; Hanging out the fifteenth floor in Just, and Fifteen blows to the back of your head / Fifteen blows to your mind in Climbing Up The Walls. Who's to say where that comes from? I wonder if Thom even knows. Also, in Tarot, XV is The Devil, signifying "being seduced by the material world and physical pleasures. Also living in fear, domination and bondage, being caged by an overabundance of luxury." It would seem the mid-life crisis train is picking up steam. Remember the devil imagery; it will be back.
It's worth stating again how fresh and dynamic the music is in this track. The punchy guitar arpeggios are hard to miss, but pay special attention to the ass-slapping bass riffs alternating in and out and never quite sitting still. Then, importantly, it ends with a lingering shimmer of a synthy sounding guitar note. This is Ed O'Brian. He's most responsible for the atmospheric effects and he will be around a lot this album.
Suggested Pairings: beginning a drive; running; washing dishes; feeling better because the sun has gone down; mid-life crises
BUCKLE UP CAUSE PAPA'S DRUNK. Now Matt, you ask, isn't this serious? Doesn't this project hold some strange personal significance for you? Why hamstring your focus and overall writing ability by drinking? Well, dear reader, first of all, thank you for reading, and thank you for caring. Second, have you fucking heard this song? This one's meant to get sloppy, this one's meant to get turned all the way up, this one's meant to get noise complaints filed against you by neighbors at two in the morning except I would never do that because I'm way too anxious and conscientious so I just blast it through headphones and damage my ear drums while my cat thinks I'm having a stroke and, alarmingly but perhaps not surprisingly, does not seem to care.
Remember a couple pages or whatever ago when I talked about how In Rainbows, from the start with 15 Step, is simultaneously looser and tighter than all their previous work, both of which I mean in the best way? That becomes ramped up even further with Bodysnatchers, and spoilers, I guess - I don't know I think using spoiler alerts as a rhetorical device is really dumb - this is objectively the high-energy peak of the album and from here it drops off (but gets even better, which is wild.) This is a song for freaking out. This is for thrashing. Never mind the cool and precise guitar rips; this is a song about losing your mind.
This works thematically, for starters - in the opener we were given a snapshot of someone pent up, messing up and losing out over and over again, unsure of their foundation and fixing to snap. This is the snapping.
Lyrically, this is probably the only song on the album you could argue has any sort of political slant, which is a pretty stark departure from their last four albums. I'm not saying it is political, but it showcases Thom letting loose some of his familiar mocking contempt that borders on satire aimed at those easily swayed and pulled by strings (Your mouth moves only with someone's hand up your arse). But even at this high-tide of vitriol, I think the lyrics stay away from anything so objective or external as politics, instead focusing on the true crux of the endeavor: you. And your soul. Well, or that of Thom, or the narrator, or whatever you want to think of it as again. To reiterate, while so much previous Radiohead material is driven by the outside world's effects on the individual experiencing it, In Rainbows is perhaps the first since the dorm-drama Pablo Honey days that truly revolves solely around the inner emotional turmoil of a subject otherwise at peace in his life. No government men to shove against the wall; no nuclear holocaust; no Bush-era vampiric forces controlling the banks and leaching young blood away. No, dear reader, this is about you. Are you happy? Are you satisfied? Do you know where you are? It might not be as sure a thing as you think. Wow, this is a long paragraph - sort of like this is all a shotgun scattershot of half-sense being thrown at you and you're meant to pick out with your fingernails what sticks and try to make sense of it. Funny.
I do not understand
What it is I've done wrong
Full of holes, check for pulse
Blink your eyes
One for yes, two for no
I've no idea what I am talking about
I'm trapped in this body and can't get out
So immediately (alongside the guitar riff ripping up and down) we're met with these lines, professing confusion and emotional innocence but apparent guilt. In contrast to OK Computer's beginning with Airbag, for example, in which the singer is a victim bereft of sense and context, here the singer similarly finds themselves in a violent upheaval but isn't sure that they themselves aren't the perpetrator, albeit a potentially possessed one. They're flailing. You're flailing. This is a cataclysm and you're trapped at the epicenter. You're not in control.
A line that always sticks out to me in one of my favorite Bright Eyes songs, Hit The Switch, goes: And then night rolls around and it all stops making sense / And in the middle of drinks, maybe the fifth or sixth / I'm completely alone at a table of friends / I feel nothing for them - nothing. I think this sudden onset disassociation is similar to what's being screeched in Bodysnatchers: there's a fundamental disconnect between you and the world around you. You're uncomfortable, ill at ease, and not sure whether to despair or burn everything down.
The music adds to this tension swelling and threatening to blow - obviously it's energetic from the first note, but as additional instruments start to join in, order slowly descends into loosely controlled chaos. Thom plays the main rhythm guitar riff, but from the 20 second mark on, Jonny's guitar can be heard seeming to emerge from the drum beat, clicking and muted and champing at the bit to burst out, finally doing so at the 40 second mark. At first these two guitars stay just about discrete, dancing over each other but mostly distinguishable, until Ed's twining feedback note joins the fray and soon it's nearly impossible to keep track of the three of them braiding around each other.
And then it all resolves. Bodysnatchers probably isn't my favorite song on the album, but the bridge that runs from roughly the two minute mark to the three minute mark may just be my favorite minute of music ever. Without warning, the chaos collapses in on itself and begins to ride a single, peaceful wave, and Ed's atmospheric effects finally swoop in to steal the show. It's a moment of blissful weightlessness amidst the turbulence, the eye in the storm, nothing but a beautiful starry night strewn overhead.
Has the light gone out for you?
Because the light's gone out for me
It is the twenty-first century
It is the twenty-first century
It can follow you like a dog
It brought me to my knees
They got a skin and they put me in
They got a skin and they put me in
All the lines wrapped around my face
All the lines wrapped around my face
And for anyone else to see
And for anyone else to see
I'm a lie
I'm not sure you can attach a specific meaning to the line Has the light gone out for you? / Because the light's gone out for me, but it seems pretty clear this is the foremost line of the song, if not one of the foremost lines of the album as a general thesis. In the bridge we've suddenly taken a step back from the inner turmoil and looked around us, taking in the world of the future.
For me, the words of the bridge feel like a sort of reflection on the band's artistic past, or Thom's specifically, at least - across albums like OK Computer and Kid A, Thom often plays the role of the fearmongering prophet, obsessed with the impending doom the future holds. How many years did his anxiety hound him like a dog and drive him to madness? The next lines portray him getting made into something he is not, by the media, by labels, by over-indulgent newsletter writers like me. The lines wrapping around his face feel reminiscent of the famous video for No Surprises. There he is for everyone to see - and yet, it amounts to nothing. Underneath the facade, just like the rest of us, he has no fucking idea what is happening.
With this, the moment of respite is broken, and the tension and chaos builds itself back up, Thom now unhinged and screaming and muttering No no no no. In Rainbows' second song concludes even more wildly than the first, leaving us feeling blown out and untethered. From here, the resulting momentum shift will be a grand one.
Suggested Pairings: flailing; painting; making rash life choices; sleep paralysis
Now we're deep in it, reader - with the intros out of the way, we've arrived at the real meat of the album with a fan-favorite track and the first in my favorite three-song sequence of all time, although superlatives like that probably aren't too surprising given I'm writing several thousand words about this album. Hey, we all need hobbies.
I was going to discuss the album's artwork separately later on, but I think Nude is a particularly useful song for considering the inextricable ties the art has with the music. Besides, if anyone's paid attention to the image attributions at the end of like half of all previous Newsletter issues, it's clear I'm a huge Stanley Donwood fan.
Let's take another gander at that beautiful fucker:
I think there are two main initial takeaways from the art:
- The dichotomy between the natural, organic element (the plasma burst in the background) and the resolutely artificial element (the text in the foreground, spaced evenly and unnaturally and lent extra feelings of glitch by the slashes thrown in seemingly at random.)
- The balance between color (see: the all of it) and emptiness. At first it seems busy and full, but the more you look, the emptier it feels. There are no boundaries, no real structure, and the plasma burst seems to be floating in the void. This is equally reminiscent of a microscopic image as it is a sort of universe-scale artist's rendition of the big bang.
What's important here is the second of these - color and black, matter and void. I described the bridge in Bodysnatchers as feeling like momentary weightlessness, a dropping out of the furor of the rest of the song instead of a chorus or climax. I'm going to go ahead and pat myself on the back and say that's a pretty good description, because I think it gets at something the band does frequently throughout this album: the anti-climax. In at least half of the ten songs on In Rainbows, there's a section somewhere halfway or two-thirds through that, instead of exploding, falls away. Instead of the culmination of the sounds, we're left dealing with their sudden absence.
Even in the rest of the songs, I think the color vs void idea is an apt description of the production of the album in general, which in my opinion is unique amongst Radiohead albums. There is more blank, black void in the backdrop of songs, and it is sprayed with bursts of light and sound only as much as is necessary and no more. Instruments come disembodied out of nowhere and then drop back away when they're done, never lingering or feeling over-crowded. I'm not talking about synesthesia exactly, but I guess I'm saying the artwork looks like the music sounds, which sounds like a pretty inane point in the end, but there you have it.
It's important to consider all that here because Nude is, in a way, that anti-climax feeling incarnate, stretched into an entire song. While the album started off extremely energetically, here it plummets straight down into one of the two tracks with the lowest energy and the most blank space, like a fire being doused, submerged in cold water under the surface of which it is quiet and eerie.
That's what it boils down to, I think. And to be honest, this has been a lot of analysis already for a song that is pure feeling.
The hardest I have ever listened to Nude was in fall of 2012. It was my first semester of college. My girlfriend and I were both in this program where we didn't get into the big school we wanted to directly, but if we attended one of its satellite schools for a year and did really well we would automatically be able to transfer down. For the most part things were going fine, except for our math class, because I'm absolutely godawful at math even though I find it interesting. One day about halfway through the semester, I was convinced I'd bombed an exam and would therefore promptly bomb out of the transfer program and upend what long-term plans we'd had for our relationship. Basically, I'd ruined everything because I was a big dumb idiot. I went home, turned out the lights, listened to Nude, and then took a depression nap for about 20 hours.
Of course, then I turned out to have done fine, and passed everything, and we moved cities as planned and it wasn't until years later that I dropped out and we've lived happily ever after since. I hope my point is clear though - Nude is the song for when things come crashing down, your big ideas are in flames and shambles, and you feel such an utter and complete vacancy in your soul that it would be irresponsible not to just go ahead and lease it out as an Airbnb.
Don't get any big ideas
They're not gonna happen
You paint yourself white
And fill up with noise
But there'll be something missing
Now that you've found it, it's gone
Now that you feel it, you don't
You've gone off the rails
These words ornament that feeling pretty succinctly. You can truss yourself up and talk a big game, but there's no substance beneath the veneer. Whatever it is, it's elusive, inverted, always giving you the slip like a floater in your eye. Reading the album in the context of a narrator who has run ashore of life, washed up and bereft of meaning and satisfaction, here the paper mache facade on the outside is crumbling inwards and the fantasies are boiling away in the light. Whatever you've just done or endeavored to do, it simply doesn't hold up in the cold light of morning. Perhaps post-nut clarity isn't the worst metaphor here.
After all, there are hints of sensuality hiding in plain sight here and there on this track. I think the title is meant to evoke more of a stripped-away, vulnerable, empty idea rather than nudity in a sensual way, although a verse from an old unreleased version (this song was in the works for a decade before they released it) left on the cutting room floor was more overtly about impending regret of being tempted by a lover. In the end, the version presented here almost seems to chastise use for letting our minds slip towards the gutter - You'll go to hell / For what your dirty mind is thinking. Here there is, briefly, more devil/hell imagery, and the way this runs beneath the surface of the album establishes both the stakes and the object in question: your soul.
Ironically, this emptiest of empty songs actually does contain a climax: the showstopping sustained high note on the last word, thinking. And yet, as the music all but drops out, leaving the vocals all on their lonesome for this finale, this climax isn't energizing so much as it feels like the last gasps. It's more dying than living. Perhaps I'm making it sound bleak, but all the while there's a sweetness to the song - the music is lush, gentle, and altogether comforting, and Thom, the same Thom Yorke who couldn't stand how "pretty" his voice sounded on albums like OK Computer of all things, who proceeded to chop it and mutilate it and garble it for multiple albums to obfuscate that prettiness as much as possible, gives us a simple, breezy falsetto. Nude is the epitome of the band finally finding comfort in their own skin and embracing their most simple, natural sound yet, and yet more proof that the subject matter at play here is completely different to what had come before.
I think I managed to get through all that without hitting on the single coolest part of the track: the vocals for the first 45 seconds or so are the vocals from the track's outro taken and reversed and spliced upfront. That may sound like a dumb, stoner, hidden-message-when-you-play-the-vinyl-backwards gimmick, but it somehow works perfectly and is utterly haunting.
Suggested Pairings: true despair; rainy evenings; mood-lit showers; sitting in cars on cold nights with someone very special
Weird Fishes / Arpeggi
Wow. Holy shit. The big apple.
#2 in the holy song trifecta is the track most commonly chosen by fans as album favorite, and for good reason. The drum beat that never quite resolves is infections and the guitar arpeggio is bright and bubbly. It's deceptively simple, but its effect and resulting mood are hard to find replicated anywhere else.
Gone are the spacey, alien effects of Nude; Weird Fishes even starts with a drumstick lead-in (or whatever you call it), which is rare for Radiohead, bringing things back in close and tangible and snapping you out of the spell.
Maybe using water-based descriptors is obvious for a song titled Weird Fishes, but the song itself doubles down on this motif in the lyrics, beginning In the deepest ocean / The bottom of the sea. If we didn't already feel as though Nude had doused us in cold water after the fire and mayhem of Bodysnatchers, we feel it now, but what carries over most from Nude isn't its melancholy but its sense of peace. Weird Fishes is a happy place, and supremely chill. I don't use any drugs (excepting the aforementioned alcohol), but if I ever embarked on a thicc trip this is probably the song I'd like to start it with. It's not difficult to picture the gentle underwater currents, floating to and fro, deeper down, ever further from the sun, titular curious sea creatures investigating or ignoring you. The slow, drifting bassline is especially adept at reinforcing such scenes.
Basically, it's serene as hell but manages this without being sleepy - the energy is gently on the uptick after being emptied out in Nude.
But it wouldn't be Radiohead if everything stayed as simple as this (which remains true even in this song's closest counterpart, 2011's Bloom).
In the deepest ocean
The bottom of the sea
They turn me
Why should I stay here?
Why should I stay?
As important as this fantastical setting seems, it's merely the new backdrop upon which the singer is mulling over what haunts them. In typical veiled but ominous Thom fashion, the eyes here could be those of a partner turned cold, a wedge separating them, or the opposite: the inviting eyes of someone new, luring them away. Why stay in cold waters?
I'd be crazy not to follow
Follow where you lead
They turn me
Turn me on to phantoms
I follow to the edge
Of the earth
And fall off
At the beginning of this verse, where action has crept into the vocabulary, the music begins to accompany the singer's mood, growing just a bit more eager and quick, less cautious, a new guitar tone seeping in from somewhere adding to what is very slowly growing towards a frenzy as the whole shebang continues to wake up like a slowly boiling pot.
The words remain evasive but grow even more ephemeral and surreal, perhaps even dark, despite the music, following fantasies and false promises off a cliff. Backing vocals float in sounding like a siren's song, or malevolent mermaids, or whatever naughty nautical native is your temptatious terror of choice. (This is Ed again - he's not actually singing his own name, but that doesn't stop every single fan at every single show from shouting his name at him during this part, which is lovely.) We go along with the singer, further and deeper, enjoying every second of it even though, in the back of our minds, something is subtly amiss.
Yeah, everybody leaves
If they get the chance
Is my chance
I used to think the idea of people pushing others away first because they're afraid of being pushed away themselves was a baseless cliché, but the longer I've lived and the more friends I've had come and go, the more real it feels. I think that's part of what's in play here - the question of when to leave, when to stay, what's at stake either way, so ungrounded and unsure. It feels like a precarious position, and that isn't when you want empty temptations masquerading as desire tugging at your strings.
The music finally reaches its boiling point with a tinny dash of cymbals, but then it all drops away beneath our feet, and we arrive at the next of the album's trademark weightless moments. Thom's voice continues on unaltered, suddenly alone without the gentle cacophony of instruments except for the slightest of murmuring remnants, now singing about being eaten and picked over like carrion as all at once the mood turns bleak, but he almost doesn't seem to notice. This is what we felt all along: so much of the world around is alien and unknowable, just as likely to pick you off as it is to befriend you. So much beauty is a lie, and, as Colin Meloy would sing, the prettiest whistles won't wrestle the thistles undone. Still, though, it's worth marveling at.
Things do, of course, kick back off, and Weird Fishes' outro is one of the grandest sections of the album. Thom's rhythm guitar line emerges with an edge, more sinister to match the other instruments in comparison to the start of the song. Things are less curious and meandering and more urgent and streamlined. Soon a high pitched guitar tone hovers over everything, oscillating like an alarm and eventually wobbling out of control as the furor accelerates, Thom repeating forlornly I'll hit the bottom and escape / Escape.
This is the emotional bedrock we've had our trajectory set on for essentially the entire album up to this point, and it doesn't feel good (sonically it's incredible, I mean, but the mood continues to be that of failure and defeat realized.) This is also the sort of place where Thom's words are just abstract enough to do a tremendous amount of poetic legwork, like Matt Berninger regaling us about a feathery woman carrying a blindfolded man through the trees the same year. And to each their own when it comes to such interpretations, as with all of this. Perhaps it's evocative of struggling back up to the surface, or immediate regret following an act of violence and the abrupt, sobering about-face after rash decisions.
Perhaps it conveys the feeling of jumping into the water and plummeting down, increasingly too deep for comfort, but eventually hitting the bottom with your feet and being able to use it to propel yourself back up. The idea of never hitting the bottom then is a terrifying one. I suppose this plays on the metaphor of hitting rock bottom in life and using it as a starting point to rid yourself of whatever ailments have gotten you down. Or perhaps I'll hit the bottom and escape is Thom's literal admission to being the Hyde Park Spanker here in Austin.
You get the idea.
I know nothing about identifying notes or music theory, but the final note is perhaps darker than you might be expecting, and this is what echoes and leads us on into what is in my opinion the darkest song of the record.
Suggested Pairings: showers with mood lighting; solitary walks through the woods at night; insatiable cravings for juicy dynamic basslines; grilled cheese and tomato soup
All I Need
I get the impression that this isn't a common choice, but, at least on the majority of days, All I Need is my favorite track from In Rainbows. Other tracks hit higher highs or are more emblematic of the album, but this one is my bread and butter. Phil's drumbeat grows on you until it becomes genuinely infectious; Ed's backdrop of atmospherics fills space and repeats without overstepping; Colin's bassline absolutely does overstep, rooting itself firmly centerstage, threatening, growling, and dripping with sheer Mood, eventually being augmented by piano but never giving way.
Remember in my intro when I kept going on about my middle-school era listening habits? Well the bit about laying in bed at night, listening wide-eyed like an underage stoner and having my mind blown by art for once instead of by beatings in a football helmet, was about All I Need specifically. That's the one. You don't forget your first I guess. What I remember most is the way, right before the first vocal line begins, the bassline goes creeping upwards, layer by layer in its two-steps-forward-one-step-back scale, and then the vocals take over with what the next note would have been on the next step, like a rocket's booster engines delivering their payload into orbit before dropping away to burn up (or be reused - 21st Century indeed.) I'm the next act.
I don't know if that interplay is intentional, but as yet another little nugget of gold waiting to be noticed, it speaks to the carefully crafted intricacy, dynamism and interplay of all the song's elements, always disparate and clear yet always cohesive.
There is, alternatively, Thom quietly beatboxing the drumbeat in the intro, which I'm not going to argue is an essential element of a masterpiece, but I love it and I think such little personal incongruous moments like that scattered around (e.g. the children in 15 Step, and sampling Jonny's dog later on) keeps the album feeling spontaneous, intimate, and playful. These playful elements can help to balance the serious subject matter at times, and if that's needed anywhere, it's here.
All I Need is dark. It's darker than my cat's eyes when she mistakes me for a large but defenseless woodland creature. It's darker than the part in Green Gloves by The National where the singer puts on his friends' clothes and pretends to be them, and that part is all of it. I tried to think of other dark non-Radiohead songs but Radiohead already made Climbing Up The Walls and we have to live with that. But I digress. All I Need is the darkest song on In Rainbows, the low point not in energy but in subtext.
I'm the next act
Waiting in the wings
I'm an animal
Trapped in your hot car
I am all the days
That you choose to ignore
You are all I need
You're all I need
I'm in the middle of your picture
Lying in the reeds
What might seem like a pining poem of unrequited love upon first listen slowly reveals itself to be completely unhinged. The closest thing to Thom Yorke's version of a love song up until this point in his career, the narrator is obsessive, their fixation depicted as brutal and dreadful, the lyrical equivalent of a haunted, blood-splattered victorian painting.
The previous songs on the album also deal with various such neuroses - the spiralling confusion of 15 Step, the mania of Bodysnatchers, the empty depression of Nude, the fatal lure of Weird Fishes - and now a dark obsession, sung from the point of view of the transgressor rather than the hapless victim, even as their words plead exactly the opposite sentiment. Honestly it's the kind of song that would make me want to never go outside again if I were a woman. Then again people thought Netflix's You was hot, so what do I know.
I am a moth
Who just wants to share your light
I'm just an insect
Trying to get out of the night
I only stick with you
Because there are no others
You are all I need
You're all I need
I'm in the middle of your picture
Lying in the reeds
"Weird Fishes but slow and ripped and done up in scary monster makeup and used for a haunted house" wouldn't be the worst way to describe the music. By the time the second verse rolls around, the sounds in the backdrop start to fray and snap and chime (actually reminding me of Climbing Up The Walls) even though the main players in the forefront, the drums and bass, persevere unaffected. A brief undercurrent of guitar growls even more than the bass has, if that's even possible, and then all the tears in the fabric vanish again for the second chorus, almost gentle and sweet by comparison.
It's not one of the weightless moments, but it is a final deep breath before one of the few true climaxes in the album. Suddenly the piano is building, manic, before everything explodes. This song doesn't gradually build its energy up the way Weird Fishes does; it's not a good energy, per se, but a frustrated energy kept under wraps until it explodes like a violent temper, or a moment of pure grief, the desperate singer jumbling and alternating It's all right and It's all wrong until the last baleful line, survived only by a supremely cinematic draw from a strings section that has snuck in somewhere in the tumult (and reminiscent one last time of Climbing Up The Walls).
And that is the halfway point of In Rainbows.
Suggested pairings: vibing; yet more vibing; cooking during dark evenings; processing overpowering emotions in the safety of your own home; cruel abuse of car speakers
In the first half of the album, things went from bad to worse emotionally (and great to better musically, in my opinion). As an opener, 15 Step is somewhat removed, taking an abstract look at themes and various aspects of the stage dressing, but from there the frights and wonders grow more immediate.
I forget who - I'm pretty sure one of the band members - described sibling albums Kid A and Amnesiac as the former being like watching a disaster from afar, and the latter being the experience of being in it, down amongst the flames. I'm not sure that's entirely accurate, but it is sort of how I feel about this first half: we're quickly immersed in the various troubles of the subject and dragged through the mud until reaching a final breaking point, up close and personal, driving down, down to Hadestown and coming out the other side a little worse for wear and in need of a rest.
That's what makes Faust Arp and its placement in the order here so refreshing: it grants us the reprieve we need, whether we realize it or not, and signals a change in the winds for what's to come. I don't want to keep harping on over-long about the momentum and pacing of the album that carries from song to song, but it's one of the most impressive of In Rainbows' many features and a key reason why it is typically considered one of Radiohead's three true masterpieces alongside the equally watertight OK Computer and Kid A.
Just as Radiohead are always very particular about their album openers (and closers), so too are they careful to include another trademark feature of their album ordering: the interlude. This isn't always a true interlude in which there is a total rest, but is often a track that is particularly brief, sparse, almost always in the middle of the order, and is perhaps just as reflective of the album's tone as the opener is, if not more so: Fitter Happier, Treefingers, Hunting Bears, Feral, Glass Eyes, and in this case, Faust Arp. (Hail to the Thief is the only recent album that doesn't seem to have one; I suppose you could make a case for I Will, but if ever there was an album that shirked the need for that particular feature, it's that mired goliath of a record.)
So what does an interlude sound like on an album as vibrant, warm, energetic, and emotionally dynamic as In Rainbows? It sounds like stillness; a moment of hard-earned peace atop a quiet hill on a moonlit evening, strings cascading slowly around us like fireflies. Yes, I am essentially describing the Scotch Mist version video, but they made it for good reason and it is invariably where I find myself once I've arrived at this waystation. (And yes, it is my primary goal, should I ever visit the UK, to find this exact hill and watch the sunset on it, why do you ask?)
Veteran listeners are probably mostly waiting for track 7, Reckoner, to start at this point, listening for those opening notes looming in the shadows, but it's more than worth it to take a moment dwelling on this song.
Rise and shine
It's on again, off again, on again
Watch me fall
In pretty patterns
The blackbird pie
I'm tingling tingling tingling
It's what you feel now
What you ought to what you ought to
Reasonable and sensible
Dead from the neck up
I guess I'm stuffed, stuffed, stuffed
We thought you had it in you
But no, no, no
For no real reason
The inverse to Nude, Faust Arp is peace tinged with sadness. There's a lot going on here - ironically this may be the album's busiest song lyrics-wise - but for everything that seems to be amiss, the singer feels fully at peace, or at the very least resigned.
A quick aside on Faust - I've never read the full story, but I do have a doctorate in wikipedia which tells us "The erudite Faust is highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life, which leads him to make a pact with the Devil at a crossroads, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures," and "In response, the Devil's representative, Mephistopheles, appears. He makes a bargain with Faust: Mephistopheles will serve Faust with his magic powers for a set number of years, but at the end of the term, the Devil will claim Faust's soul, and Faust will be eternally enslaved."
First, headcanon is that Mephistopheles here is in fact Bono's half-assed drag character MacPhisto, as Thom flirts with the idea of disposing of all this understated phooey and turning into U2, looking into a pond and seeing Chris Martin staring back. Secondly, this is our beloved protagonist to a T thus far, bored with life despite success and willing to throw it away in order to seek out pleasure. Keep Mephistopheles in mind; they will, naturally, be back.
As peaceful as the track is, there's still a certain numbness to it: Thom's vocals are tired and in places monotone, only lilting when they have to, listing off vignette after vignette with nary a pause long enough to breathe. It sounds dissociative, alternating between the first person (Watch me fall like dominoes) and "You," seemingly speaking to himself, stuck with a layer of separation between him and the pleasures, the blackberry pie, he's sought out and should be finally feeling but which isn't hitting as expected.
This continues, cinematic strings framing a montage of beautiful acoustic arpeggios, until Thom's voice finally takes flight, not needing much of a kick to rise above the gentle verses before it, but achieving a brief, silky climax nonetheless.
You've got a head full of feathers
You got melted to butter
Halfway around the record from 15 Step, the singer finally knows where he stands. Despite the relative reprieve, the final lingering note of Faust Arp is, in the end, almost identical to that of All I Need.
Suggested pairings: forgetting your lunch at home; worrying you forgot to lock the door after going to bed; remembering you will one day die; chardonnay
Well, reader, we've done it: we've made it to what is in many ways a landmark. For one, this is many a fan's favorite song, or at least very near the top, and it was mine for a long while and probably only dropped down a bit because I played it somewhere around a thousand times between the years 2011 and 2013 and needed a break. The pressure to do this song justice, even in whatever strange little project this is, is great enough that I was almost driven to take drastic measures (doing research), but Newsletter's prohibition against doing any actual work is clear, so I'll be forced to continue managing by pulling things out of my heart (ass).
There are three ways in which Reckoner is a milestone, the first being the aforementioned point about millions of people considering it to be the height of human artistic achievement etc. The second is that it is the crux of In Rainbows, the album's true focal point and, ultimately, its heart. This is not only true in terms of the album's creation - the band have cited it as being the first thing to come together during the arduous recording process that really got them excited and provided a direction - but also in terms of the final artistic experience taken objectively.
For this we can look at Reckoner's role in the album's sound, flow, and subject matter. Clearly, it's been a rocky road up until this point, what with all the previously examined vertigo, mania, spiralling, and soul-selling, which is coincidentally how I describe my time in middle school.
What moments of calm we've found in the likes of Nude, Weird Fishes, and Faust Arp all turned out to be stuck in a Chinese finger trap with feelings on the darker and more tragic end of the spectrum, the latter of these leaving us at the precipice: the singer is self-aware in Faust Arp, he knows where he stands. The cards are on the table, and what follows will probably prove to be the ultimate high or the ultimate low.
I'm not entirely sure how best to describe the sound of Reckoner's opening, but I think it's fair to say that it's impossible to interpret it as anything negative. Put simply: it's pure. Despite the tribulations that have come before, and the growing sense of doom and inevitability in Faust Arp, with Reckoner we arrive at acceptance, not in numb resignation but in appreciation.
Remember Ol' Thom? The one who hated his pretty voice and poured his youth into writing songs almost exclusively about paranoia and despondency? Him finally coming around to stretching the legs of his "pretty" voice has been an important feature throughout the album, but it's here that the new approach is most complete. On paper, the lyrics of Reckoner's first verses are enigmatic and you could imagine them being paired with any other song on the album if you were only hearing their music. Once you hear what Thom's doing with the melody and his falsetto, though, the words become clearly aligned with the music: pure.
Can't take it with you
Dancing for your pleasure
You are not to blame for
Dare not speak its name
The meaning of the term "reckoner" here still isn't immediately clear even after looking it up, but to me it's always been a sort of synthetic title for a power that, well, reckons: counts, judges, arbitrates, settles. In terms of careers, it's boring stuff, but in terms of transcendental entities, we're talking god-level, to put it as lazily as possible. Although I am in no way a spiritual person, not only was I raised religious, but more importantly I play a warlock in dungeons and dragons, so I think I'm qualified to weigh in on senses of overwhelming otherworldly presence, be they ones of insignificance or interconnectivity.
Anyway - it's clear the singer has finally found their moments of zen, taking a step back and detaching from the worries that have been hounding him and replacing them with forgiveness and appreciation. Can't take it with you speaks to the acceptance of letting go, life and death; Dancing for your pleasure is a more enigmatic picture, but to me is a brushstroke towards painting the universe as a benevolent place, the idea that the point of all of this, really, this big dumb endeavor we call the evolution of life, may simply be to experience happiness; You are not to blame for bittersweet distractors feels consolatory, being able to let go of the struggles and perhaps wrongdoings that caused you so much grief but, in the grand scheme of things, are to be expected to some extent and ultimately not worth sweating; Dare not speak its name, finally, enforces this whole idea about the transcendental connection being experienced - it is perhaps phrased ominously, but even benevolence, when encountered in a grand and alien enough form, can be overwhelming.
The refrain and bridge drive this home further for me. Dedicated to all human beings is so blunt and sappy that it's impossible to imagine anywhere on previous records, but in this dressing and context, it somehow fits while still working to amplify the scale we're considering: no less than all humankind. Then the bridge:
Because we separate like ripples on a blank shore.
That's just a beautiful line no matter which way you slice it.
For you, perhaps this is evocative of light rippling through the color spectrum, playing off the name and aesthetic of the album, darkness included; for me it's about life.
Sometime in high school I went through a transitionary phase, leaving religion behind, considering politics for the first time, etc. etc., learning so much more about the world and biology. Talking with a friend about their abortion, I expected to consider it wrong, but found that I no longer did. I remember considering for the first time (and remember I'm not even a souls guy) how life isn't disparate and segregated, one individual from the next, but an energy that germinates and spreads, back as far as you can imagine, interconnected and one, discarded reproductive cells no different than they were before for having been smushed together, and now I feel weird talking about abortion in front of hundreds of people when it's not necessarily germain but you asked. It's harrowing and awe-inspiring and humbling and beautiful all at once, and on the cosmic scale, it's easy to imagine this life like waves on the shore, pushing the bounds of existence where before there was none, the individual waves separating never to be reformed in the same way but never truly lost or alone.
Or maybe that's nonsense. Ask me another day for another answer.
This fits the theme of acceptance, though: of death; of transgressions; of hardship. And in the end, the urge is to share these experiences - with all human beings.
Have I mentioned the golden ratio bit yet? I speak not of that rarified moment of ascension, three beers deep, when you get really good at Super Smash Bros. No, not that, but the golden ratio that you may only be familiar with if you're either an art history nerd or a Radiohead stan. I'd encourage you to look it up yourself because it is really interesting, but put simply -
So yeah, it's a mathematical ratio that is related to the Fibonacci spiral, pops up a surprising amount in nature, is used in art for subconscious eye candy, and is just generally aesthetically pleasing.
Guess when the exact point of the golden ratio occurs on In Rainbows? 2:49 into Reckoner, right after separating on a blank shore, at which point the strings brighten up and a subtle but still clearly discernible harmony sings "in rainbows," the only appearance of the titular phrase.
With anyone else you'd wonder if it was a coincidence but you know these goofuses did it intentionally just for a drunken laugh.
Anyway I swear I'm not a stoner.
In Reckoner, the listener is finally granted a true moment of pure, unadulterated happiness. Things are back in proper perspective, even if it only proves to be momentarily, and in a way the dark odyssey of the previous songs have come to a temporary conclusion, and not even the horrible grisly children-taken-by-wolves way you may expect from Radiohead.
This brings us, finally, to the third way in which Reckoner is a milestone: basically, it's happy. That's an inane statement to make here until you consider that this means it is the first unambiguously happy song of Thom Yorke's career (excepting potentially Pablo Honey because I'm not about to go do a deep analytical dive on that - I clearly have free time, but not that much free time.)
Like I've been saying here and there about Thom's performances and production choices on In Rainbows, you may take it for granted coming across this album after the fact, but if you have an attachment to this band and follow their discography through the 90's and early 2000's up until this point, seeing Thom finally able to make this song which absolutely could not have been made in any prior era is enough to make you emotional, perhaps enough to give you hope. Sure, it still had to be couched within an album that is otherwise quite deceptively dark, but if anything that makes it all the more symbolic. I think that's why it's so powerful and resonates with so many fans: we're happy it exists.
Suggested Pairings: pretty sunsets; continuing to contemplate death; crises of faith; banana pudding with wafer crumble
House Of Cards
I don't believe in ghosts, but my cat does.
Disregard that, I just wanted to start in the most pretentious way possible so we could move on from that Reckoner chapter.
또 위태로워 또 위험해
So bad (why) 우린, yeah
더 버티기도 지탱하기도
So hard (hard) 안 돼
이미 알고 있어도
멈출 수가 없었어
No way, no way, no way 쓰러져
Ok and those are the lyrics to House of Cards by BTS. Just making sure you're awake. We good? Yeah we're good.
The singer of House Of Cards is not good.
House of Cards is, for me, the low point of the album. This isn't because it's lower quality, but because it successfully conveys what it's trying to: the feeling of sleepwalking through life, jaded and unfettered by shame. All things considered it is most closely related to Faust Arp, but what before was at least a refreshing and different vantage has now grown old and feels routine for the singer.
I don't wanna be your friend
I just wanna be your lover
No matter how it ends
No matter how it starts
Although the No matter how... lines make for great T-shirts - and we all know Radiohead is just a flimsy front for the band's true passion, retail clothing - in this context it's pretty sordid. Right from the off, the topic at hand is indulging in passion and disregard for consequences, drawing a line back to the beginning with 15 Step's suburban-set crisis but now more fully realized, now perhaps even after the dominoes have begun toppling. In contrast to the more profound perspectives summited in Reckoner, House of Cards is in a haze, reckless.
And this is to say nothing of the music. The guitar and drums throughout House of Cards are more plodding and one-track than just about anything else you'll hear from Radiohead; it's certainly pretty, even serene, but belies the destruction taking place under its slowly crackling surface.
Forget about your house of cards
And I'll do mine
And fall off the table
Get swept under
Devoid of context, you could chalk the first verse up to simple innocent romance, but the chorus solidifies the idea that there are transgressions occurring and consequences to face, but the singer doesn't care, prepared to sweep it all under the table and go on living a lie. Not only is this clearly sleazy behavior on their part, but they're also encouraging the subject of their affection to join them in the charade, unfazed about the other lives that stand to crumble in their wake as a result.
The opening line about being lovers makes clear pretty quickly that the focus here is on romance and passion, and yet it is something of a contradiction: being lovers rather than friends initially suggests wanting to take a friendship to a different, romantic level, but it could just as easily be moving in the opposite direction, a close relationship that the singer wants to relegate to sex but without the emotional intimacy. Or, in a third way, it could represent a sort of fuckboy manifesto, hunting for sex without any real commitments or strings attached.
Take your pick I suppose. But what these all have in common is some amount of degradation of the spirit, and the cheapening of intimacy. And isn't that the inevitable result of the Faustian pact? Can pleasure ever be authentic when it's bought and stolen rather than earned? Having thrown away his ordinary life, the singer is like the cursed pirates in Pirates of the Caribbean: soon all that newfound food and drink and companionship starts to lose its luster and then any taste or feeling at all, and eventually their goal becomes solely to return to how they were before taking the cursed treasure.
Then again, this all could simply be fantasizing. Who's to say the singer is actually going through with these destructive plans? We all have fantasies, and while they're certainly being asserted in a direct way here, is that a crime? Or will we go to hell for what our dirty minds are thinking?
~Hey quick plug: Everyone should try therapy. End plug~
The fantasy element is reinforced by the next verse:
The infrastructure will collapse
From voltage spikes
Throw your keys in the bowl
Kiss your husband good night
Such a quick line (infrastructure...spikes) paints such a grandiose picture about a quiet neighborhood being torn asunder in churning earth with electrical wiring crashing all about, as though we're gazing out of our window imagining the scenes if the apocalypse took place right outside.
I've heard it theorized that the following two lines are reference to a key party (i.e. swinging), and I suppose that almost fits, if you're going whole hog on the preceding ideas about lack of intimacy, affairs, etc., but it doesn't feel right to me. I've always liked that line because it's such a mundane daily scene, combining the utterly ordinary with the imagined apocalypse, the literal with the fantastic, highlighting the sort of double-life being led by the subjects (the Key-Throwing Kisser here, besides being a great username, could be the person the singer is pleading with, or the main subject the song is following.)
The song's atmosphere fills and pitches in places, naturally, but stays its steady course, and we're left with the ghostly final lines:
(Your ears should be burning)
(Your ears should be burning)
Whose ears? The singer's, his subject's, or ours if we find ourselves reflected in the song?
By the way, there's a myth about Jonny's dog being sampled barking just after voltage spikes is sung. I can't find any evidence of this being true as that noise is replicated using guitar equipment in live performances, but here's the dog in question (dubbed Ugly Dog) for further scrutiny:
Suggested Pairings: long walks on the beach; loneliness; drives through empty neighborhoods at night; boxed rosé
Jigsaw Falling Into Place
One more dance around the bop tree.
If there's one place in the album where the thematic flow of things gets, well, not derailed but perhaps a little nonsequential, it's tracks 8 and 9; to me it feels like a pretty straight line from the beginning through Faust Arp which Reckoner then sort of caps off, and then House of Cards and Jigsaw are left to fill the gaps until the closer. They still very much fit on the album, and the flow of the energy remains natural, but we're left feeling a little bit displaced in time (although maybe that's appropriate), making clear there's no real linear story, per se.
But that's okay, because this song slaps such major ass that it could go anywhere and I'd be thankful for it. It rivals Bodysnatchers for punch while managing to weave a more intricate blend of instrumentation throughout. Jigsaw isn't pure and happy in the manner of Reckoner - probably exactly the opposite - but taking a step back, it injects some much-needed fun into the album before its end, especially bookended as it is between two of the record's more glum tracks.
Honestly, it's pretty straightforward what's going on in this song: it presents snapshots of a night out at a bar or club binge-drinking, watching as brief vignettes of flirtation and disorientation waft past. Thom has cited the band's years in university and the bedlam of collectively partying to forget as bittersweet sources of inspiration for the track.
Just as you take my hand
Just as you write my number down
Just as the drinks arrive
Just as they play your favourite song
As your bad day disappears
No longer wound up like a spring
Before you had too much
Come back in focus again
It begins in media res, but not until after a musical intro of drums tapping with anticipation and acoustic guitar quietly fretting and freaking out, eventually overlaid with Thom's trademark, well, moaning, for lack of a better term.
Side note: I play acoustic guitar, I'm not great and know fuck all about music theory but I can play most things if given literal directions (shoutout to WARRENMUSIC on YouTube for many a great Radiohead tutorial). Anyway, this is one of those songs which, once you've wrapped your head around it, you're left wondering how the fuck someone could write something like it. Thom has a lot of those. Again, I'm probably just an idiot, but it's worth taking your awe where you can find it. But back to the lyrics.
The production sounds blissfully drunk from the start, some bits driving forth without much nuance and others wobbling up and down. Listen laying down in the dark and you can almost feel the room spin even before Thom's voice arrives doggedly trying to remain upright like a ship at sea. The scene is carefree, apparently flirtatious, and the night is imbued with circumstance, fortune, relief, and a delicate balance that seems doomed to fail.
The walls are bending shape
They've got a Cheshire cat grin
All blurring into one
This place is on a mission
The Cheshire cat-grin walls line has always stood out to me for being perfectly fitting for the scene, but mainly just for how interesting it is. Thom loves his playful cat imagery occasionally, but here it's twisted, still playful but also menacing for good measure. The setting takes on sentience, hellbent on...something, probably nothing good; mass intoxication and forgetfulness if we're taking it to mean the fellow denizens of the night.
This continues with more foreboding talk of animal noises and comas until the second verse, which sees the singer's partner lost within the sound and fury of the evening as the music, matching the proclamations of encircling beats, takes a deep breath and swells further and faster, Thom raving about his failure to ascend and making a surprisingly poignant and appropriate observation amidst the chaos: Words are blunt instruments / Words are sawn-off shotguns.
It's appropriate, in an album with so few typical climaxes, that a song about the letting loose of anxiety and pent up energy should be, in a way, almost entirely one big climax incarnate, ratcheting up the pressure each transition until the sound spends the full final two minutes blasting off like the aforementioned shotguns. The singer repeats the plain imperative of the endeavor, come on and let it out, over and over until stumbling into a bit of mic-stealing and dancing off into a moment of oblivion.
Music still following suit and barreling along at a fever pitch (Phil must get sweaty playing this), the final chorus is both more lucid and more delirious than before. After more thrashing at attempts to connect, we get this:
Wish away the nightmare
Wish away the nightmare
You've got a light you can feel it on your back
A light and you can feel it on your back
Jigsaw falling into place
I don't have a lot to say about these final lines, I just think they're very fucking cool. In the end we're left with frantic and more conspicuous attempts at escapism but ultimately a failure to ascend into a place without that spotlight. As someone who is both very tall and socially anxious, I feel the spotlight metaphor right in the beytsim, but I think what's being conveyed here is more about the personal demons hounding us in our thoughts, appearing without warning and bringing us down even in moments of reverie, be they as little as mundane daily responsibilities or as major as having promised your soul the devil and waiting for the piper to come calling. Probably not that, though; who does that sound like?
All in all, Jigsaw can be taken as a literal bit of fun and relief in the context of the album and also something of a commentary on the nights seeking escape that it represents. It's not a vital piece to the record in most senses, except for one very important sense: it is extremely fun to listen to, which, at the risk of rendering the preceding 12,000 words unnecessary, is sort of the main point of all this music stuff in the end.
Suggested Pairings: conflicted drinking; procrastinating; losing your voice in the car; extreme puzzle-assembling; Lone Star
I thought about ending this by copying over my lyrical analysis of Life Is A Highway from Issue 20 instead, because, one: that would be great and boy howdy has this taken a very long time already, but also two: because Videotape feels important to do justice, similar to Reckoner, but is kind of an enigma to me.
Roughly once a year, I'll suddenly get the urge to listen to Videotape nonstop for an entire day. These days make for glum affairs, but, similar to All I Need, Videotape has a very specific moodiness to it that simply manages to hit just right occasionally, and it doesn't necessarily have to do with the song's melancholy.
How would you expect this album to end, never having heard it before? Thus far we've been through a dark night of the soul, albeit one that throbs and bleeds with color as it spirals amidst the darkness. It began bewildered and disoriented and grew darker from there, skipping like a stone from demon to demon until coming to rest on the blank eternal shore of Reckoner (and then kicking about town biding time for awhile in the following two tracks but that doesn't fit the metaphor so well). Given the soul-selling and sheer discomfort on display throughout, we don't seem destined for an unambiguously happy sendoff here. What's more, Radiohead have a propensity for utterly dour closers, from Street Spirit, to Motion Picture Soundtrack, and eventually True Love Waits in 2016 to top things off.
What we get with Videotape is an expertly threaded needle which, on its face, fits right in with the aforementioned depression bops but also glows with warmth, if only dimly. I think it is most similar to Nude in this. Its sound has aptly been described as that of a funeral dirge, locked in step where Nude swam amorphously, the difference between the tightly wound bottom of a whirlpool and the loose, heavy spin around the top. But like with Nude there's also a sheen of something positive in Thom's vocal performance, which I suppose is as good of a place as any to segue into the lyrics.
When I'm at the pearly gates
This'll be on my videotape
Well, from the off there's no room left to wonder whether this is going to be about death or not, although the pearly gates bit plays on the optimistic side of things I suppose. But I think it's important to note here first that this is contemplative, not actually happening; the singer is fretting about the future, not actually taking us along on a whistle stop afterlife tour. This will be significant later.
The next line introduces the titular videotape idea. First, what is "this" exactly, and what is its purpose? To be played for the gatekeeper passing judgement? To be played for the singer for all eternity, either as a comfort or judgement? Or as a recording that they've left behind for their loved ones for the occasion of their passing? The end of the first verse suggests the latter, a message left in the wake, a love letter about the appreciation of balance after a life spent grappling with spinning towards destructive orbits, wobbling and reverberating forever:
This is one for the good days
And I have it all here in red, blue, green, in red, blue, green
You are my center when I spin away
Out of control on videotape
On videotape, on videotape, on videotape
On videotape, on videotape, on videotape...
I think this is lovely. You could say it's unbefitting and hypocritical for the singer to focus on what is presumably their partner/spouse for the first time at the end of an album spent focusing on being restless and bored and tempted away and sacrificing the very thing apparently now being celebrated, and that's fair enough, but this is a work of art, not a courtroom transcription, and I appreciate the symbolism of ultimately coming to rest at the heart's true home despite being blown off course to whatever extents before. Viewed through this lens, the album isn't necessarily a confession of sins so much as a long meditation about what is truly desired, leading in the end to a newfound appreciation for that comfort which was so elusive and taken for granted at the beginning.
That being said, we have to rewind to between these two sets of lines where there is still this to contend with:
When Mephistopheles is just beneath
And he's reaching up to grab me
The singer, contemplating the end to come, is still convinced to some extent that the devil will be there waiting to cash in on their bargain. Even though this has been one of the In Rainbows' bigger throughlines, I don't want to analyze it too much. In the end I think it's pretty plain: dealing with feelings of guilt either for specific decisions, merely tempting thoughts, or even just a general karmic imbalance that seems too good to be true (which could even apply to the idea of living at all), the dread of ultimately having to pay up lingers and frequently reappears. Death is kept ever on the mind like a heavy crown and at the heels like a basset hound, as put by Conor Oberst in Milk Thistle, the closer to his eponymous first solo album which I find bears many similarities to Videotape.
This being illustrated in the guise of the devil is, if nothing else, good aesthetic sense - an important trait for an album (and band) so reliant on conveying emotions rather than concrete messages. It's clear, poetic, and lends weight to the stakes at hand, presenting the album from the beginning as a lofty matter of the fate of the soul.
This is my way of saying goodbye
Because I can't do it face to face
So I'm talking to you before-
No matter what happens now
You shouldn't be afraid
Because I know today has been
The most perfect day I've ever seen
As glass-half-full as I was about the first verse, the second remains a bittersweet pill to swallow; here at the end, even after the aforementioned sweetness and settling down, the singer is still unable to communicate all of this directly, instead opting for this message in a bottle. Some even interpret Videotape as being about a suicide note; I don't think this is the case, but it comes in stark enough terms here that it's not difficult to see why that comes to mind.
It's worth mentioning the music here - there's a lot of fascinating things going on behind the scenes of Videotape. For one, there's the semi-famous syncopation of the rhythm, as documented in this really well-done Vox video. I recommend giving it a watch, but the gist is that the piano is actually being played on the off-beats, not the beats themselves, which is why when the sparse percussion eventually arrives, the instruments feel just out of sync, chasing shadows and never quite coming into a comfortable balance. It's clunky and stumbling but repeats with precision, like a tape turning over or a record spinning on ad infinitum after it's finished playing.
There's also the "Bonnaroo version," a live recording filmed in 2006 that is emblematic of Videotape's original arrangement which kept the same core song, but adorned by slowly building, ripping, anthemic guitar and a more traditional drumbeat. It drastically shifts the feeling of the song towards the more grandiose and positive end of the spectrum, and many people claim to prefer it over the album version.
While the song is great both ways, and Radiohead don't have many that feel like the soaring Videotape, I don't think that version would have made for an appropriate closer on the album that In Rainbows turned out to be. Even though I went on at length about how special it was to finally arrive at a relatively happy song in Reckoner, such an end wouldn't be representative of the album writ large. This isn't a superhero movie at the end of which the protagonist runs off into the night, ready to face new challenges. This isn't really a happy ending. In fact, this isn't necessarily an ending at all, other than in the literal sense. Bear with me.
The final lines, regardless of what has come before, are ones of peace and tranquility. Perhaps they're part of the message; perhaps the singer is eventually left reassuring himself; perhaps both. But it's a peaceful parting, no matter what has come before and, importantly, no matter what happens now.
Remember, this isn't a song about dying; this is a song about contemplating the end while continuing on alive. This is anticipatory. We don't see the end. We don't get that closure.
In a sense, and at the risk of being reductive, In Rainbows is an album about a crisis of faith in the life currently led, whether caused by restlessness or fear of death, forgetting the satisfaction in the here and now and fantasizing about what else could be, but eventually more or less landing at the conclusion that the "boring" life, real life, is what is most important and truly desired.
This is a cyclical process. In real life, people don't often truly change. Revelations don't often come about leaving matters fixed permanently in their wake. The singer has undertaken a journey and arrived at this conclusion today, but how long does it last? How long until he wakes up one day finding himself right back where he started?
Suggested Pairings: streets which grow pitch-black after sundown; wrapping gifts; merlot;
Miscellany for the Connoisseur
From the Basement
Remember my story about first discovering In Rainbows in middle school and then promptly saying "no thank you for several more years please" because I was dumb, and then later rediscovering it? Well part of that rediscovering process that really set the hook was randomly finding this playing on TV one afternoon. My parents had to be somewhere and left me alone so I promptly ordered pizza and hot wings so hot that I tumbled sweatily into a different dimension, these odd British people doing scary things with guitars on the big screen all the while. Is that like a kids' version of dropping acid and coming away with a new perspective?
There are only four things that come close to competing with In Rainbows for the title of my favorite piece of art in any medium: Tolkien's oeuvre, Jürgen Klopp's hugs, The Adventure Zone: Balance, and In Rainbows From the Basement. You may say this fourth thing is cheating and/or nonsense because an album and the live performance of said album are roughly the same thing, and to this I would say that this is all made up and there are no rules and I will continue ruling this newsletter with an iron fist. Also art is subjective and our favorite things are often more about whatever random personal significance we attach to things rather than their objective value, but mostly I rule this newsletter with an iron fist.
A masterpiece of an album like In Rainbows or, well, take your pick from Radiohead's discography, would be one thing if it was merely good on tape, assembled and altered and trussed up, but it's another feat entirely for it to be equally good live. I think In Rainbows is uniquely suited to this sort of intimate live session setting because of how moody and ambient it is underneath such varied and dynamic playing styles. It feels like such a privilege getting to watch such an incredible band at their peak in such an intimate setting. The album itself is already highly transportative, so seeing it all swirl about in this dark, red room only enhances that effect.
For a long while it was only available on iTunes or incomplete and low-quality on YouTube, but last year with Radiohead's unveiling of their Public LIbrary, they began making lots of material such as this and live shows freely available there and on YouTube, so, enjoy. For their next album, 2011's The King of Limbs, they also returned to do another From the Basement session which is another great addition.
I won't spend long on these because frankly it took everything out of me to get through the album proper and I'm just looking forward to getting this done and posted at this point, but I'd be remiss for not including mention of such a great little collection.
These are B-sides that I believe first came packaged on a second CD in the special edition vinyl release (which remains my casual collector's white whale.) With the main album being as tight and tidy as it is, there were always bound to be some pieces that were great in their own right but didn't quite fit the specific entity of the album, and that proves to be the case.
The two ambient tracks on disk 2 are actually my two favorite tracks. They're brief and, to slightly different extents, combine the overall spacy, displaced qualities of the album with the immaculate piano from Videotape which is here treated as a sort of overture. I understand why they didn't want to Treefingers-out the album but it's kind of cool imagining these haunting little breaks throughout leading up to and foreshadowing the finale.
Down Is The New Up
Get yourself together, let the light pour in
Pour yourself a hot bath, pour yourself a drink
Nothing's gonna happen without warning
Makes for a pretty good In Rainbows-themed relaxation mantra, like a cure for an anxiety attack. Appropriately, this song is playful but still feels ominous and paranoid, descending in turns into dour piano and creepy Thom gibberish about thought contortion and shakedowns.
This is an equally good balm for the terminally anxiety-wracked brain, but with a more serious approach. The guitar is that of a lullaby, while the outro gives you the impression you're being talked off the ledge.
Probably the best bonus track, Last Flowers' roots in the OK Computer sessions show in its cold stare, bearing witness to the worst modernity has to offer. It bleeds into the ethos of In Rainbows well enough with visions of empty houses shifting and speaking and seeking relief.
Up On The Ladder
An angry, spacy little earworm that is maybe a bit too simple in the end but still satisfying.
Give me an answer
Give me a line
I've been climbing up this ladder
I've been wasting my time
The breakdown on this verse is *chef's kiss*
Bangers + Mash
This is where they just decided to go apeshit for a few minutes. Part of me doesn't know why they chose to perform this in the From the Basement session rather than a couple other choice options here, but part of me loves how much of a "fuck it" vibe they've maintained in and amongst all the more heady and pretentious elements. It strikes me as a sort of drunken Paranoid Android equivalent had In Rainbows taken a more externally focused and political slant in an alternate universe.
4 Minute Warning
Another contender for best B-side, and one final hauntingly sad parting note, this is about the warning of impending death and collapse of civilization by nuclear bombs. Peaceful Sunday vibes 😎 I think the combination of gruesome imagery and stark denial, not wanting to know, is an apt description of human reaction to disaster.
Hey What's Up With All the 10 Stuff?
Well, astute and potentially obsessed reader, you're correct - there was a mild amount of hullabaloo over the fact that In Rainbows was released on the 10th day of the 10th month on 10 servers with only 10 days of warning accompanied by 10 daily cryptic online messages and contains 10 songs and has the last "IO" on the bottom of the cover isolated and looking awful 10-like and a similar frequent occurrence of the letter X, such as the "Xendless Xurbia" artwork, and probably more that I'm forgetting.
The answer to this is "who the fuck knows."
Many fans are unsatisfied with this answer and have developed the well-known "01 10" theory which posits that OK Computer and In Rainbows (released 10 years apart, mind you, and with similar titles each bearing 10 letters) are designed to be combined together into one complimentary super album, tracks spliced together and supposedly even crossfade-able to make for seamless transitions. Look it up on your own and give it a try, it's an interesting read if nothing else. I used to buy into this theory but I don't quite think that was the band's intention.
Maybe they just like the number 10. I know I sure do. Nice and round. Sadio Mané. Perfect score. 2010 (good year.) I don't know, fuck off.
Oh, seeing as how I somehow pulled Tarot in during the 15 Step chapter in regards to the devil symbolism, I'm reminded now of Tarot X: The Wheel of Fortune.
I am in no way suggesting that Thom was intentionally hinting towards anything Tarot related, but if anything is to symbolize the album, the Wheel feels appropriate. Drawn upright, it symbolizes good luck, karma, life cycles, destiny, a turning point; drawn upside down, it symbolizes bad luck, resistance to change, breaking cycles. I think its circular and cyclical nature is especially apt.
"Hey Matt, I really liked the vibe of [INSERT SONG TITLE HERE ALONG WITH $1 BILL FACE UP AND UNWRINKLED], what's another non-Radiohead song that is different on its face but actually carries a similar feeling to my song of choice?"
Wow, friend, what a coincidence that you should come to me with such a specific request when I have just such a chart already whipped up!
Mileage may vary.
15 Step :: Garden Song - Phoebe Bridgers
Bodysnatchers :: Destroyed By Hippie Powers - Car Seat Headrest
Nude :: Pink Rabbits - The National
Weird Fishes :: Jeannie Becomes A Mom - Caroline Rose
All I Need :: Washing Machine Heart - Mitski
Faust Arp :: No One Would Riot For Less - Bright Eyes
Reckoner :: Sober To Death - Car Seat Headrest
House Of Cards :: Humiliation - The National
Jigsaw Falling Into Place :: This House Is A Circus - Arctic Monkeys
Videotape :: Milk Thistle - Conor Oberst
A Novice's Guide to Rainbows
I might have mentioned this in a previous edition of this venerable publication, but when I was little, I wanted to be a meteorologist. There was a TV meteorologist I idolized (meteoridolized?) named Mark Scirto, and I used to tell friends and family that I wanted to be his successor. I had an uncle that worked at the National Weather Service who would send me weather posters and science toys and it was pretty neat, I'm not gonna lie.
Later on I realized that science was fun as a hobby but hard as a career so I moved on to wanting to be a doctor and then a psychiatrist and then a social worker and now I've realized academia is a money-sucking, paper-pushing pile of bureaucratic bullshit so I work at a restaurant until the pique fades and I feel motivated to make positive changes in my life again.
But uh. Anyway, rainbows.
Like, I was gonna go with the joke that I don't know what In Rainbows is because I've never actually listened to the album, but Matt's one of my best friends so of course I've heard of the fuckin' thing. Plus I've been drinking hard seltzer and playing World of Warcraft all day so I've got a weird pit of sincerity built up in my stomach. So let's get through the song and dance of me playing the straight man (heh) and then we can see where it goes from there after the rainbow talk (heheh).
Rainbows aren't real. Got it? Rainbows are an optical illusion created by the refraction of light. You can't get any further from or closer to a rainbow, and therefore you cannot be in a rainbow. However, nothing is real. Life doesn't exist without observation and perception, so the fact that rainbows can be observed means they aren't any less real than an ottoman seen from a distance. The main difference is that you can approach an ottoman and sit on it, and you cannot do that to a rainbow. If you could, I would. But the important thing here is that from afar, there's absolutely nothing that makes an ottoman any more solid than a rainbow.
That gets us into the metaphorical importance of a rainbow. If you're religious, then 1) we've said some pretty upsetting things re:religion in this newsletter and I'm surprised you're reading this, but 2) rainbows are representative of the covenant God made with man in the Old Testament when she decided to alt+F4 all of creation except for some dude and his family and promised not to do it again. Rainbows, from a really practical and mundane perspective, are just the arrangement of colors in a distinct array. Graphs are often rainbow colored because it creates discrete divisions between sets of data. If you're gay, rainbows are a common metonym for your entire community and/or existence, and the colors mean things that are cool, and a bunch of white people got mad that we added some stripes to support people of color, and then straight people made a greyscale one that was unintentionally hilarious.
So here we have a few things that it could mean if you say that something/someone is In Rainbows. Maybe In Rainbows is referring to being part of an optical illusion and adapting to the fact that reality is subjective anyway and deciding how you're gonna reconcile your existence with that. Or maybe it's being part of a promise created by a system that's fundamentally broken but still seeks hope and meaning in the expression of prismatic light. Perhaps the rainbow in question is just a way of dividing life into discrete parcels that make sense because each of those parcels could be assigned a color. And finally, maybe In Rainbows is just gay. That's the best case scenario, if you ask me.
(as you read this parenthetical sentence, imagine some time passing, or spin around a few times until you get dizzy and then return to the article)
Once again, I've been drinking and playing World of Warcraft pretty much all day, so I decided that instead of just pretending to be obtuse and talking about rainbows as a concept, I was gonna ask some of my co-contributors about their favorite song from the album so I could listen to it and give a sincere, first-time reaction to it and how it relates to my understanding of them as my friends and loved ones.
Unfortunately, I reached out to Matt, Sam, and Alex, and these fuckin' jabronies all said the same song. Sam got slightly intercepted by Matt, but Alex independently said the same song as Matt and Sam so I guess you guys aren't getting anything individualized or special, nor are you going to get me to listen to more than one song off of this album. Congratulations.
The song that this goddamn incompetent hivemind decided upon is called "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi." Arpeggi, according to Wikipedia, is a pluralized form of the word arpeggio, even though the Wikipedia article for arpeggio says "arpeggios" several times. Basically there is no truth here, straight from the beginning.
A simple high-hat and snare beat leads into a soft guitar rhythm that branches off into an echoing ambient soundscape. The beat stays consistent in the background as the rhythmic guitar plays off of itself and the bass fades in from the background. The vocals, when they are introduced, are not the focus at first. Just a few insistences as the guitar choir murmurs back and forth.
Finally, the vocalist (who has a name, probably. Mr Head? Radio for short). Radio seems to be, more than anything, having a conversation with the background instrumental, which has not changed significantly in composition but has become more frenetic.
Suddenly, much of the instrumentation falls away to a gentle, synthetic xylophonic beat. Mr Head repeats the name of the title of the song a few times before the beat comes back more earnestly. A bit of discordant guitar creates more ambience as the bass is allowed to rear its head as a featured player for a few bars.
I'm kind of enjoying this. As I mentioned, the vocals are absolutely not the focus of this piece, but more a back and forth between the cyclothymic energy of the backing instrumentals and synthesized effects, with Radio forming the bridge in between.
Oh. It's over. I'm gonna chug my hard seltzer and listen to it again without typing. Gimme a second. Spin around some more if you need to.
Okay, closing my eyes and leaning back into the music really made me focus on the interplay of the two different guitar parts. They don't quite match up, but I wouldn't say that they're necessarily dissonant. They introduce some chaos, but they're bound together by the percussion that changes very little through the song. The bass part also stays fairly consistent; the main fluctuation featured therein is how much the bass part is overshadowed by the other instruments.
Before listening to this, my main experience with Radiohead was mainly "Creep" and also that one time Matt got me to listen to Kid A. My favorite song from it was called "How to Disappear Completely," so maybe I'll write about that for the Office Chart next week. Thanks for sharing a bit of your album with me, guys. Love ya.
Matt Asked Me to Write a Short Thing About In Rainbows and Instead I Wrote This
The following are some of my opinions about In Rainbows but if anything I say disagrees with what Matt says you should probably defer to Matt's thoughts and opinions on this.
In early 2017 I started working at one of the less-celestial national coffee chains. It was in short - a job. The highlight of working there was meeting two fellow Newsletter contributors: Matt and Andrew, both of whom I love very very much.
I remember the first conversation I had with Matt. We were awkwardly standing by the espresso machine pretending to be busy so the woman who sometimes yelled us would not do the thing that she sometimes did. I asked him what kind of music he listened to and he suddenly shortened his face into a serious stare
"I listen to a lot of stuff, but Radiohead is my favorite band of all time," he said while maintaining some very intense eye contact that if we had not recently done the whole pleasantry-small-talk exchange where he explained he had a girlfriend of fifteen years I would think was secret Radiohead-based-sex-cult code speak.
I told him that Radiohead was my second favorite band after The Beatles and preceding LCD Soundsystem (as I type this out I realize the basis of Matt and I's almost four year friendship is pretty much me thinking I liked Radiohead way more than I actually did because compared to Matt I am just a very casual fan) which at the time was true.
Now, many years later, Matt has decided to dedicate an entire issue of Newsletter to what used to be my third favorite Radiohead album, but now thanks to Matt's expert brainwashing abilities is not only my favorite Radiohead album, but one of my favorite albums of all time.
Let's go back to 2012.
I was a sophomore in high school and would listen to OK Computer literally every single day during AP World History because my teacher was a music person and I was generally pretty ~angsty~ which means I thought of myself as very cultured and smart and deep because while everyone else in North Texas was listening to Luke Bryan or Rascal Flatts I was taking in what a lot of magazines and blogs called the best album of the decade. I was so fucking deep. I would sometimes listen to The Bends to switch things up. I tried to listen to Kid A, but my 15 year old brain couldn't understand what the fuck was going on so to me Radiohead only every put out two records.
This opened a lot of doors for me musically because previously it was pretty much just worship music, The Beatles, Johnny Cash and Coldplay (and y'all wonder why I am like this?) so OK Computer was just like turning every single dial to 11. It very much felt like doing drugs to my overly emotional, obviously chemically imbalanced little brain. For years I held OK Computer in the god tier of music, forcing it on my friends during road trips, learning the guitar parts to Paranoid Android, and just being a sensitive little boy.
Around 2014/2015 Weird Fishes/Arpeggi sort of snuck into my world, like an acquaintance who you suddenly realize is a consistent highlight of your day to day life. It is without question my favorite Radiohead song. I loved it before I even listened to In Rainbows.
The Bends, Ok Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac, and A Moon Shaped Pool are all incredible albums, but they also beat the absolute shit out of you for listening to them. Try talking to me after I've done my quarterly listen through of OK Computer, I turn into an emotional vegetable. Despite this, the reason we come back to albums like these, at least partially, is the inarguable musical brilliance that exists within all of them. The atmosphere created in them is second to none, Thom's vocal performances make me as a vocalist very insecure, and the arrangements never get stale or repetitive in style. Radiohead is one of the few bands who in over twenty-five years of cranking out albums consistently puts out interesting and compelling music and in 2007 In Rainbows was the peak of it all.
Listening to In Rainbows is like walking into a very pleasant smelling bathroom. You know you need to be there so you sort of brace yourself for the possibility of what is waiting for you on the other side of the door. However, you walk in and find there is no need to hold your breath or cover your nostrils because for some reason it smells like flowers and there are little paintings of dogs on the wall.
In Rainbows contains all the characteristics we love about Radiohead albums. It is vast in lyrical content and arrangement. At times the eclectic drum pattern in Weird Fishes feels like parasailing alongside Scottish cliffs nestled next to a chaotic ocean, and suddenly a song like House of Cards transports you to the warmth of a fireplace. Someone hands you a cup of warm tea and a blanket and you feel peace as Thom sings "I don't want to be your friend, I just want to be your lover." Come on. What's more comforting than longing?
Lyrically I would call this the most accessible Radiohead album with the exception of Pablo Honey which I just don't care for as an album. That's not to say that I understand the entire meaning of even one song on this album, but it's easier to know what Thom means when he sings "Has the light gone out for you? Because the light's gone out for me" than like what anything in 2 + 2 = 5 means.
In Rainbows, like most great albums, serves as an emotional time capsule. Relistens take you back to being nineteen and frantically driving around Austin trying to find something to do that doesn't a.) cost any money and b.) get you arrested. It takes you back to a place where music had room to grow - where you could sit and be in awe of something because you know it exists in a space you could never access, but you are beyond grateful to witness.
In In Rainbows Rainbows
Like most people, I was unfamiliar with Radiohead before I started dating Matt Spradling. I think I had only ever heard a few of their songs before he came around. Definitely Creep and No Surprises and Karma Police. That's probably it but give me a break! I was 16 years old and from the midwest. What I'm saying is I can't divorce my thoughts about Radiohead from my thoughts about Matt and I wouldn't want to if I could. Matt is an extraordinarily steady and loyal person. I like to joke that he has a few things he's unfailingly committed to, and I consider myself wildly lucky to be on that short list, right behind Radiohead.
In Rainbows is my favorite Radiohead album, probably because we listened to it a lot early in our relationship. When I hear House of Cards I think about him driving me home from the movies when we were still getting to know one another and being so nervous and thrilled because we were on a date. All I Need also reminds me of being in the car together, but parked this time. We would drive around our neighborhood to find a secluded spot so that we could put on this album and get in the back seat and hold hands and tell each other secrets. Weird Fishes / Arpeggi takes me back to college nights, drunkenly sitting in his apartment together, listening to the album on vinyl as he explained to me that it was THE BEST. That sounds like it could be condescending but it was so genuine and sweet, just someone sharing something they truly love with someone they love. And Jigsaw Falling Into Place is one of our go-to songs for that long drive between our hometown and college town, one of those songs that immediately energizes you a bit and makes the late night scenery whipping past you seem cool and mysterious as you dance in your seat.
I'm sure In Rainbows is a great album even if it wasn't the soundtrack to you falling in love with a tall, handsome nerd. It's got some excellent bops and Matt says it's damn near perfect so I'm sure it's objectively wonderful. But it's a really, REALLY great album if you listened to it while making out with your boyfriend in the back of his Jeep Grand Cherokee on a school night in 2011.