Sunday, October 14, 2007

In Rainbows, Radiohead. It's the final cut that defines a Radiohead album. Think of the “Black Star”/ “Sulk” / “Street Spirit” combo that ends The Bends. What does it say about the album? Well, everything, really. It's no surprise (pun intended) that “Street Spirit” was released as a single. It represented what that the band was at the time: otherworldly, touched by urban anxiety, and still, at that point, mostly dealing with recognizable chords. A creepy rock song for a creepy band, and way more typical of what they were up to than, say, the single "Just".

The end of OK Computer, “The Tourist”, had all the same touchstones: creepy, anxious, ethereal, but “The Tourist” was more musically adventurous. Like the album, it begins with just the standard rock machinary at its disposal, and builds to a distorted choral adventure marked by Jonny Greenwood's then-typical cascading and increasingly-dissonant guitar solo. And as a finale to a—quote—concept album—unquote—“The Tourist” is a perfect synopsis, down to the elevator bell that ends the track.

Should I go through them all? “Blow out” from Pablo Honey was exactly what the album is: a promise, a hint. “Motion Picture Soundtrack” from Kid A utilizes Thom Yorke's computer-altered voice and ironic/deliberately-cliched soundbyte lyrics.

Amnesiac's “Life in a Glass House” and Hail to the Thief's “Wolf at the Door” are undoubtably among the best songs Radiohead have ever written—in fact, they outshine the albums that spawned them. Anyone who didn't think Hail to the Thief was a memorable piece of plastic clearly didn't get to the end of it.

Which brings us to the new 10-track album Radiohead dropped online last week. In Rainbows ends with “Videotape” and as the title of the album suggests, it's not as gloomy. In fact, it's far more straightforward than the heavily orchestrated/produced albums that it follows.

Like the finales that preceded it, “Videotape” bears the marks of the album on which it appears. The most interesting of them is the late appearance in the track of percussive invention, with metronome-like ticking inserted after the main vocal line is finished. It's appropriate for a song about death, a clever delay. And while In Rainbows is hardly a return to verse-chorus-verse, the first repeating section of “Videotape” is not un-verse like, a structure typical of the new album.

“When I'm at the pearly gates
This'll be on my videotape
My videotape”

And later...

“You are my centre when I spin away
Out of control on videotape
On videotape”

“Videotape” far more direct than “Wolf at the Door”, there's no big crescendo like in “The Tourist”, it's more earnest than “Life in a Glass House”—and there are a lot fewer words in the song, making it more like “Motion Picture Soundtrack” than any of the other closers. Hmmm... motion picture...hmmm 'videotape'... Is In Rainbows Kid A-like? Well, a Kid A tinged with The Eraser, Thom Yorke's solo album.

And it's "straight to video"-style release? Not, as it turns out, an indication of quality.