Thursday, April 17, 2008

Radiohead ventures boldly (and successfully) into new, emotional territory

By Jon Jacobs

October 15, 2007 | The year is 2003; Radiohead has just released its sixth full-length album Hail to the Thief. Critical acclaim ensues. The album, following the semi-difficult listener Amnesic, is being heralded as a brilliant return to form, and noted as the only Radiohead album that seems conscious of the band's previous work.

After an extensive tour in support of the album, the band makes a sudden statement announcing a hiatus. Cogitations of joy by Radiohead fans do not ensue.

Fast-forward to 2007, and Radiohead has been recording for more than two years, the longest studio session the band has ever embarked upon. This, in conjunction with the complete lack of a label and subsequently a deadline, wreaks havoc upon eager Radiohead fans awaiting the first glimpses of new material in more than four years. Times are trying for fans, and the likelihood of the album ever seeing the light of day seems distant and incomprehensible.

However, on Oct. 10 Radiohead released the eagerly anticipated In Rainbows as a digital download on its website for the mere price of "what you think it is worth," with an $80 disc box being released later this year.

Upon first impressions, the album certainly feels like Radiohead at its smartest. The exceptionally digital opener 15 Step feels like a lost daughter of the Hail to the Thief sessions.

After seven years of waiting, after seven years of wondering where arguably the most influential band of the modern age would go next, Radiohead does not disappoint.

Yet, amid the enthralling riffs and studio trickery of longtime producer Nigel Godrich, there is something substantively different about these new tracks -- something distant, ethereal and even revelatory. The album is drony and bass-heavy, but not dissonant and alienated as 2000's brilliantly conceptual Kid A. The lyrics are haunting, personal and emotive, but not in the socio-political manner of Ok Computer or the depressive introspection of The Bends.

As the album unfolds, there is an ever-present feeling of immediacy, and yet despite this the album never brings discomfort or uneasiness. It echoes with majesty, connecting effortlessly with the listener with a faint amity of familiarity. Singer Thom Yorke's volatile voice suspends itself seamlessly over the layers of instrumentation on tracks such as the distant, atmospheric ballad Nude and the subtle guitar and string-driven Faust Arp. Radiohead's ability to craft delicate and yet driving material is in top-form.

The true genius of Rainbows however reveals itself in the new lyrical and sonic direction of its slower tracks. The surprisingly minimalistic, yet deeply emotive All I Need finds Yorke's fragile voice barely surfacing over the ocean of pneumatic soundscapes and bass. Yorke's obvious pain is illustrated as he sings in a near-whisper, almost pleading, "I am a moth who just wants to share your light. I'm just an insect trying to get out of the night. You are all I need. You are all I need. I'm in the middle of your picture lying in the reeds."

The inception of love songs by Radiohead is not the only surprise from Rainbows, as the album explores the more subtle aspects of the band's musical ventures. And because of the band members' prowess as musicians, the result is that the album doesn't so much play as float from your stereo. The guitar and keyboard parts feel intimately close and personal, yet sound as though they are being played in deep space, echoing toward infinity.

This subtlety, though unusual upon first discovery, showcases Radiohead's confidence and creates an album that is both painfully personal and sonically aesthetic. The album's tracks to not blend together as with albums such as Kid A and Amnesiac, but rather uses motif and composition to flow with a harmonious tranquility.

The album closes with one of the most eerie and haunting tracks Radiohead has ever produced, the emotionally captivating Videotape. The track, comprised of spine-chilling piano hovered over ambiant electronic drums, feels brittle and frail, as if Yorke's voice might give out at any moment, succumbing to whatever personal demons he is facing. He finishes the song by singing, with heart-breaking submission, "No matter what happens now, you shouldn't be afraid. Because I know today has been the most perfect day I've ever seen."

On the whole, In Rainbows is a potentially difficult album to understand, as it lacks the raw drive of their early work, as well as the vastly experimental nature of their late material. However, the album unfolds with some of the best and most rewarding material Radiohead has produced, to date. It is an emotional magnum opus, akin to Radiohead at their very finest, and at times surpasses any expectation of their ingenuity.

It may have taken four years, but Radiohead have crafted an achingly beautiful masterpiece.

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