One indicator of a classic album is its “timelessness” or “quintessence,” the idea that one can listen to it in almost any situation or mood and instantly and effortlessly be immersed in it.
Radiohead's 2007 LP In Rainbows achieves this in spades.
The first two tracks “15 Step” and “Bodysnatchers” combine for an excellent 1-2 punch to start the album. The former's intricate beat seems to weave both electronic and live drum tones, which begin on their own for a few measures and are then joined with lead singer Thom Yorke's vocals. It isn't until after the first verse that the bass and guitar appear—an unexpected but pleasant surprise. “15 Step”'s smooth groove transitions well into “Bodysnatchers,” a fast-paced rocker that features otherworldly tones and vocals.
The heart of In Rainbows starts with the third track “Nude.” Imminently peaceful and calming, the song's hypnotizing beat, layers of strings, delightful vocal harmonizations and meditative quality continually astonish upon repeated listens. The way Yorke inflects his voice during the chorus both mesmerizes and comforts. “Now that you've found it, it's gone,” he intones calmly. “Now that you feel it, you don't.” Yorke seems to be in full reflection mode. “You've gone off the rails...” His disquieting observation ends up being a soothing thought. The following track “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is similarly calming, but with a faster beat that is seamlessly intertwined with nimble guitar picking. This somehow provides a fitting base for Yorke's vocals, which ebb and flow from tranquil to urgent.
The album's midpoint and finest achievement, “All I Need,” is a tour de force of emotional depth. Two ethereal cello-sounding notes are joined by a surprisingly funky beat. Soon, a bass-heavy synthesizer establishes the theme, a haunting number that provides a compelling palette for Yorke's vocals. His voice here is at its most direct and unwavering as anywhere on the album, with themes of insignificance and longing. The chorus seems to shift the tone: “You're all I need,” he sings twice. The depth of feeling here is arresting, on the one hand stating a realization, while on the other aching with longing when he continues: “I'm in the middle of your picture, lying in the reeds.”
Yorke is often content to deliver his vocals in falsetto-style with little pronunciation of the lyrics, while at other times a line will pierce through clearly. The effect of this makes In Rainbows a collective projection of emotions and feelings rather than a consistent conveyer of messages. Since Yorke's voice often acts as an additional instrument, there isn't an overriding idea that one comes away with. This is especially evident in “Reckoner,” a jangly march-style number that features Yorke's ghostly falsetto weaving in and out between layers of evocative strings and insistent guitar.
When Yorke does decide to emote clearly, the results can be starkly poignant. “I don't want to be your friend, I just want to be your lover,” he softly confides in the opening verse of “House of Cards.” The remainder of the song's lyrics are less clear, but it doesn't seem to matter. Shimmering strings and guitar effects bubble under the surface, illustrating Yorke's desire. The album's most straight-ahead rocker “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” is next, nicely picking up the pace of the LP's back-end.
From beginning to end, In Rainbows builds an atmosphere that is wonderfully easy to get lost in. There are a multitude of amazingly creative achievements within the rock and roll framework present here, from inventive percussion to ethereally beautiful synthesizers to strings layered to perfection to Thom Yorke's inimitable voice. The key is that these elements are woven together seamlessly, and nothing feels gimmicky. It's an essential album, arguably Radiohead's best to date.