Any new Radiohead album pointedly raises an age-old question: Does it make sense to judge a band by what it’s done in the past, or should each release be viewed in a cultural vacuum? For a band in Radiohead’s situation—though there are virtually none—it’s borderline unfair to place recent discs next to the glowing light of The Bends or OK Computer, especially considering that Radiohead has been so mindful about not pandering to its own past, sometimes to the point of frustration. But it’s almost impossible not to compare, because that’s simply how people talk about music: “Is it better than the last one? What does it sound like?”
To answer those questions: It’s about the same, and whether that’s positive or negative depends on how you feel about Kid A, Amnesiac, and Hail To The Thief, a trio of albums that, for a band whose capacity for change is well-documented, feel very much of a piece. Add In Rainbows to that grouping. (Throw in Thom Yorke’s electronic solo outing, The Eraser, as well.) This is still the Radiohead that finds straight-ahead pop structures gauche or just plain tired, even though those structures made the group famous, from “Creep” through “Paranoid Android.” Which infuriates those who know how powerful the band can be at its poppiest, and delights those happy to see Radiohead follow whatever experimental paths its collective muse provides.
That said, In Rainbows takes tenuous steps back toward more straightforward territory, though with nothing as obvious as a verse-chorus-verse to speak of. “Bodysnatchers” serves as a pleasant reminder that there’s still a guitar player in the band, capable of playing a lead without a computer-assist, and the chorus (such as it is) offers a nice sing-along: “I’ve no idea what I am talking about!” Similarly, the album-opening “15 Step” sounds like a more reasoned version of “Sit Down, Stand Up” from Hail To The Thief; it’s clicky and busy, with a sense of looming dread that’s nicely mitigated by a chorus of children shouting, “Yeah!”—a rare sense of pure joy in the Radiohead catalog. There are even moments of near-romanticism, a strange injection for a band that’s examined clinical emotional distance so well. “All I Need” uses an ‘80s synth vibe to explore love’s dreadful side, and “House Of Cards” gets almost sexy, though with rumbling guitars signaling darkness on the horizon.
Elsewhere, it’s business as usual—mostly amazing business, to be sure, but never entirely unexpected. Tracks from this album and the three prior could almost be mixed and matched with little interruption. That said, Rainbows ends spectacularly with the unusually gorgeous “Videotape,” a slow-burning, piano-led elegy that death-marches to a syncopated, woodpecker-like drum loop before drifting into silence. The lyrics are some of the most powerful, affecting lines Yorke has written in ages, and the words wouldn’t cut half as deep without such strange, perfect sonic clothing. Maybe Radiohead is making a great leap forward here after all, but just doing it so slowly that it’s difficult to ascertain in real time.