Review Summary: After crafting songs of exquisitely Orwellian paranoia for over a decade, Radiohead give us the most human, no-frills album of their entire career.
If there's one thing that fans and detractors alike can say about Radiohead, it's that they never make the same album twice. Sure, Amnesiac is sometimes not-so-affectionately referred to as "Kid B", but its slinky jazz influences and newfound emphasis on rhythm made it an entirely different beast. Therefore, after the bloated, scattershot "Hail to the Thief", the band seemingly decided to move in the opposite direction, creating the stripped-down, understated "In Rainbows", which I personally consider to be the group's best album to date.
Though "15 Step" may start out as a mix of the skittery electronica and equally skittery lyrics that Radiohead had been exploring since Kid A, once the Greenwood brothers layer jazzy, chilled out guitar and bass lines over Selway's drums, the song sharply changes directions. By the end though, the anxiety has come back full-tilt on the edge of a subtly driving bass and Thom's increasingly strung-out vocals. And speaking of these vocals, Thom's voice has never sounded better. After putting it through all sorts of effects on Kid A and Amnesiac, he seems happy to stretch his vocal cords again, and it shows on the gorgeous high note in "Nude", and throughout all of "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi". On the latter, guitar arpeggios spiral dizzily over vocals both from Thom and guitarist Ed O'Brien, who gives a breathtaking performance and makes us all wish that he'd sing more often.
This song, along with the next track "All I Need" serve as two of Radiohead's most direct love songs, proof that Yorke and company have moved on from chilling apocalyptic imagery to something more domestic and personal. "All I Need" in particular is so aching, so confessional that listening to it feels bordeline voyeuristic. However, all these fantastic songs are simply a warmup for the album's centerpiece, "Reckoner". Crystalline fingerpicked guitar hovers over vivid, propulsive percussion track, all while Thom gives one of his most impressive vocal performances to date. Colin Greenwood's bass is beautifully subtle, meshing with the band at all the right moments, and fading away just as delicately.
After "Reckoner", we have "House of Cards", the only track on the album slightly below incredible. It's more relaxed than typical Radiohead fare, the surreal lyrics almost sounding like they could belong to The National. "Jigsaw Falling Into Place" follows, which manages to be the most Radiohead-y track here. Even if you weren't thrilled by the rest of the album, the Latin influence and Thom in full end-is-nigh insanity mode will woo the band's most rigid fans.
We then close with "Videotape", beginning with a stop-you-in-your-tracks beautiful piano line, and slowly building to a shuddering, drunken clatter of percussive electronica. Thom delivers sincere lines like "you are my center when I spin away, out of control on videotape" with such conviction that you'd be hard pressed not to identify with him.
With this album, Radiohead took a creative leap nearly as daring as that of Kid A: to strip away all their lyrical trademarks as well as musical, to create an album that thrives on understatement and subtlety. It's a testament to the group as songwriters, musicians and lyricists, nad it's one that I onsider absolutely essential to any music collection.