Review Summary: An understated, consistently enjoyable album, In Rainbows feels like a wonderful comeback album, even though Radiohead weren't in need of one. It's both back to basics, and a great evolution of the group's sound that continued their decade-long hot streak
'How come I end up where I started"' is the first lyric we hear Thom Yorke sing in 2007's In Rainbows, which was Radiohead's seventh album. And never has an opening statement been further from the truth; from their basic alt-rock beginnings in the decent Pablo Honey, to their electronic focused sound on Kid A, and then to their mixing together of these elements on Hail to the Thief, one place that Radiohead haven't ever, and most likely won't ever, venture, is back to square one of their sound. And yet In Rainbows is frequently referred to as a 'back to basics' album, one that saw Radiohead reconsidering their experiments in the last decade or so and getting back to being just a great rock band. And whilst this is certainly true, it equally feels like a true step forward and an evolution of their sound, as much as ever.
2+2=5, the opener to the band's previous album Hail to the Thief, was an energetic, furious, multi-faceted track that served as a great introduction to the album. The first track on In Rainbows, 15 Step, could not be further from HTTF's opener in terms of mood. After the initial outburst of electronic drums, the song quietens down, with an interesting vocal melody from Yorke, some jazzy drum work and, much to the surprise and delight of older fans worldwide, an equally jazzy guitar line. The track is the perfect example of how Radiohead have, in In Rainbows, managed to go back to their roots as a great rock band, but also managed to push the boundaries of what that description would seem to entail.
And that jazzy feel is an interesting, and unexpected, stalwart of the album. Whether it's the hypnotic arpeggios of Weird Fishes/Arpeggi, the restrained vocal delivery and drum brushes of House of Cards, or even the haunting falsetto of fan favourite Reckoner, In Rainbows really does feel like the closest Radiohead will come to making their equivalent of a 'jazz album.' And sure, there are still some now-trademark moments of rocking out, such as in the underrated Can-inspired Bodysnatchers of the perfectly hectic ending of standout track Jigsaw Falling Into Place, but they stand just as tall as the other key component of the band's sound, the more atmospheric side. The group's penchant for almost ambient sounding sections is alive and well here, as the endings of both Nude and All I Need reach some incredible emotional peaks.
With the breadth of the musical ideas being tied together on In Rainbows, one would be justified in being concerned about just how cohesive it would even be possible for the album to sound. But, miraculously, these three facets come together perfectly: the jazzy drums and guitar feed engagingly into the more rocking sections, and the atmospheric passages of songs always serve to heighten the tension, or create a beautiful outro that seems like the only logical conclusion. To use a horribly cliched Radiohead joke, everything on In Rainbows really is in its right place, and the whole album just comes off as feeling about as 'well-judged' as some of the best rock albums of all time.
Despite this, I obviously have a few minor gripes with the album; whilst I understand completely what Yorke was going for with toning down the epicness of closer Videotape in order to give the album an understated whimper of an ending instead of a cliched bang, one can't help but feel that In Rainbows really had created such a buildup in the preceding nine tracks that the juddering, uncertain conclusion it finds in Videotape is a slight disappointment, even if deliberately so. The shortest track on the album, Faust Arp, also doesn't quite pull off the vintage vibe that its strings and creaky guitar aim for, coming off as sounding like one of the band's few failed experiments.
But if the problems I have with In Rainbows are as minor as the above, then it seems pretty clear to me that this a great, great album. Whilst Hail to the Thief was an underrated gem that didn't really even necessitate a 'comeback album' at all, In Rainbows still, somehow, comes off as feeling like a suitably triumphant return to form, for a suitably brilliant band. It's just one of the most consistently pleasing listens in the group's discography, and the jazzier elements help it to stand out from the pack, aside from its other new musical ideas which are all genuinely engaging in their own right. I feel like there's no better way to close this review than to use yet another tried-and-tested cliche when talking about Radiohead; everything on this album really does see Thom Yorke's often indecipherable jigsaw falling resoundingly into place.