Radiohead – the heroes of contemporary art rock – have devised a surprising business plan for its new album, “In Rainbows”: the band is letting the customer name his or her own price. The idea is bold, exciting and remarkably original.
Come to think of it, so is “In Rainbows.”
This shouldn’t come as a surprise; since its sophomore effort, “The Bends,” Radiohead has been consistently producing brilliant, groundbreaking records. So the question isn’t so much, “will Radiohead amaze us?” but instead, “how will Radiohead amaze us this time?”
For one, they’ve stripped “In Rainbows” of much of the electronic influence that has come to dominate the last handful of Radiohead albums. In accordance with that, there is less emphasis on ambient sound and more on Thom Yorke’s chilling, often undistorted vocals. All of this lends visceral humanity to a band that has sometimes sounded aloof and distant.
When, for instance, “Bodysnatchers” opens with the type of messy, crunchy guitar that you would expect from a garage band, it carries a raw and organic energy that Radiohead has rarely tapped into.
So, the music is relatable, but the lyrics still have a tendency towards being oblique and detached. This is driven home when the chorus of one song finds Yorke moaning the words “weird fishes” repeatedly.
But even the lyrics are injected with occasional bursts of vitality.
In the triumphant, euphonic conclusion of “Nude,” Yorke snarls angelically, “you’ll go to hell for what your dirty mind is thinking.”
As the lyrics run the stylistic gamut, so too does the music itself.
Album opener “15 Step” features lush instrumentation supported by a frenetic, preprogrammed beat, while the bulk of “House of Cards” is a simple guitar progression and understated vocals. Meanwhile, the slow-burner “Videotape” is driven by a persistent piano and looping, unorthodox percussion.
In fact, the only thing that stays constant from one song to the next is the quality: each song manages to be compelling, exhilarating, and otherwise beautiful in its own way, without exceptions. So while “In Rainbows” certainly isn’t Radiohead’s most innovative album, it just might be their most consistent.
It’s also their most accessible since “OK Computer.” With a distinctly pop aesthetic and only 10 songs, “In Rainbows” is easy to listen to and easy to digest. Never does the album stray into the garbled yelps and moments of almost-unlistenable dissonance that have pockmarked the albums of Radiohead’s recent past.
But this accessibility is a double-edged blade. The fact that Radiohead takes fewer creative risks here means that “In Rainbows” doesn’t ever fail as spectacularly as its predecessors, but it doesn’t ever soar to as great of heights either.
“In Rainbows” finds Radiohead being less ambitious than they’ve be in a decade, but it still manages to me more unique, more stimulating, and more beautiful than just about anything else out there. No matter what you pay for “In Rainbows,” it’s worth every penny.
Staff writer Nick Scheidies can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.