Radiohead has completely redefined what is possible in a rock song over its career. The band has constantly pushed the boundaries of sound and music, exploring new sonic territory on each of their previous six albums, and in the process seemingly developed a whole new role for the guitar in rock music. Whereas previous albums seemed to reinvent the wheel each time out, its latest release, In Rainbows, is a mature step away, focusing more on the song itself, held together by a common feeling and mood as opposed to just bashing you over the head with its overall aural intensity.
After getting all electronica for the twin genius of Kid A and Amnesiac and finding a harsh abrasiveness for Hail to the Thief, you would expect the band to dip another big toe into the deep end of the experimental pool, instead they release its own Harvest. This is not meant to imply that Radiohead suddenly became Neil Young and threw out all their electronic gear and burned their effect pedals, grew beards, donned dirty work-shirts and patchy jeans, and started picking slightly country flavored tunes on an acoustic guitar. (Can you really imagine lead-singer Thom Yorke with hair down to his ass warbling his way through “Heart of Gold”?)
But what Radiohead has done is craft an album that removes some of the noise landscapes the band built on previous albums and that tended to hide the heart and soul of the songs. Much like Young’s masterwork, Harvest, it has stripped away much of what was used before, and let the simple core of each tune stand at the front of the line, delivering it all with a simple sparse arrangement. In Rainbows is built around the songs themselves, removing much of the excess sound and noise they used so skillfully in the past. Instead, the vocals and melodies have been moved to the forefront.
Radiohead has not completely abandoned the sonic architecture they’ve it has built on previous albums; the first two songs, “15 Step” with its stuttering drum line and samples of children cheering, and the hard driving “Bodysnatchers” could easily be an outtake from OK Computer. Scattered through In Rainbows are discernible musical snippets that seem to directly recall the power of their entire catalog. It has isolated those moments from their previous releases and highlighted them here; the minimal haunting drum-beat of “House of Cards” echoing “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box” from Amnesiac; the hushed guitar intro to “Jigsaw Falling into Place” could easily be the long lost cousin of “Paranoid Android”; the dreamy floating atmosphere of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” recalls the frenetic energy of Kid A; and the ambient symphonic backbeat of “All I Need” that has become a staple of Radiohead’s best work. Radiohead has subtlety tied all these diverse elements together in a nice neat package and created an album that finds the heart and soul of each song.
In Rainbows is available now through the band’s Website.