Worse, the way In Rainbows was released overshadowed its musical content. Which is too bad, because it feels like the start of something very good. Maybe that’s because so many of the tracks have made it into the band’s live sets in one form or another over the past several years. Or maybe it’s simply a reflection of the confidence it takes to be the first platinum act to take a new album straight to the Web.
This initial version picks up where the scattershot Hail to the Thief, the sixth and final album of their Capitol years, left off in 2003, with its mix of the electronic and organic, rock and avant. It’s a headphones album, peppered with subtly skewed shifts in tone and texture rather than outright hooks. And Yorke is still the paranoid android of OK Computer, as he free-associates his way around minimal beats, synth strings, and shapeshifting guitars. “15 Step,” the first track, is the only headlong dip back into the cut-and-paste electronics of Kid A/Amnesiac. Riding a chopped electronic beat, Yorke wonders aloud, “How come I end up where I started?/How come I end up where I belong?”, in a slurred, uneasy falsetto. When the guitar arrives, it doesn’t crash in so much as it hitches a ride on the groove. “Used to be alright/What happened/Did the cat get your tongue?” he asks mysteriously. Like most of In Rainbows, the song proceeds in a linear fashion, rather than circling back again and again to a chorus, picking up subsonic bass and increasingly complex beats as it moves along.
Guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien open on the second track, “Bodysnatchers,” a brisk, churning tune that builds into a noisy, claustrophobic climax and offers the only real instrumental solo. Yorke sounds as if he were just tossing phrases into the mix — “I do not . . . understand . . . what it is . . . I don’t want . . . Check your pulse. . . . blink your eyes . . . ” — as he grows more and more agitated, until he’s ranting in the background. The effect is unsettling, and that may be the best way to describe the overall mood, as the album shifts from the gloomy, string-laden beauty of “Nude” — a ballad that finds Yorke floating in comfortably numb fashion through clean guitars and wearily incanting, “Now that you found it . . it’s gone . . . Now that you feel it . . . you don’t” — to the insistent guitar arpeggios and ambient glow of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi.” Elsewhere, dark synth bass tones color the desolate “All I Need,” acoustic guitar dominates the more upbeat “Jigsaw Falling into Place,” and simple piano chords dot the lonely landscape of “Videotape.” It’s as challenging and as rewarding as a Radiohead album is supposed to be. Yet it feels like the start of something that hasn’t been fully realized. That’s the ultimate price you’ll pay for In Rainbows, at least until “on or before December 3.”