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Jigsaws falling into place
on January 1, 2008
At a certain point, a marvelous band will get a reputation so overwhelming, it's simply not possible for them to keep topping themselves.
And from the sound of "In Rainbows," Radiohead has decided not to let their reputation loom over them -- and I'm not just talking about the online digital release. In their latest album, they reinvent their bittersweet pop sound -- they lose some of the trappings of their past work, in favour of warmer, more intimate melodies and traditional instrumentation.
It opens on an angular note with "15 Steps," which is built around a jagged riff.The first couple minutes are full of fuzzy synth stabs and sharp drums, sounding like a jazz number that's being eaten by a computer. "How come I end up where I started?/How come I end up where I went wrong?" Thom Yorke sings mournfully. "You reel me out then you cut the string..."
But then the guitars slide in and twine through the song, softening it into something very different. The scratchy synth beats and subtle guitar start building to a slow crescendo, staying energetic and almost reggae-esque right to the end.
See it as kind of a transition song for Radiohead; they're easing listeners into their new acoustic sound, rather than just dropping us in. But after that, they pretty much leave the "Kid A" territory behind them -- "Bodysnatchers" is an intense rocker brimming with chunky riffs and softly ringing guitars. It's a gorgeous piece.
After that, the songs gently slip down into more introspective territory -- smooth, dark pop songs wrapped in a heavy blanket of fluid strings and subtle slide guitar. Some of these are dressed up in thick guitars and clattery drums. "Jigsaw Falling Into Place drops the strings for a vibrant guitar-rocker edged with synth, and it all finished up with the quivering, melodic finale "Videotape."
You know, I didn't think that Radiohead could surprise me. So many bands get mired in their best-known sound, and they keep turning out the same ol' because that is what the fans expect. But Radiohead has not only made an exquisitely bittersweet pop album, but they've also injected vitality back into their sound. They sound brand new.
Particularly, they've almost abandoned the cool, alien synth of their last few albums. It's still there in patches, but it's quietly overwhelmed by the layers of slide guitar, streams of piano, and smooth sweeps of elegant strings. These are seamlessly woven with clattering drums and cymbals, thick crunchy riffs. And yes, occasionally a little speck of synth.
But their songwriting is much the same -- simple, yet oblique ("I am a moth who just wants to share your light... I only stick with you because there are no others/You are all I need"). While Yorke's trademark wail is still in place, he sounds more melancholy and contemplative than outright woe-is-me angsty. He even sounds a bit cheerful in "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi."
Most long-standing bands can't summon up a new sound, and new freshness, this far into their careers. But Radiohead have created a quiet little masterpiece in "In Rainbows" -- beautiful, quiet, and melancholy.