In Rainbows is a major turning point for Radiohead. Musically - as with any Radiohead album - it is radically different from its predecessor. Shifting gears is nothing new for the Oxford fivesome. What has really changed, however, is the band's attitude. From the lean irreverence of Pablo Honey and The Bends, to the laborious malaise of OK Computer, to the scrambled and erratic doomsaying of Kid A and Amnesiac (and the dregs of that mode which carried into Hail to the Thief), every one of the six predecessors to In Rainbows was charged in one way or another with resistance. Each of these prior albums told of struggle - struggle to escape the ills of modern use-once-and-throw-away culture, or to unhinge from a near-paralyzing psychosis, or to abortively resist an impending apocalypse. But not In Rainbows. Subdued and lucid, In Rainbows is almost a coming of age for Thom and the boys. Or if not a coming of age, at least a coming to terms.
In Rainbows is an album of acceptance, which in Radiohead terms is parallel to surrender. It seems that Thom has finally given in to the reality of things, though he still can't pin down why they are so (as evidenced by the album's first lyric, "How come I end up where is started / How come I end up where I went wrong"). And while this might seem like the most desperate attitude yet - surrender - it actually makes for the most relaxed album to date. After burning off the restlessness left over from Hail on the crunchy bangery of "15 Step" and the rusty chug of "Bodysnatchers", the album descends into a dreamlike series of watery songs, poetic in lyrics and pillowy in instrumentation. And yet, as calm as they may sound, Thom never abandons his trademark hopelessness. Amidst the gently repetitive guitar arpeggios of "Weird Fishes / Arpeggi" Thom sings of falling off the earth, telling us "Everybody leaves if they get the chance / And this is my chance". In front of Jonny's dreamy keys, he happily (or in whatever way passes as happily for Thom Yorke) tells us "I get eaten by the worms and weird fishes", and later that "I'll hit the bottom and escape". This metaphor of deep ocean is just one of a few powerfully desolate images that Thom paints for us. "All I Need" is a collection of these - "I'm an animal, trapped in your hot car"; "I am a moth who just wants to share your light".
The success with which In Rainbows conveys the message of its lyrics through its music sheds some light on why Hail to the Thief failed. With In Rainbows the approach matched the intent. Relaxed sessions were appropriate for an album this mellow, whereas similar nonchalance could not produce the intensity that Hail required to deliver its charge. But when the method fits the mode, the result is In Rainbows - an album spectacular in its minimalism and ease. This is completely new territory for a band that is constantly looking for ways to say more.