When frontman Thom Yorke shocked Radiohead's fans last year by quietly releasing The Eraser, his first solo album, he took great pains to insist that the future of the band was not in jeopardy. Now that the group's new record, In Rainbows, has arrived — and the hype of that record's being released directly through the band's Web site (with fan asked to pay whatever they choose) has finally died down — we can see not only that he was serious but also that his busman's holiday helped inform the new album and its musical direction.
Whereas The Eraser felt very much like one man figuring out how to make his laptop articulate his lonely fears, In Rainbows expands that dread into a band setting, finding a warmer, more communal tone, despite the fact that oblique scenes of domestic implosion hover over its 10 songs. Whether working on his own or with the group, Yorke has recently favored gentle atmospherics and chamber-piece drama to anthemic guitar-based material. Consequently, like the more nebulous tracks from Amnesiac or Hail to the Thief, some of the songs here never get beyond the stage of gorgeous sonic wallpaper.
But when they do connect, there is no band of their stature today working at such a heightened level of craftsmanship and personal expression. "House of Cards" is an X-ray of an uncertain relationship, complex and unfathomable, while "All I Need" is a slowly rumbling confession of an obsessive, self-loathing lover. Elsewhere, In Rainbows demonstrates that the daily anxieties that threaten to consume Yorke can never completely overcome him so long as he has his mates by his side.