Welcome to Terrible Tuesdays, a new regular column at The Longfellow Bridge that focuses on Music, Movies, Books, and more that may have more critical acclaim than is justly deserved. Feel free to disagree with us in the comments below.I found 2007’s In Rainbows to be a bewildering statement from an otherwise revolutionary band.This is kind of a trite thing to say, but I am a big Radiohead fan. I have been since OK Computer was released in 1997, and have stuck with them through thick and thin. A perfect example of this for most would be 2011’s The King of Limbs, an experimental album that was short on melodies and hooks and long on driving rhythms and percussion. For the record, I enjoyed Limbs immensely and found it to be a return to form: Radiohead doing off-kilter songs and doing them really well. Personally, I found 2007’s In Rainbows to be a much more bewildering statement from an otherwise revolutionary band.
For context, let’s quickly look at the career of Radiohead: debut album Pablo Honey was a collection of Sonic Youth knockoffs with surprise hit single “Creep” thrown in seemingly randomly. The Bends and OK Computer were increasingly impressive followups, eschewing the derivative work of their debut and progressing deeper into territory that had yet to be covered by a rock band. Kid A and Amnesiac were the unexpected followups to their global success, finding the band experimenting with Jazz, Classical, and predominantly Electronica elements. Hail To The Thief fulfilled their major label contract on a satisfying, if slightly overlong, cumulative note. Thief was essentially a greatest hits album, albeit with all new songs, drawing on sounds from each of their records along with a few new tricks. And then, there was silence. For four years.When In Rainbows was finally available for download, a significant flaw of the album was overlooked: it’s boring.The silence was broken with a revolutionary new music distribution model: Radiohead told their fans that they could download the album for any price they wanted, including free. As an unprecedented move, this garnered a great deal of media attention. The music press, and to some extent the general press, were abuzz with Radiohead’s revolutionary new model, sure to be a game changer. When In Rainbows was finally available for download, a significant flaw of the album was overlooked: it’s boring.
Much of In Rainbows is examples of Radiohead trying to add interest to boring songs via polish; opening track “15 Step”, easily one of Radiohead’s most forgettable, is put through the “interest filter” with the addition of a rough sounding drum machine, children cheering, and broken-sounding analog synths. But at its core; “15 Step” is Radiohead-by-numbers: singer Thom Yorke delivering paranoid-sounding lyrics, a chord progression that’s not directly lifted from an older song yet is very familiar sounding, and it follows a dynamic build that the band has employed on several songs per album since the beginning. Most importantly, Yorke’s vocal is wasted on melodies and lyrics that are instantly forgettable.
“Bodysnatchers” follows, and along with “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”, is one of the “rock” songs on In Rainbows. “Bodysnatchers” in particular is one the dullest songs that I have heard that could be described as “driving”. The drums propel everything forward, and the guitars are properly layered to build intensity. Yet when the song is over, I cannot remember a single detail of the lyrics or melody. “Jigsaw” is quite similar, although some of the guitar work during its chorus is admittedly far more clever.The most frequent counter-argument I hear is “Have you heard “Nude”?” The answer is yes, I have heard “Nude”.When I mention to many people that In Rainbows is overrated, the most frequent counter-argument I hear is “Have you heard “Nude”?” The answer is yes, I have heard “Nude”, and I’ve also heard the song that it evolved from, the far superior “Big Ideas (Don’t Get Any)”. Some may remember this version as the closing song from the 1998 Radiohead film Meeting People Is Easy. “Nude” represents the single most bewildering moment on In Rainbows for me; the original version of this song as performed live is sublime. As it stood in 1998, it was easily one of Radiohead’s best songs. The released version is much more laid back and mellow (not that the original could have been considered a hard rock song) version that frankly belongs on the same radio stations as hit themes from Disney movies. Somehow, Radiohead had taken a great song and made it into a dull exercise of the depths to which a great song could reach. For example, listen the 1998 original:
Again, not a hard rock song by any stretch, but there’s an undeniable energy, and the choruses hit an emotional peak. The combination of electric piano and organ give the song a texture surprisingly unheard elsewhere in Radiohead’s catalog, and the introduction of electric guitar for the final few bars of the song provide an epic climax. Now conversely, listen to the 2007 version:
Gone is any ounce of the emotional intensity that made this song so compelling to begin with, and the guitars are wasted on clean, disciplined sounding arpeggios throughout. The fifteen seconds of guitars in the original version say far more than the four minutes of guitars on the album version, which are there like seemingly every other instrument in a supporting role. Yorke’s vocal is the star here, overdubbed to death so it can recreate melodies originally played on organ and glockenspiel but desperately lacking the same impact. When I first heard the final version of “Nude”, I was actually taken aback by how much worse the song had become. (See the same argument for the album’s B-Side “Up On The Ladder”; the original live version would have been a standout album track, whereas the finished version is a low key nap-inducer.)
Perhaps the worst moment on the album is the inexplicable single “House Of Cards”, a lazily strummed ditty that follows the melodies of Bobby McFerrin’s fifteen minutes of fame single “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” more so than anything else. With a complete lack of any change and completely vapid lyrics, the song is a consistent five and a half minute long snooze fest. It’s easily one of Radiohead’s worst, and its length only makes it more painful.
While critics worldwide lauded an album for its marketing and release, they allowed that to color their opinion of an album that took no chances except to be dull.In Rainbows is not a complete disaster; “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” provides a brilliant hypnotic groove with some of Yorke’s stranger and more interesting lyrics, “Reckoner” manages to be the one song that was vastly improved by making it unrecognizable from its original form, and “All I Need” is an example of the stellar songwriting and experimentation that made Radiohead international superstars to begin with. But for an album with three great songs and six songs that are good but not great (I pretend “House Of Cards” is not on the album), it is easily one of Radiohead’s worst and least inspired. While critics worldwide lauded an album for its marketing and release, they allowed that to color their opinion of an album that took no chances except to be dull.
Disagree? Let it rip in the comments.