‘Lost Between the Notes:’ An ode to Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’

Radiohead’s mid-career masterpiece still matters over a decade later


Courtesy Radiohead Official Facebook Page

By Jacob Abrams, Assistant Arts Editor

Despite my unwavering devotion to Radiohead’s 2007 album, “In Rainbows,” I am somehow having trouble finding the correct words to describe the impact it has had on my life. It’s almost like writing about how much I love my kidneys. “Thank you, kidneys! You both have been right there with me through the best of times and the worst of times. I couldn’t have done this life thing without you.”

See what I mean? “In Rainbows” is such an essential appendage to my life that when writing this piece, I had to take a gargantuan step back to realize how valuable and essential this piece of art has been to my very development as a human being. To put it bluntly, I had to stop taking it for granted.

We have certain aesthetic experiences that fundamentally change the way we think; the very chemicals in our brains embark on unexplored twists and turns in response to stimuli that are so unlike anything we have experienced before. When I began to listen to Radiohead in middle school, I could feel a sort of stirring – a response that felt so foreign, but simultaneously wondrous. Their music made me uncomfortable. It scared me to death. It didn’t necessarily induce a joyous reaction, but it was the most powerful reaction to any form of art I have ever had in my life. “OK Computer,” the album that was my formal introduction to the group, instilled within me an omnipresent fear of urban (and suburban) hellscapes and other such postmodern nightmares – all at the tender age of 14.

Yes, Radiohead’s music caused me discomfort, but I couldn’t stay away from it. The musical arrangements were so irresistible and soon enough, Radiohead became the only band that “did it” for me. Nothing else could compare. I thought I had exhausted the band’s proverbial gold mine by the time I reached high school, but I had yet to hear “In Rainbows.”

The first time I ever listened to the record was on a family road trip in May 2015. It was the only Radiohead album that was not available on Spotify, so I was forced to spend $10 to acquire it via the iTunes Store. While listening for the first time on the four-hour car ride, I was actually disappointed. Never had I heard a Radiohead album so subtle. The vast, cinematic flourishes that constituted albums like “Kid A” and “OK Computer” were absent, and in their place were ethereal, finely-tuned musical brushstrokes that sounded like they could float away on a whim. Embarrassingly enough, I think “Reckoner,” the seventh track on “In Rainbows,” may have put me to sleep.

Still, I didn’t give up. Although I did not understand the intense love that thousands had for the album, it had this enigmatic, mysterious glow that kept drawing me back. I desperately wanted to know its secrets.

As I delved deeper into the album, I realized that I was dealing with a piece of art vastly different from anything else in the group’s oeuvre. It sounded kinder, friendlier and more loving. The more time I spent with the album, the more intense these emotions became. “In Rainbows” taught me to change my approach to listening. It was only after several hundred listens that I felt I had gotten a sense of the album’s treasures. This realization was the first of many gifts the album bestowed upon me. All my life I had listened to brash, bombastic classic rock – music that didn’t require much work from the consumer. I had to give “In Rainbows” its space; it unfolded in front of me on its own time.

A year before the release of “In Rainbows,” Thom Yorke, Radiohead’s lead singer, said of the album: “Interestingly enough, it’s similar to ‘OK Computer’ in a way. It’s much more terrifying.”

Upon finding this out, I felt an initial wave of confusion, then an all-consuming sense of dread. What was I missing? Why did this album make me feel love, warmth and joy when its own creator finds it “terrifying?” Amid the millennial terror of “OK Computer,” I had found respite within the delicately-phrased vocal lines, meticulously crafted melodies and irresistible ear-worm grooves of “In Rainbows.” Was Yorke trying to take all of that away from me?

After a brief panic, I realized something glaringly obvious: all art is subjective. Nobody, not even the artist himself, could tell me how or what to think about the album. Once a piece of art enters the public consciousness, it becomes something collective rather than the sole property of its creator. I know every nook and cranny of this album, but it is the one Radiohead record wherein the lyrics take a secondary role to the music. The arrangements are so lush, so textured, that I still find myself peeling back their layers and finding auditory surprises nearly four years later. I only truly “understood” tracks like “Reckoner” and “Videotape” after years of listening.

My nearly half-decade Radiohead obsession came to a head this past summer, when I was fortunate enough to see the band during their two-night residency at the Boston Garden. I attended the first show solo, a first in my concert-going career. I had a ticket for a nosebleed seat, but I was deeply unsatisfied. This was my favorite band in the whole wide world, what if they never toured again? They are, realistically, middle-aged dads. What if they fall into the trap of domesticity and stop making music altogether? So, I concocted a scheme: I looked on StubHub for seats that no one had purchased. There were several on the edge of the floor, first row of the loge. I made my way down to a vacant seat that offered a far superior view of the stage and firmly planted myself there. And I was nervous. I can think of few things more terrifying than a Garden usher’s hand on your shoulder coupled with a gruff, “I think you’re in the wrong seat.”

To my tremendous surprise, the ruse worked, and Radiohead gave the best performance I had ever witnessed in my life. There were times when it felt as if all the physical space in the arena had been sucked away, when the barriers between concert goers completely dissipated and all the energy in the room was condensed into a musical singularity that could explode at a moment’s notice. When Yorke hit the high note during “Nude,” the final song of the main set, there was the sense that what he was really doing in that moment of unbridled passion was asking the audience, “Aren’t you lucky to have us?” Based on the crowd’s reaction, the consensus was: “Yes we are.”

Jacob Abrams can be reached at [email protected]