While whiners whine that 160kps isn’t high quality enough for what is essentially a digital advance copy of Radiohead’s forthcoming In Rainbows, I can’t seem to get the image of Thom Yorke at a key party out of my head. “I don’t want to be your friend/I just want to be your lover,” he sings on the unexpectedly soulful “House of Cards.” Though their first new album in four years isn’t exactly filled with love songs, it isn’t overtly political either. Of course, the very title of “House of Cards” implies domestic collapse, and what good is casual sex if it isn’t preceded by a little infrastructure failure?
Apparently not yet bored of all the nifty knobs and buttons they found in Nigel Godrich’s studio, Radiohead begins In Rainbows with the all-too-familiar stiff, programmed beats and strategically placed effects of “15 Steps,” but soon more organic elements (spare bass and leftfield guitar—literally, coming out of the left speaker) take center stage, rendering it one of the band’s best hybrids in years. And it’s refreshing to hear the more straightforward rock crunch of the next track’s opening riff—or maybe that’s just the poor compression of a less-than-CD-quality DRM-free MP3. No matter.
As with almost every Radiohead album, there are moments of brilliance, inventiveness, and surprise: “Faust Arp” sparsely comprises vocals, acoustic guitar, and strings, while the piano-driven “Videotape” plays like a suicide note from the ’90s, galloping slowly like the hooves of the Pale Horse. “Reckoner” bustles along until the main breakbeat drops out and a chorus of Thom Yorkes is left alone with a lush string arrangement, culminating in a gorgeous 30-second orchestral ending that could very well point to the future of Radiohead. Sure, it’s been done before, but not by them. That In Rainbows also clings to about a half dozen previous Radiohead incarnations, however, means the album only provides a glimpse of that future.