Radiohead – In Rainbows – Classic Music Review

It says a lot about our world that most of the buzz surrounding the release of In Rainbows had to do with its implications for the music industry.

I hate the phrase, “music industry.” It calls up pictures of mindless automatons in Chinese sweat studios manufacturing music for the masses, filling orders from rich and powerful men based on marketing data that isolates the features most likely to entice consumers to cough up the dough. The big companies that control the manufacture and distribution of most of the music released in the 21st Century shuddered at the arrival of a pay-what-you-want download model. Those who despise the music industry and its relentless repression of independent artists cheered to the heavens. “Free at last, free at last, thank fuck almighty, we are free at last.”

A cynic would say, “Yeah, and Radiohead got a ton of free press from the controversy, which fueled demand and increased sales.” They did make more money from In Rainbows than their studio releases, having removed some of the middlemen from the chow line. That improved profit margin may have raised a few eyebrows and several pointed questions, but that’s an understandably skeptical reaction to an ancient ethical dilemma. The uncomfortable relationship between art and money has existed since the days when artists had to kiss the asses of wealthy patrons to have any hope of realizing their visions. Money can be either a blessed liberator or a pair of golden shackles for an artist, and every artist has had to compromise artistic purity from time to time in order to eat and pay the bills. At this point, Radiohead was a well-established band whose live performances sold out in seconds, so the years they spent dealing with the devils at EMI gave them a distinct advantage over the grass-roots-based indie artist—they had the power, resources and reputation to pull it off. So, hooray for Radiohead for striking a blow for independence, but striking that blow didn’t involve all that much risk from a financial perspective.

The artistic risk was much greater. Think about it—what if In Rainbows had turned out to be a crappy album? The people who follow Radiohead do so in large part because of their sterling record of artistic integrity. If they had tried to foist a half-assed piece of garbage onto the listening public, the trust between artist and audience would have been shattered—and given the intensity of Radiohead fans, the outrage would have been off-the-charts. In a matter of days there would be scores of opportunists opening online shops to capitalize on the disaster, selling t-shirts emblazoned with bitterness: “I PAID WHAT I WANTED AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS SHITTY RADIOHEAD ALBUM.”

In a world where the news seems to consist of one tragedy after another, I am delighted to report that In Rainbows turned out to be the rare happy ending to the story. Whatever you paid for it, it was worth it and then some. In Rainbows is a masterpiece of musical composition, a rhythmic wonderland and a testament to the sacred stubbornness of the artist. Radiohead worked long and hard on In Rainbows, scrapping material from the first sessions because they didn’t measure up, recasting old tunes into new ones and testing out the songs with live audiences to gauge reaction and develop new possibilities. And though Thom Yorke has given at least three different explanations as to what it’s all about, In Rainbows has a very strong central theme—the dynamic between the transient nature of life and our conflicting desire for permanence. Rainbows are stunningly beautiful, transient manifestations of nature—we all stop what we’re doing when a rainbow appears and revel in the wonder. As we gaze at its magic, we wish with all our hearts and souls that it will last forever, and when it fades into a background of dirt-gray clouds, we feel a sense of loss, a shadow that darkens our perspective as the real world slinks back into view. It is sadly ironic that graphic versions of rainbows are peddled as symbols of hope, for rainbows are the ultimate transitory experience, leaving us grasping at nothing but water vapor. Many of the songs on In Rainbows explore the temporary of nature of things to which we vainly attempt to attach permanence: relationships (why do we say “I will love you forever” when that’s impossible?), knowledge (my parents grew up with the absolute certainty that Pluto was a planet), technology (in this case, videotape), and the ultimate transitory experience, life itself.

“15 Step” is the perfect introduction to the concept of transience, with its 5/4 time throwing the listener off-balance a bit, a mild version of the disorientation you feel after you get off the carnival ride. Thom Yorke comes in after six measures instead of four or eight, another blow to expectations. The rhythmic arrangement blends digital and human beats in such a compelling way that I often find myself zeroing in on the rhythm track on this song, trying to filter out the voices, guitars and sundry sound effects. I do this quite often on In Rainbows, as Phil Selway’s work on this album should have won a damned Grammy all by itself. In the opening passage, when Phil replaces the programming with live drums on the repetition of the first verse, the slight shift in texture changes the mood of the song from “fridge buzz” to “genuine human angst.” Thom Yorke sings the repeated opening verse over that background of beats, his in-the-groove phrasing serving to intensify the rhythm. The lyrics double down on the sense of disorientation, vocalizing the self-blaming nature of the modern neurotic in search of a solution—a solution that relies on cliché-based self-help that is more of a band-aid than a revelation. And if that doesn’t work, you can always point the finger at someone else for screwing up your life:

How come I end up where I started?
How come I end up where I went wrong?
Won’t take my eyes off the ball again
You reel me out then you cut the string

The issue facing the narrator is a relationship problem—at least according to the narrator. It could also be the frustration we feel when the relationship we’re in goes to shit because the other person has the audacity to change. Goddamn, things were going so well and you had to—choke—gasp—fucking change on me! The nerve of some people!

You used to be alright
What happened?
Did the cat get your tongue?
Did your string come undone?

As the argument proceeds, even the narrator realizes he’s reading from an archetypal script and his babble collapses into “Etcetera, etcetera.” Only then does he finally get it: relationships are transitory, just like today’s definitions of what’s hot and what’s not (“Fads for whatever/15 steps/then a sheer drop”). The realization that relationships go awry when you find the two of you are out of step is captured in the reference to the song title—fifteen steps reflects both the time signature and a structure that feels incomplete. Most popular songs are structured around an even number of measures to a verse, emphasizing wholeness—and most popular songs are either 12 or 16 bars. 16-bar auditions are a staple of musical theater, and fifteen bars is what happens when the big cane appears from the wings and yanks your sorry ass off the stage.

“15 Step” is also special because its dynamics clearly demonstrate how the sophistication in Radiohead’s approach to music had deepened over time. The intensity of the music grows gradually over the course of the song, aided and abetted by a children’s chorus, layered instrumentation, louder bass and the intensification of percussion. It’s a long way from Radiohead’s early love affair with soft-LOUD, and the more gradual build leads to a more satisfying conclusion.

We now interrupt this review for a story that illustrates how the lyrics to any song can have deep meaning for people even when the meaning they derive from the lyrics has no connection to the intent of the lyricist.

In my review of Pablo Honey, I introduced one of those introduced one of my not-very-famous sidebars that irritate and delight my readers: “Insert ‘Bodysnatchers’ into my biopic soundtrack at the moment Ali and I first made deep eye contact.” I shall now explain that curious statement.

First and foremost, “Bodysnatchers” is one of those most intense songs in the Radiohead catalog—fucking fierce. I can’t think of a better song that captures the way our relationship feels—unrelentingly intense, constantly driving, always on the edge of orgasm, moving from one peak to another. It’s the kind of relationship I always wanted and spent years trying to find.

Alicia, on the other hand, had never thought about relationships in that way. She grew up a good girl from an upper-middle-class family in Madrid and assumed someday she’d just get married to a male member of the same social strata. She’d dated and fucked a few guys but didn’t think much of it. When she met me, she was preparing for a life where she would face the challenge any modern Catholic woman has to face: balancing career and babies.

We met at one of those boring business conferences, and initially I sized her up as a superficial loser and put her out of my mind. Little did I know that over the first couple of days at the conference, she developed what was for her a strange attraction to a woman (me). On the third day, I got bored and left the conference to go outside and smoke. She followed me out there, asked for a light and tried to engage me in small talk. I hate small talk, so my impression of her as a waste of time hardened. When I started to head back, she followed and asked me if I wanted to have a drink after the conference that day. I really didn’t want to spend any more time with her than I had to, but I remembered my improv theatre training and said “yes” to her offer. I checked her out a little more thoroughly during the conference and admitted that she was physically very attractive, but her good girl energy turned me off—and it’s always about the energy, not the body.

So we had a drink and engaged in the usual superficialities—where did you grow up, what kind of music do you like, what do you do in your spare time, etcetera, etcetera. Some time during our second round, she interrupted the flow of the universe and said to me, “You are very beautiful and I-I-I am—I am attracted to you.” Filtering the message through the loser lens, I thought, “Oh, boy, another woman in crisis, wondering if she’s a (gasp) lesbian.” I decided to put an end to the small talk and give her the straight scoop. “That’s nice of you to say. But before you take those thoughts any further, let me tell you a little bit more about myself.” Well, I didn’t tell her just a little bit more but the whole shebang—bisexuality, BDSM, dominance and submission, the kind of relationship I demanded and the absolute insistence that I wouldn’t settle for anything less. I ended it with something like, “If you’re attracted to women, I suggest you start with someone a bit more mainstream.” All through this time, I held eye contact, wanting her to appreciate the vast differences between us. It was hard to interpret her wide-eyed look, but since I thought I’d never see her again, I didn’t press for an explanation.

Fast-forward to a few years later where we find the happy couple entwined in each other’s arms after another wild night of totally satisfying sex. The fuck playlist was still running, and “Bodysnatchers” popped up. After the first verse, she sat up and said, “That’s exactly how I felt when you told me who you were! I was overwhelmed, stupid, fighting inside.”

I do not
Understand
What it is
I’ve done wrong
Full of holes
Check for pulse
Blink your eyes
1 for yes
2 for no

I have no idea what I am talking about
I am trapped in this body and can’t get out

Obviously, Thom Yorke wasn’t thinking of two bisexual broads considering the possibility of banging each other when he wrote the lyrics to “Bodysnatchers,” but he did describe Alicia’s state of mind when I lowered the boom on her. From Songfacts:

In an article in the New York Times December 9, 2007, Thom Yorke said this song was inspired by Victorian ghost stories, The Stepford Wives and his own feeling of “your physical consciousness trapped without being able to connect fully with anything else.”

I think every person living in the first world has had that feeling of complete disconnection from the realities of day-to-day life—we live too much of our lives as captives to the norm, faking our way through the bullshit and engaging in meaningless conversation that engages the vocal cords without engaging brain or soul. I don’t think a day goes by at work when I don’t have a moment where I feel my body has been snatched and taken over by a coldly professional alien automaton. The fierceness of “Bodysnatchers” is less about the underlying sexual connotation, and more about the fierce, toxic damage we do to ourselves when we allow our bodies to be snatched by behavioral expectations (“You killed the sound/removed backbone/A pale imitation/With the edges/sawn off”). Shit, we’ve all sat in meetings and experienced this:

I have no idea what you are talking about
Your mouth moves only with someone’s hand up your ass

And according to the never-optimistic Mr. Yorke, the experience of bodysnatching is endemic to the human race, the incurable cancer of modern existence:

Has the light gone out for you?
Because the light’s gone for me
It is the 21st century

Bleak outlook aside, the music of “Bodysnatchers” is a first-tier thrill ride. The aggressive distortion that opens the song expands into a stereo guitar duet that absolutely burns. We get a brief break from the distortion in the bridge, but the rising emotional tension in the lyrics demands a reprise, so Radiohead ramps up the power and builds to a thunderous crescendo with Thom Yorke giving us a triumphant rebel yell before the shift back to the main riff. All throughout the song, Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood fan the flames with a relentless rhythmic attack, and Thom Yorke’s one-take vocal moves from a steady, sardonic tone to close to manic as the feeling of disconnection increases. Personal meaning aside, “Bodysnatchers” works on many levels, and the let-it-all-out energy combined with a message of modern frustration is a synergistic delight.

Moving from “Bodysnatchers” to “Nude” is like stepping off a crowded Midtown Manhattan sidewalk in the middle of rush hour and entering a luxurious, sound-proofed spa staffed with gentle, smiling souls who welcome you with warm hearts and the scent of sandalwood. The waves of sound from the Ondes Martenot embrace you like a warm blanket and you feel all tension in your body vanish into the oil-scented atmosphere. Thom Yorke’s gentle voice, working at the higher end of his range accompanied only by Colin Greenwood’s bass, adds to the picture of a soothing landscape. Aaaah! That’s nice! Feel all that ugly stress and tension melt away!

Here’s a tip: don’t pay any attention to the lyrics, because you’ll run screaming out of the spa to the nearest Duane Reade for a quick Prozac fix:

Don’t get any big ideas
they’re not gonna happen
You paint yourself white
and feel up with noise
but there’ll be something missing

Now that you’ve found it, it’s gone
Now that you feel it, you don’t
You’ve gone off the rails

So don’t get any big ideas
they’re not going to happen
You’ll go to hell for what your dirty mind is thinking

Arggh! I want my spa back! After the synergy of words and music you find in “Bodysnatcher,” “Nude” can throw you for a loop if you hear the music and think “massage” instead of “mourning.” It is an absolutely beautiful song with thoroughly depressing lyrics. To be fair, the colors in the song do get darker as the song proceeds, but my approach to this song will forever be one of concentrating on the lovely guitar work, the warmth of the Ondes and Thom Yorke’s dynamic vocal.

“Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is another thing entirely. The storyline reads like an excerpt from someone’s dream diary, and since weird things always happen in dreams, you’re better prepared for the bizarre encounter at the center of the story. The path that gets you there consists of guitar arpeggi, building from a duet to a trio to a quartet. The arpeggi are superbly executed, weaving in and out of harmony, adding a variety of counterpoints to the main theme along the way. Thom Yorke’s reverb-accentuated voice drifts over the guitars, adding to the feeling that you’re listening to someone’s dream. The dreamscape places the narrator in constant movement, following the lure of a pair of eyes, perhaps the seductive siren of myth. The music builds to a peak—guitars coming at you from every direction, Thom’s voice soaring above his lead vocal in the ethereal distance, Phil Selway subtly diversifying his attack—when suddenly the rhythmic support vanishes and the arpeggi shift to a sound that mimics vibraphone and harp, creating a muffled soundscape to reflect the muffled sounds you hear underwater. Ah, poor dreamer!

I get eaten by the worms
And weird fishes
Picked over by the worms
And weird fishes

The build that gathers over the closing lines (“Hit the bottom and escape/Escape . . . ) becomes thoroughly claustrophobic, as if the pressure of the ocean is weighing mightily on our unlucky friend. A piece of intense originality marked by a stunning arrangement, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is a unique and oddly enchanting listening experience.

We now move to “All I Need” and a violent disagreement with the self-styled experts. Rolling Stone called it one of “the most intense love songs [Thom Yorke] has ever sung,” and Robert Sandall of The Telegraph echoed the same sentiment. That is not what I get at all—what I get is “Creep Redux.” I find this dramatic monologue far more terrifying than Pablo Honey’s signature song, a depiction of the sick fixation of the stalking rapist-murderer and the terrifying love he professes for his intended victim. The narrator is obsessed with both the woman he has targeted and the power of his seething rage—a power that compensates for his truly deserved low self-worth:

I’m the next act
waiting in the wings
I’m an animal
Trapped in your hot car
I am all the days
that you choose to ignore

Taking his obvious self-loathing even further, he refers to himself as “an insect” in the second verse. I’m sorry, but no one who revels in their own debasement can truly love another person, so calling “All I Need” a love song is both absurd and offensive. The chilling lines in the chorus—“I’m in the middle of your picture/Lying in the reeds”—bring back memories of a crime I read about when living in San Francisco in my late teens. A woman out for a morning jog on a trail somewhere in Contra Costa County was raped, beaten and murdered by a sick fuck who ambushed her from the reeds bordering the jogging path—the poor gazelle on the savannah, the inhuman predator scouting his prey for the right moment to strike. The image of the unaware and unprepared woman struggling in sheer panic as the monster devoured his prey still haunts me to this day. That could have been me. That could be me almost anytime, anywhere. 

As to why the critics mentioned above heard this as a love song, I would suggest you look between their legs and see if there’s a hole or a peculiar-looking protuberance.

Although the experience of “All I Need” is a difficult one, I have to give Radiohead credit for exposing the evil in too many male minds and refusing to show any sympathy or understanding towards such a loathsome figure. The ominous main motif calls up images of someone lurking in the darkness . . . the fade, powered by Jonny Greenwood’s ingenious use of overdubbed violas playing every note of the scale creates a cacophonous mix reflecting the overload of a mis-wired brain . . . and let’s face it—nobody does creeps as well as Thom Yorke.

That’s a compliment, Thom!

Although Radiohead rarely goes “lite,” we do need to change the mood here, and “Faust Arp” is just the thing. Opening with soft arpeggiated acoustic guitar and Thom on low volume, the introduction of a string quartet temporarily obscures the lyrics but the sacrifice is more than worth it, given the sheer beauty of the string arrangement. Those lyrics describe a man getting ready for work, engaging in an idiot monologue as he considers his station in life. Apparently he’s done his best to mimic the behavior of the brain-dead drones who dominate the workplace, but he simply lacks the right stuff—good for him!—to make a success of it:

I’m tingling, tingling, tingling
it’s what you feel not
what you ought to, what you ought to
reasonable and sensible
dead from the neck up
I guess I’m stuffed, stuffed, stuffed
we thought you had it in you
but not, not, not
for no real reason

He readies himself for work as if he’s preparing to take the stage (“Squeeze the tubes and empty bottles/and take a bow, take a bow, take a bow”), emphasizing the drain on soul and spirit. “No real reason” is his epitaph, a life of “duplicate and triplicate/plastic bags and/duplicate and triplicate.” We leave him with “a head full of feathers . . . melted to butter.” The acoustic guitar and string arrangement, tied to a chord pattern that opens in a minor key before shifting to a bluesy seventh chord to arrive at the declining G-chord (G, G/F, G/Eb/G/D) of the closing pattern generates a not-quite-overwhelming but touching sadness about another life wasted in the modern mines.

“Reckoner” is one of those pieces I loved the first time I heard it, a reaction that certainly didn’t arise from lyrics, which I couldn’t make out at all. After reading the lyrics, I decided they didn’t matter—“Reckoner” is primarily a musical composition where the human voice is one of many instruments, designed to create mood rather than meaning. The song opens with textural contrasts—a multi-faceted percussive foundation in a stark, reverberated background soon share the soundscape with warm, mellow guitar filling the rhythmic pockets. Despite the sophistication of the percussion, the call is primitive—a studio-enhanced version of a drum circle. When Thom Yorke enters with his high falsetto, the effect is to combine the primitive with the spiritual, and even though you know you’re listening to Radiohead, it feels more like you’re listening to something ancient—music created in the distant past by early humans gathered around a fire or participating in a ritual to honor nature or the gods. As the song proceeds and more voices join in, you feel drawn to the alluring soundscape without quite understanding why. The lyrics are sketchy, but what I get is that the song is an ode to the essence of the human experience—ebb-and-flow, join-and-separate, forever in transition, forever in transience:

Because we separate like
ripples on a blank shore
(in rainbows)
Because we separate like
ripples on a blank shore
(in rainbows)

In contrast to the stunning originality of “Reckoner,” “House of Cards” seems rather pedestrian until you realize, “OMIGOD. A Radiohead song about sex!” It gets even more interesting when you hear words describing an alternative form of relationship—one based on sheer desire as opposed to conventional relationships built on the “house of cards” of traditional role definitions and garden-variety expectations:

I don’t want to be your friend
I just want to be your lover
No matter how it ends
No matter how it starts

No courting period, no expectation of forever, just two people choosing to be with each other as long as it’s mutually satisfying. There’s none of this “friends with benefits” bullshit, as the narrator isn’t the least bit interested in having a buddy—all they have is the irresistible link of mutual attraction. The repetition of the word “denial” implies that the narrator is running up against some form of conventional guilt concerning his proposition (the woman is married, after all), but the reference to “voltage spikes” indicates she is consumed with explosive desire—and as Blake warned us, “Sooner murder an infant in his cradle than nurse an unacted desire.” The music feels slightly sardonic, gently nudging forward with a simple guitar chords over a carnal background of deep bass and simmering electronic sounds . . . a well-constructed composition that reveals a more satisfying aspect of transience.

“House of Cards” is followed by another song about relationships even more transient than affairs . . . the experience of the weekend meat market. The British have become notorious for binge drinking, and apparently, stately and respected Oxford is quite the party town. The lyrics of “Jigsaw Falling into Place” paint a picture of a crowd slamming down shots, howling and growling to the music, imagining themselves as megastars via slurred and sloppy karaoke, screaming in ecstasy when their distorted faces fill the high-def screens—all joined in the shared pursuit of boorish obliviousness. This is NOT my idea of a good time:

The walls are bending shape
You got a cheshire cat grin
All blurring into one
This place is on a mission
Before the night owl
Before the animal noises
Closed circuit cameras
Before you’re comatose

Yeah, baby, let’s get comatose! What the fuck is that all about? Using booze as a papal indulgence to forgive the sins you’re dying to commit? Sins are way more fun when you’re fully conscious of sinning! It’s just as likely that his object of desire uses booze to avoid true human intimacy, ironically creating a strange bond with her fellow party animals—a noisy conspiracy to use the illusion of togetherness to compensate for the complete absence of authenticity.

A crowded night club is the loneliest place in the world.

The song opens with a snappy acoustic guitar reminiscent of Mason Williams, and when Colin and Phil join in to solidify the rhythm, you might think for a moment that you’re about to hear Radiohead’s version of “Classical Gas.” That expectation dies a horrible death with the syllabic two-part harmony that precedes the verses, intensifying the melancholy feel of the minor key. Those voices accompany Thom’s rapid-fire, low intensity lead vocal delivered in a timbre that sounds like he’s had a few drinks himself, but not a sufficient amount to interfere with his mating mission. The break after the second verse adds a guitar duet, filling the sound field and giving the listener the illusion of acceleration. Midway through the third verse Thom jumps an octave just at the moment when he confesses that he has no intention of losing his fucking mind, and hey, babe, can we please get each other off before you pass out?

The beat goes round and round
I never really got there
I just pretended that I had
Words are blunt instruments
Words are a sawn off shotgun

Come on and let it out (4)

Before you run away from me
Before you’re lost between the notes
Just as you take the mike
Just as you dance, dance, dance

This weird fish has wriggled off your hook, Thommy Boy, and good riddance! The next instrumental passage features stereo acoustic guitars returning to the forefront, and damn, do they sound sweet! Bittersweet is probably more like it, as the never-to-be lovers exchange woozy “what if” looks as night fades into daybreak and the paired vocals return to emphasize the distance between them. “Jigsaw Falling into Place” is a vivid, you-are-there experience that gives you all the reason in the world for never wanting to be in with the in-crowd, but more importantly, it exposes the strange barriers human beings erect to avoid genuine intimacy.

Until In Rainbows, Radiohead had never recorded an album-closing song that cinched the deal for me. That yearning is more than satisfied with “Videotape,” a deeply moving ode to human transience and loneliness. This dramatic monologue by a dying man recording his last good-byes on soon-to-be-obsolete technology never fails to leave me shaking with emotion, not so much because the old man is dying, but that he chooses to die separate and alone.

The song opens with elementary piano chords tethered to the 4/4 beat, making us conscious of the slow, inexorable movement of time. Thom Yorke enters, weakening the power of his voice to mirror the wasting body. For the next minute, all we hear are the mournful piano, bass notes and a man aware that his last moments are at hand. He muses about the Christian myth of heaven and hell, not taking either very seriously. What matters is the medium of his message, a living testament he can leave behind in the world of the living, in defiance of the finality of death:

When I’m at the pearly gates
This’ll be on my videotape, my videotape
Mephistopheles is just beneath
And he’s reaching up to grab me
This is one for the good days
And I have it all here
In red, blue, green
Red, blue, green
You are my center when I spin away
Out of control on videotape

I interpret that last couplet to mean that as his image “spins away” on the wheels of the tape, he is “outside the bounds of control” by daring to exist after death in video form. On the word “videotape,” however, Phil Selway enters with a two-beat drum pattern that mimics the sound of a VHS cartridge with a compromised mechanism or wrinkled tape, a wry commentary that his dream of defiant immortality is as mythical as heaven and hell. As he repeats the dying mantra “on videotape,” the sound of two voices humming in octaves fills part of the background, a simple touch that deepens the sense of sadness; you also hear a faint gasping, indicating slightly labored breathing. As the drum pattern shifts to a longer roll (perhaps indicating that the tape is stuck), the man gathers his thoughts and makes the saddest admission of all: though his last breath is near, he still fears other people more than death itself:

This is my way of saying goodbye
Because I can’t do it face to face
I’m talking to you for . . .

I can think of nothing more tragic than leaving this life still clinging to fears of other human beings, too embarrassed by guilt, regret or the weakened state of our bodies to allow people to get close to us. We live our lives in separate shells called bodies, craving intimacy but doing all we can to protect ourselves from experiencing it, and forever avoiding those fellow human beings who live with the same fears, anxieties and flaws we are so eager to hide. Here a man uses technology to build a moat around his thoughts and feelings, but human beings have created hundreds of low-tech stratagems to deny others access to who we really are. Loneliness may be the essential human condition, but it is a condition we choose—a self-imposed isolation that is the ultimate human tragedy.

Though the published lyrics complete that last line with “after it’s too late,” on the recording the man abruptly changes the subject and shifts to the bravado of the dying man—don’t worry about me, I’m fine—anything to avoid sharing an honest, human feeling:

No matter what happens now
You shouldn’t be afraid
Because I know today has been the most perfect day I’ve ever seen

The background music fades in intensity, then rises and falls as the tape continues to skip and the sound of mic pops enter the scene until finally, the sound narrows to the relentless march of piano and bass before ending on a single piano note of a suddenly terminated measure. The utter sadness I feel when I hear that last note is actually a culmination of all that has come before—a beautiful and sensitive piece of music that reaches our most basic emotions surrounding our all-too brief existence, capturing the essential fragility of the human experience.

Putting aside all the hoo-hah surrounding its release, In Rainbows is one of the few truly great albums of our time, a testament to the value of deep collaboration and an affirmation of the value of artistic commitment. The quality of composition is first-rate, the execution superb, the songs diverse and intensely satisfying. But what really makes In Rainbows special is its inherent timelessness. Ed O’Brien probably said it best when asked about the lyrics: “They were universal. There wasn’t a political agenda. It’s being human.” If great art is defined by its ability to elucidate something essential regarding the human condition, In Rainbows certainly qualifies.

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