It’s time for another blind taste test, where one of our writers forces another to give an album they have never heard before a listen, just once, and then review it.
This time around we’re bringing out the big guns, as Fran and James decided to stop shouting at each other in the pub about whether Radiohead was any good long enough to have James actually listen to In Rainbows for the first time, and give his immediate impressions. Fran introduced the album to James like this:
I could introduce In Rainbows in just five words: the best album ever made.
But I know you’ll want more than that. This is the album when everything Radiohead had been doing in their career so far coalesced. There was no longer an attempt to determine whether they were a rock band (The Bends, OK Computer, Hail to Thief) or an electronic band (Kid A, Amnesiac). They were everything.
From the dreamlike opener 15 Step, through rockers like Bodysnatchers, to arguable career highlights like Reckoner, Weird Fishes, All I Need, and Jigsaws Falling Into Place, this album does not put a foot wrong. It’s soulful, sensual, scary, and completely unique. It is both their most complex and most accessible piece of work.
You say you don’t like Radiohead: you also say you’ve never heard In Rainbows. I dare you not to like them after giving it a listen.
It’s Radiohead. The band everyone’s supposed to like. I have certain preconceptions that I’m going to try really hard to get over. Sure, I’ve never listened to a full Radiohead album, but I’ve listened to enough Radiohead to make my choice. Fran says this is the ‘best album ever made’. Will I be turned by In Rainbows?
The first track. The electronic beats sound exactly like Radiohead. Thom Yorke’s moany, whiny voice comes in after 12 seconds. It’s all very Radioheady. Is this going to be a struggle? It improves when the guitar bit comes in. There’s a lot going on in ‘15 step’ – many layers, and it doesn’t stick to one idea for too long. There’s some nice bass playing too.
‘Bodysnatchers’ is surprisingly upbeat and I almost start getting in to it until I find myself drifting off. Not a good sign. It takes an abrupt change around two minutes in to snap my attention back.
Track three, ‘Nude’, is different and surprising again, opening with unexpected strings and a change of pace which is quite a contrast to the rhythm-section-heavy sound of ‘Bodysnatchers’ immediately before it. What’s not surprising is Thom getting back to typical moany, whiny vocal form. It’s pretty much a textbook Radiohead-song-I-don’t-like.
What I do like are the layered and contrasting rhythms in ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’. This is probably the highlight of the album for me. But at the same time I can’t help but remember Thom’s half smile to the camera after performing ‘Pyramid Song’ on Top of the Pops back when that was a thing, and think this is the band smugly saying “listen to this music nerd thing we did”. I also like the bassline in ‘All I Need’, but only because it reminds of ‘Roygbiv’ by Boards of Canada.
Music nerding is back on ‘Faust Arp’. Ooh look at our time signatures. I’ve no idea what the track title means but it sounds pretentious. ‘Reckoner’ is yet another track with a promising start that just gets ruined by Yorke’s vocals.
‘House of Cards’ I have heard before and it’s pretty decent. There’s a nice gentle groove to it and this time the vocals stay on the right track. It’s the longest song on the album but it doesn’t feel like it. It has just the right amount of space to grow and immerse yourself in. Thumb up. And a second thumb for ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’. Aptly timed – was this the missing piece I needed for the album to finally start to speak to me? It very nearly was until ‘Videotape’. If today really was “the most perfect day [they] have even seen” then they should really be less glum about it.
I’m pleased I’ve finally put the effort in to listening to a full Radiohead album and taken the time to appreciate it. If nothing else it will help argue my case once the inevitable Radiohead discussion comes around once again. Having said that there were two or three songs that I’d say I liked. There were some surprises along the way and there were parts of In Rainbows I enjoyed. This probably hasn’t come across but I did try hard to look for positives. Sadly, and I can only blame myself for this, it’s characteristically and inescapably Radiohead and it’s just not for me. The result is the bits that annoyed me outweighed the bits I liked. I had to physically restrain myself from clicking the skip button at points so I could give every track a fair listen.
Has it changed my mind? No. I appreciated it yes but I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it. Will I listen again? Unlikely. Is it the best album ever? No.
Words by James Spearing.