I like to think I’m pretty on it with music releases. Nonetheless – no matter how hard I try – it seems almost impossible to keep up with all the great stuff that gets released every day. An inevitable side effect of my attempt to do so is temporary memory loss – just as a new artists pops into the front of my conscious, another one slides out of the back. Of course, such momentary lapses are somewhat convenient for a column like mine – the entire premise hinges on my ability to forget stuff.
Now, maybe it’s because I’ve never been a particularly committed fan, or maybe because it had been over five years since they released an album, but until A Moon Shaped Pool was released, I’d kind of forgotten about Radiohead. I first discovered OK Computer when I was going through college – I loved it, so I decided to go and listen to Kid A – I loved that too.
Then I decided to go and listen to their debut album Pablo Honey, which includes the wildly popular Creep. If you ask any diehard fan what they think is the band’s worst album, the resounding response will be Pablo Honey. It’s the antithesis of OK Computer and Kid A. Where these two album display innovation, thematic continuity, and nuance, Pablo Honey offers a banal alt-rock mope-fest straight out of the ‘90s teenage playbook.
Nonetheless, as several critics were keen to point out, what Radiohead had achieved in the eight years and five albums that separated 1993’s Pablo Honey and 2001’s Amnesiac was almost the perfect life cycle of a modern rock band. It seemed, for all intents and purposes, that nothing the band could make would manage to top OK Computer and Kid A – their capacity to innovate had seemingly reached its peak.
The predominance of this musical duumvirate in mainstream discussions on Radiohead has left another album – In Rainbows – relatively side-lined. I say this, but it was roundly applauded by critics, and subsequently nominated for the 2008 Mercury Prize. Even so, it wasn’t until my first year of university, around five years after it had been released, that I first came across In Rainbows. I imagine one of the reasons it took me so long was Spotify; In Rainbows has never been available there, and my somewhat naïve belief in the streaming platform as an exhaustive catalogue meant I had to go out of my way (to iTunes) to get my hands on it.
I’ve tended to find that, when it comes to listening to music, hard work is usually rewarded. The more of a concerted effort you make to listen, and I mean really listen, to an album, the more that album is likely to give you in return. I’ve also found that the best way to ‘really listen’ to an album is to spend you hard earned money on it. In an industry completely shaken by the proliferation of legal streaming and illegal torrenting, the average listener is consuming music at a greater rate than ever before. And with that, comes a higher threshold for undivided attention – a larger tendency to skim, skip and cherry pick an artist’s discography, rather than digesting albums as contiguous pieces.
When you buy something though, it’s different. If any of you were like me growing up, then the CDs you owned in your early teens were sacred. I didn’t approach albums as a critic – I was scouring them for good music, intent on unearthing something that justified the money I had spent on it. So when I went onto iTunes in 2012, and bought myself In Rainbows, it was already guaranteed special treatment.
An album like this deserves special treatment, no, it requires special treatment. Radiohead’s reputation wasn’t built on musicality alone, although their capacity for innovation and inspiration has been well documented. The true beauty of their work is in it’s emotionality – they write songs that can make you feel stuff, which is pretty bloody magical if you ask me.
Experiencing that takes time though, quite a bit of time. This isn’t a John Lewis advert, there’s no injured rabbit or doe-eyed kid to hold your hand and explain why this Ellie Goulding cover should make you sad. Often, In Rainbows engenders an almost jarring sense of juxtaposition between its music and its themes. For instance, when emerged in the orchestral melancholy of Faust Arp, you could be forgiven for feeling rather peaceful. Listen a little closer though, and you realise Thom Yorke is on the verge of existential breakdown:
Reasonable and sensible Dead from the neck up Because I’m stuffed, stuffed, stuffed We thought you had it in you But no, no, no.
It’s a common theme – Radiohead have often taken aim at the drudgery of modern living before, the car, the house, the family, the job; Trainspotting for the musical world. But in Kid A and OK Computer the cards were laid on the table for all to see. In Rainbows is far more insidious in its delivery, and the emotional impact – for me at least – is all the more devastating for that.
Listen to In Rainbows the first time through and it appears gorgeous in its simplicity. Listen again though, and again, and ideally again, and the façade begins to fall away. Thom Yorke may be playing you a lullaby, but everything about this suggests he’s screaming you to sleep. Sometimes it’s deeply unsettling, other times it’s profoundly beautiful – more of than not, it’s both.
In Rainbows may not be grabbing many headlines, and I imagine there’s a good chance it passed you by just as inconspicuously as it did me. But then again, perhaps that’s appropriate, this is an understated but devastating piece of art.