Radiohead is one of many bands that I’ve heard mentioned numerous times over the years, but have always sort of ignored. Sure, I could sing along with the chorus to Creep, and I was even familiar with songs like High & Dry and Kid A thanks to remakes by Jamie Cullum and John Mayer (respectively). But I had always disregarded Radiohead as being another terribly overrated band; there was simply no way that they could be nearly as good as all their rabid fans claimed.
When my friend insisted upon me borrowing a couple of Radiohead CDs, I took them wearily, but popped in the band’s latest disc, In Rainbows, for some background music while I read one afternoon (I’ve recently fallen in love with Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series- but that’s another review.). Soon I was paying less attention to the book and more attention the music. It was almost if my ears were playing a trick on me- I was listening to a Radiohead CD, and it really was as good as everyone said it was! My prejudice (like most prejudices) turned out to be completely wrong.
Radiohead was known in the 90’s for their grunge/rock sound, but their musical direction now is more experimental/indie rock, which happens to work extremely well. This is all demonstrated perfectly on the album’s opener, 15 Steps. The song begins loudly with drums and scratching effects before introducing lead singer, Thom Yorke’s distinctive vocals. Yorke’s range seems to be pretty far reaching, but for this song, he stays mostly in his upper register calling to mind Chris Martin (and I’ll try not to make any more Coldplay/Radiohead comparisons, as I know a lot of Radiohead fans have issues with Coldplay fans. Yes, I’ll agree that Radiohead did the sound first, but I’m not going to argue about who does it better). Lyrically the song is a bit imaginative and doesn’t tell one particular story, but each line is still extremely well-written and relevant (“How come I end up where I started//How come I end up where I went wrong /Won’t take my eyes off the ball again/You reel me out then you cut the string”)
Next up is Bodysnatchers the only song on the album that I don’t absolutely love. However, that’s mostly due to my own personal preferences- the song is still a good one and one of the more lively tracks on the album. It’s probably the most mainstream song on the disc, and the memorable chorus (“I have no idea what I am talking about/I am trapped in this body and can’t get out”) made this song an ideal choice for a single (it was the first released from the album). I will say that one of my favorite lyrics on the album comes during this song (“I have no idea what you are talking about/Your mouth moves only with someone’s hand up your a–”) and that makes me like the track a bit more.
Perhaps my problem with Bodysnatchers is simply that it precedes my favorite song on the album, Nude, and simply pales in comparison. Nude starts off innocently enough with the sound of Yorke quietly harmonizing before the bass line and drums are added in. The harmonies at the beginning of the song are beautiful in an almost eerie sort of way, which is the best way to describe the entire song. The opening lyrics immediately grabbed me (“Don’t get any big ideas/they’re not gonna happen”), and the rest of the lyrics throughout the song paint a perfect picture of lust and regret (“Now that you’ve found it, it’s gone/Now that you feel it, you don’t/You’ve gone off the rail/…You’ll go to hell for what your dirty mind is thinking”). But it’s not just the lyrics- the music in this song, the melody, Yorke’s vocals- are all simply breathtaking. The guitar paired with Yorke’s falsetto give the song an angelic, euphoric feeling, while the plodding bass line and piano (band member Jonny Greenwood) create a mysterious/foreboding vibe. The combination is flawless and works quite perfectly with the lyrics. Simply put, this song is genius and in the two weeks that I’ve been listening to this album, I’ve replayed this song nearly 60 times.
Weird Fishes/Arpeggi is another of my favorites on the album. It begins like most of the songs on the disc- guitar and drums creating a melodious tune before introducing Yorke’s vocals. The opening guitar chords on this song are my favorite, but the entire song is filled with great musical moments (particularly towards the end, when the drums and guitar create a lovely arpeggio). The lyrics are again vague and don’t really link up to any straight story, but, as seems to be the trend with Radiohead’s lyrics, still hold plenty of thoughtful moments (“I’d be crazy not to follow/Follow where you lead /Your eyes/They turn me/…Everybody leaves/If they get the chance/And this is my chance”). Meanwhile, All I Need brings the tempo down a notch, and begins in a more subdued fashion compared to some of the other songs on the album. A thudding bass line opens the track before later adding in more guitar, piano, synthesizers and even white noise (which Greenwood created in the studio by having every string section play every note of the scale). Though the song is another hit musically, it’s the lyrics that I find most appealing. This time around, the song tells a cohesive story of a complex and complicated relationship. The topic is a cliched one, but the lyrics are incredibly original and almost abstract (“I’m an animal/trapped in your hot car /…I am a moth/who just wants to share your light/I’m just an insect/trying to get out of the night) , but are still presented in a way that’s incredibly relatable (“I only stick with you because there are no others/You are all I need/…It’s all wrong/ It’s all right”)
My second favorite on the album is Faust Arp, a ballad with a lovely string section. The song begins with Yorke singing the lyrics incredibly fast, and the lines flow almost like a stream of thoughts. Musically, the song is stripped down to just acoustic guitar (which sounds amazing), and other string instruments (the violin is equally pretty), and of course, Yorke’s expressive vocals. Lyrically, the song is a bit harder to pin down- I’ve seen numerous debates of the songs meanings (particularly on Songmeanings.net); anything from suicide, mythology (due to the Faust reference), a relationship, drug usage, sex, and mental illness have all been suggested. While I personally think the song is about drug use (“Wakey wakey/rise and shine/it’s on again, off again, on again/watch me fall like dominos/….I’m tingling, tingling, tingling/it’s what you feel now/what you ought to, what you ought to/reasonable and sensible/dead from the neck up/because I’m stuffed, stuffed, stuffed”), it really doesn’t matter- the lyrics are incredibly well-written, and the fact that they spur such strong debate and discussion is a good testament to Yorke’s songwriting ability.
Reckoner brings the album back up in tempo- starting loudly with heavy percussion and guitar. Yorke returns to singing in falsetto, and his vocals sound pretty and fragile along the rough melody. The result is another musically stunning song, particularly during the bridge, where most of the instrumentation subsides momentarily to highlight Yorke’s harmonies. The addition of a tambourine during most of the verses also give the song a sort of mid-eastern/tribal feel. House Of Cards is again, a simple love song on the surface, but a glance at the lyrics reveal something much more complex- and something I think everyone has felt in terms of relationships (“I don’t want to be your friend/I just want to be your lover/No matter how it ends/No matter how it starts/Forget about your house of cards/And I’ll do mine”). The song is also stripped of most production, resulting in a slow-paced acoustic rock sound, that surprisingly works well placed amongst the other songs on the album. Jigsaw Falling Into Place is the only song on the album that I didn’t immediately notice- in fact, it took repeated listens for me to even remember the song. Despite the song’s initial lack of presence, it’s still a fantastic song on the disc. The opening acoustic guitar calls to mind Faust Arp, but the guitar and percussion pick up towards the first verse. The lyrics create a wonderful story, and are the most narrative on the album (“Just as you take my hand/Just as you write my number down/Just as the drinks arrive/…A Jigsaw falling into place/So there is nothing to explain/You eye each other as you pass/She looks back and you look back/Not just once and not just twice”). Yorke sings the lyrics with the proper amount of emotion and conviction and the song is yet another that I love.
The album comes to a close with Videotape which is one of the best songs I’ve heard in years. It begins with a simplistic few chords being played on the piano before adding in Yorke’s vocals. His delivery is appropriately heartbreaking given the song’s lyrical content, which I’ve taken to be about someone contemplating death (“When I’m at the pearly gates/This will be on my videotape, my videotape…/This is my way of saying goodbye/Because I can’t do it face to face”). The song continues on quietly until the chorus, when a drum loop is added in, as well as the sound of Yorke harmonizing again. The drumming in this song is exquisite; sounding at times like the noise a train makes when it’s slowing down on its track (which fits in perfectly with the lyrical content in this song). The ending lines of this song almost always bring me to tears (“No matter what happens now/You shouldn’t be afraid/Because I know today has been the most perfect day I’ve ever seen.”), and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Thom Yorke is one of the most brilliant songwriters/musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of being exposed to.
In Rainbows has quickly placed itself as one of my favorite albums now. I’ve honestly listened to each of the songs nearly 40 times since I first started listening to the album a few weeks ago, and that’s just my iTunes counts (I’ve also made my friends listen to it when I’m riding in their cars, and whenever I’m just hanging out around the house I pop the disc in). Though the overall tone of the album can get a bit heavy at times, the music and lyrics are just too perfect for me to not listen to the disc repeatedly. My experience with this album has lead me buy all of Radiohead’s previous work, and (much like my “journey” with Ben Folds Five) I’m preparing myself to enjoy each and every entry on their discography.
1. 15 Step
4. Weird Fishes / Arpeggi
5. All I Need
6. Faust ARP
8. House of Cards
9. Jigsaw Falling Into Place