Today we welcome my younger brother, Spencer, to Y.R.NAdams as the site’s first guest writer. He is a big shot at his high school newspaper and he asked me if he could write about his favorite album ever, In Rainbows. So here ya go. -Nick
From the first 5/4 measure of electronic drums in “15 Steps,” I could tell something breathtaking was going to come. But I couldn’t have anticipated how empty my lungs would be 43 minutes later.
I know this may not be the most original article someone’s written. Another musically pretentious high school kid glorifying Radiohead and, more specifically, their masterpiece In Rainbows. Nothing new here. But I’m not going to analyze the band’s cultural significance or the monumental influence Radiohead has had on legions of young musicians. I’m going to be talking about my personal experience with In Rainbows, which is hands-down my favorite album of all time.
I had the fortune of immersing myself in Radiohead in an ideal order: I started listening to The Bends, moved on to OK Computer, and then Kid A (with Hail to the Thief and Amnesiac sprinkled throughout). I largely followed their catalogue chronologically, which allowed me to appreciate the progression of music and experimentality. I listened to each album obsessively, taking at least a month to digest one album before graduating on to the next. But constantly listening to and internalizing those three albums only warmed me up for In Rainbows.
Before I listened to In Rainbows, I was already a fan of Radiohead. I knew their music ranged from top-notch guitar-driven alternative (“Just”) to emotionally layered reflections (“Let Down”) to overtly experimental and musically sophisticated statements (“Everything In Its Right Place”). I admired their musical prowess, but more importantly I simply enjoyed listening to song after song in my silver 2006 Nissan Altima. But when I finally decided to try out In Rainbows, I was blown away.
First off, the way the band warps and mixes their instruments is magical. The songs are constructed using mostly straightforward instruments: guitars, bass, vocals, piano, drums, etc. But while listening to In Rainbows, I rarely hear the instruments individually. It’s not chillwave or too effects-laden; it’s easy to pick apart and recognize what makes each noise. But the incredibly crisp yet soft and gentle production quality and sheer ingenuity of the songs leads to a cohesive, uniform sound. Each note and musician perfectly complements the others on a track, creating a mist of dream-like sound which Thom Yorke’s warbling vocals expertly navigate. A particular highlight for me is Philip Selway’s drum parts, which are so tight and some of his most creative on any Radiohead album. The precision and musicality exhibited is phenomenal. But Selway’s part’s are still just a component on each skillfully crafted track. For example, on “Reckoner,” shakers, drums, a simple guitar riff, measure-long piano chords, and barely noticeable background vocals fit together so precisely before giving way to a soaring string section, creating a united front of transcendental, shimmering sound. If Kid A deconstructed sound, In Rainbows successfully reconstructed it.
Second and more importantly, In Rainbows is the most serene and emotionally poignant album I know of. It’s an incredibly refreshing and needed break from the songs dripping with sadness or happiness which seem to constantly blare from the radio speakers. There’s not a single song where you immediately recognize what Radiohead is trying to make you feel. Rather, a subdued feeling of content and hopeful loneliness courses through the album like an underwater current, an unstopping stream of tranquilly flowing through your earbuds. The brazen guitar on “Bodysnatchers” drives a sense flailing, frightening confusion; the last coda of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” welcomes a final escape but only after hitting the bottom; the dazzling string section in “Reckoner” instills a cautious optimism among a landscape filled with “blank shores.” Radiohead successfully wrapped up these feelings in a clean, musically brilliant package, and it takes multiple listens to open it up, which has why the album has only grown on me with time. It seems that everytime I listen, I discover something new.
But why this album over other Radiohead works? I think, for me, it’s the particular sentiment of the album. All of Radiohead’s other albums feature the same advantages of In Rainbows: subtle emotions, musical sophistication. But while OK Computer is about alienation and Kid A is about detachment, In Rainbows is about acceptance. Moments of tension (“Jigsaw Falling into Place”) or longing (“I don’t want to be your friend / I just want to be your lover” from “House of Cards”) certainly exist; but the overarching theme is a quiet, reserved acceptance of these unfortunate realities (as I mentioned before, in “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” Yorke sings that he “hit the bottom,” but then is able to “escape”). This could be seen as depressing or passive, but I choose to see it as a path towards a peaceful state in an imperfect world (“No matter what happens now / I shouldn’t be afraid / Because I know today has been the most perfect day I’ve ever seen” the last lines of the last song on the album, “Videotape”). The line offers guidance towards tranquility when it seems impossibly out of reach. Things don’t always work out and you can’t plan for what happens, but if you recognize and accept that daunting fact you can lead a happier, more fulfilled life. This is Radiohead reconnecting with you after albums of disconnect.
So what’s my relationship with In Rainbows now? After it climbed to the top of my list and burrowed itself in my mind, I decided to limit myself. I reserve it for special occasions: driving home under glowing streetlights after a serene night, lying on my bed staring at the jet-black ceiling while trying to think about something major or not think at all, or even introducing one of my friends to Radiohead’s genius. It’s a heavily spiritual and hesitantly optimistic album which wastes no space, a meticulously-crafted and precise sound which has taught me that there’s always a way to find inner peace.
Some people see themselves reflected in poetry, paintings, or movies. Above any other art form, I find myself through music. And the last minute and five seconds of “Nude” is just about the most spiritual, beautiful, and moving piece of art I have ever experienced.
BONUS: Check out Radiohead’s superb performance “Live from The Basement – In Rainbows.” It makes you appreciate the album and the band even more.