Radiohead - "Reckoner" (mp3)
Radiohead's never been a big band for me. I hated "Creep" and grew to appreciate them with The Bends
(which is, at this point, probably my favorite of their albums, or at least the one I usually want to hear the most), and really enjoyed OK Computer
even if I didn't buy into all the best-album-ever hype. Growing up, my brother and I shared a lot of our CDs with each other and listened to the same stuff, but it was usually pretty easy for us to figure out which one of us liked any given band more and would be the one to buy the album. And Zac was always the one with the Radiohead CDs, although I bought Kid A
myself because by that point I'd moved away from home to start college.
One of the more interesting things about my brief, undistinguished 3-month tenure as a Pitchfork writer is that it happened to be during the period that Kid A
came out. The site was a lot smaller back then, I don't even know what percentage of its current audience were reading it back then, but the infamous "wizard's cap" review
was a pretty big deal at the time, the readership really ballooned because they were able to beat all the print mags to the punch and run pretty much the first 'official' review of the album, probably 2 or 3 weeks before its release (those kinds of rush job reviews became pretty common on Pitchfork in the early days of file-trading, and I have to say I really respect them for in recent years starting to run reviews the week of an album's release date or later; the In Rainbows
review, with its jokey rating stunt, came only 5 days after the digital release, but compared to a ton of other websites that'd be considered a show of restraint). I remember Ryan Schreiber raving about Kid A
to me before the review ran and motivating me to get on Napster for the first time, although I think I only managed to download halves of a handful of songs. And not to clown on Schreiber too much, but I'd ask him to describe exactly how it was so different and unprecedented, and technical questions about time signatures and song structures, and he'd make it sound completely freeform and unpredictable. So it was kind of amusing to me when I heard the album and, aside from a 5/8 or 7/8 here or there, most of the rhythms and structures were very straightforward and, in some cases, more simplistic than their earlier, more overtly 'rock' albums.
That experience kind of cemented my suspicion about Radiohead ever since, that the albatross of making an album like OK Computer
, which was very good but generally acclaimed for being more bold and experimental than it really was, is that they probably have felt a good amount of pressure ever since to think outside the box and experiment, even if in a way that was ostensibly about not responding to or thinking about audience expectations. Y'know, in the same way that bands often don't start to indulge in stereotypical rock star behavior until they become famous and feel somehow obligated to. Not that I think Yorke & co.'s tortured artist image is a put-on, but one wonders how much they would've pulled back into their own world if that album had gotten the same reception as a lot of other perfectly good British art-rock albums before or since.
I really liked Kid A
or parts of it, still probably one of my favorite albums of that year, but Amnesiac
was just so-so for me, and nothing I heard from or about Hail To The Thief
compelled me to pick it up. But when the digital release of In Rainbows
was announced, with the option of "buying" it for nothing, I had no reason to not at least listen once or twice, and kind of enjoyed being able to approach it in a relative vacuum, without having heard really any of the various live versions of the songs floating around, or their last album, or really much Radiohead at all in the past 5 years.
It'd be really easy to zing this album and say I'm glad I didn't pay anything for it because it sucks, but I honestly am kind of glad I paid zero, because I don't enjoy it a whole lot. In Rainbows
is full of very minor variations on the kinds of chugging, pretty drones Radiohead has been making for almost a decade, and the main aesthetic difference is that the guitars are either acoustic or with minimal distortion, in snaky melodic lines over busy, layered percussion, particularly on songs like "15 Steps" and "Reckoner." It's an interesting sound, but I have to admit I don't particularly like listening to it most of the time, and that I'd probably like the guitar parts a lot more they didn't sound so deliberately muted. Some of the percussion ideas (particularly the one on "Videotape") are just plain bad, and detract from the song in clunky, unpleasant ways. And the more overtly trad and/or pretty moments like "Nude" just kind of go right by without grabbing me in any way near what similiar material from their earlier albums did. In a way In Rainbows
reminds me of Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero
more than any other album I've heard this year: the artist is known for attention to detail, and this sounds as carefully constructed as any of their other albums, but basic choices as far as mic'ing and mixing sound really tinny and flat (and I'm not talking about the bitrate of the mp3's), and the sequencing does the better songs no favors. It's not news to say that Radiohead are no longer doing what made them initially popular, but I don't think this album is even nearly as good as their first material that abandoned those elements.
Of course, it's impossible to talk about being underwhelmed or disappointed by In Rainbows
without acknowledging its almost universally positive reception, or coming off as purposefully contrarian about it. Radiohead have become part of a very small club of active artists, one that mostly consists of boomer touchstone like Dylan, who get every benefit of the doubt when they put out a new album, and reap the rewards of the critical community's cautious reverence. I disagree with the consensus big time, but I at least gave it a few weeks to see if it grew on me, or if the reviews got any more varied or measured, and I haven't even really seen any backlash to speak of. I was so desperate for a halfway reasonable response to this unexciting, forgettable album that I sought out the lowest Metacritic
rating and found one
(the only one with a score of less than 70%!) that I pretty much agree with.
I'm looking forward to hearing the bonus songs from the 2-disc physical release of In Rainbows
just because I'm pretty curious now to see what they thought didn't make the cut (and I wasn't one of those people who thought of Amnesiac
as outtakes, nor as equal or superior to Kid A
). These songs just don't sound as singular and complete as the ones on, say, Kid A
; if you'd told me that In Rainbows
was the bonus disc and that the "real" album was the other ones from the session that haven't been heard yet, I'd pobably believe you. Who knows, though, maybe I'll like those even less.