Of all the idiosyncracies that make Radiohead a different breed of rock band, the most modern is their insistence on miring our enjoyment of their music in the marketplace, constantly reminding us that it’s still a product. “Buyer Beware,” as the embedded adage goes, and we still buy, even when, in the case of In Rainbows, we didn’t have to. Call it another paranoid tic; call it a Marxist consequence of Thom Yorke’s troubled views on artistic “truth.” Regardless, on the second CD that arrives as part of Rainbows‘ $80-something deluxe discbox, “Down Is the New Up” is the undeniable centerpiece, and you can leave it to Yorke to encase the idea that the world’s gone batshit crazy within the guise of a capitalist fashion statement. “The future’s bleak,” he leers. “You’re so last week.”
On the surface, “Down” is actually a pretty simple thing—vocals, thumping piano, splashy cymbals, and hot-plate syncopation. But then a swarm of violins sweeps across the track in a menacing wave, and you become increasingly aware that Phil Selway is doing some of the best drumming of his career. By the time the song hits its full stride, Yorke is playing the ringleader of his own macabre circus: “Ladies and gentlemen/Without a safety net,” he croons, doffing his top hat as horror-show strings crash around him like bombs. “I shall now perform an Orwellian flip-flop.” (The use of “Orwellian” is just another way the band self-reflexively responds to its own manufactured image on this record.) And therein lies a good part of Radiohead’s genius: They can explain the trick beforehand and still make it seem like magic.
For all his moping about androids and automation, the truth is that Yorke makes distinctly physical—and, yes, sexy—rock. It’s meant to move bodies. Take “Bangers and Mash”: ragged stabs of rhythm guitar bisecting barbed-wire riffs; Yorke coughing out a string of auxiliary percussion; Selway dexterously banging out the type of sped-up jazz-funk you might hear sampled on an Aphex Twin track. What the music exudes isn’t just a keen grasp of space, sound, and craftsmanship, but also some serious swagger—a sense of great pleasure in sliding the knife in and twisting. “What-ev-er-turns-you-on/What-ev-er-gets-you-off,” Yorke spits, seething with each syllable. “Chief of Police/Vice Chan-ce-llor.” It’s not so much the lyric as the deliciously nasty way he sings it—somewhere between a red-light come-on and a sneering taunt.
Like Bob Dylan, there’s nothing quite like cruel Radiohead. The heart of In Rainbows, though, is the closeness and clarity of Yorke’s vocals, and Disc Two sports two starkly pretty piano ballads—”Last Flowers” and “Four Minute Warning”— as evidence of the striking intimacy that tempers the band’s cold resolve. “This is just a nightmare,” Yorke notes quietly on the latter. “Soon I’m gonna wake up/Someone’s gonna bring me ’round.”