You’d think it’d be hard to choose a Radiohead song, but it turned out not to be the case. As I went back and listened to their albums released this decade, I concluded the following:
If you saw the film Meeting People Is Easy, about the OK Computer tour, you saw Thom Yorke falling apart at the seams. For whatever reason, it did not look like he was effectively BUILT for the rock star thing and clearly Radiohead had into entered a world in which he was not comfortable. Feel free to debate what this says about Thom, but that’s the deal. My man was close to having a full-on breakdown, it seemed.
And so, in 2000, they released “Kid A”, their post-OK Computer-trauma-piece -- Thom’s need to destroy guitar rock and everything they had done on The Bends and OK Computer. It’s a polarizing album. Some maintain that they shat out this mope-fest and critics were so far up their ass that they couldn’t smell the heap of dung sitting in front of their faces. Others saw it as a mini-masterpiece, a moody work of art that reinvented Radiohead as something even more important than the “next Pink Floyd”. Over time, Kid A has aged well, but it remains a frigid group of songs. You sure have to be in the right mood for this album and you sure should listen to this album as a group of songs rather than a song here and there. It’s powerful and all, but I don’t find myself deciding to listen to it all that much. And if that’s the case for Kid A then Amnesiac is it’s “down in a K-hole” cousin, with some excellent moments, but little of the cohesion.
Many thought that Radiohead would return to rawk with Hail To The Thief, but that wasn’t really the case. It took Kid A’s organs, computers and synths out of the mix and re-introduced some guitars, but little offered tunefulness and little warmth. It was a long record and there are some really powerful songs, especially in the live setting, but ultimately it pushed you away, rather than drew you in.
(Pearl Jam seemed to go through a similar exercise with “No Code”, yielding similar mixed results. However, both Hail and No Code would prove to be important bridges to their future album(s) and, maybe most importantly, the long term health of the band.
Enter In Rainbows and, true to the title, the sun is finally out. Tuneful guitars reappear. Tuneful SONGS reappear. And finally there is a little warmth in a Radiohead song. The whole album is so appealing to me because it just feels like the weight has been lifted from this band and they finally opened it up to something enjoyable. And after hearing In Rainbows it feels like Hail was part of a transition back to what they do well.
The songs are not epic on In Rainbows -- they are not even huge statements – but they are allowed to exist and stand on their own as what they are. It’s still moody, but it’s not mopey. And “All I Need” is at the very center of the record, just brimming with optimism and soulfulness. It’s gem of a song and for the first time since OK Computer, I found myself getting this song stuck in my head, humming it and belting it out all over the place, to the chagrin of anyone within earshot. And it’s not a coincidence that In Rainbows is the first time since OK Computer that Radiohead constructed an album that was both inviting and cohesive (Kid A was cohesive but isolating and Hail To The Thief had some inviting moments – “Sail To The Moon” and “There There” come immediately to mind – but in the end it was too dense of an album to really enjoy).
The aforementioned soulfulness is the most refreshing element of this record, and it’s not only found on “All I Need”. “Reckoner” sounds like a stripped down Jeff Buckley song, “House of Cards” whiles away with summery electric strumming, “Wired Fishes / Arpeggi” is also very light, easy and welcoming and “Nude” feels like it could possibly exist on “OK Computer” instead of “Fitter Happier” or “Electioneering”. Radiohead always saves the saddest and most beautiful song for last and “Videotape” gets the nod on this one and it’s tremendous. That’s not to forget the rollicking tunes that open the album, “15 Steps” and “Bodysnatchers”, which are basically the perfect marriage of everything they had done from OK Computer on through to Hail, like they took all the good parts of all those albums and put them into these two songs.
I could have picked any of the songs listed above, but “All I Need” seems to encapsulate their soulful resurgence best, a little example of the things that make people feel so strongly about this band.