Radiohead and In Rainbows

By now, everyone who cares probably knows all about Radiohead’s upcoming seventh studio album, In Rainbows. The biggest band to emerge from the ruins of the ’90s alternative rock scene is back, four-plus years after the somewhat disappointing Hail to the Thief left fans wondering whether the ride, as fantastic as it had been, might be whimpering to a halt.

1995 saw a band at first perceived as a forgettable, grunge-influenced one hit wonder blossom into one of the decade’s most beloved critical darlings with The Bends. Two years later, Radiohead expanded on their alt-rock sound and released OK Computer, which continues to reside at the top of many “Best Albums of All Time” lists. Kid A and Amnesiac followed in 2000 and 2001, seeing the band continue to push boundaries and prove that they were up to the challenge of forging rock music’s future in the post-alternative era. Only in 2003 did they finally falter a bit, with Hail to the Thief overcompensating for a lack of musical inspiration with loud, sometimes laughably dense production. A long hiatus ensued, as band members got married and had kids, and singer Thom Yorke released a quickie solo album in 2006. There were denials that Radiohead was over, but the signs were certainly there.

So now here we are in October of 2007, hardcore Radiohead aficionados (like me) have finally started to put away the modified bear t-shirts and move on, and suddenly a message appears on the band’s official website:

Hello everyone.
Well, the new album is finished, and it’s coming out in 10 days;
We’ve called it
In Rainbows.
Love from us all.
Jonny [Greenwood, guitarist]

And all those old memories come flooding back: lying on my bed listening to “Karma Police” for the very first time, scouring the internet for mp3s of Bends b-sides, buying Kid A the first day it’s out, standing in the Tweeter Center as the group fumble their way through a rare, magical live rendition of debut single “Creep.” I listen to plenty of different artists and manage to go to a good number of shows every year, but there’s a Radiohead-shaped void that Arcade Fire and The New Pornographers just don’t quite fill. I’ve wondered before if I would ever feel that rush of listening to something that feels so new and inspired and personal and transcendental again. Maybe once you hit a certain age, and you’ve heard a certain amount of music, you can never quite get back to that place. But here comes Radiohead, and if anyone can still do it…

I can’t say In Rainbows comes totally out of the blue. It’s been well known that since fulfilling their contract with EMI in 2003, the band has been working on new material. They had achieved a certain level of freedom they didn’t have before, with the financial independence to make a record without needing major label assistance. They even road tested a host of new songs last year.

Still, for Radiohead to come out and say, “Yeah, no label, we’re just going to throw some new stuff out there in a week or so,” is pretty shocking (to say nothing of the manner in which In Rainbows will be released, which is a whole different discussion). There is so much anticipation wrapped up in this ten-song album. A new Radiohead LP is an event, now possibly more than ever. Can they meet the expectations of their fans? Can they rebound from the last album to produce something groundbreaking one more time? Where does new Radiohead material fit into a changed indie rock scene, where a Pitchfork review can make or break you? The scrutiny of In Rainbows, whatever it has to offer, will be intense to say the least. If it isn’t quite up to par, it will be savaged in some quarters. How would this affect the band’s lasting reputation, and its position in the echelon of rock immortals? It may be just their seventh record, but for the sake of perspective, it’s been fourteen years since their debut, Pablo Honey. Fourteen years after Murmur, Radiohead predecessors R.E.M. had just lost founding drummer Bill Berry and were beginning their great descent into irrelevance. Very few legendary bands have put out legendary albums at this stage of their careers.

I am wary, but my hopes are high. Radiohead isn’t just any band. I’ll be listening to In Rainbows on October 10 with an open mind, and if I am moved, I will be happy.

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