Dave Mekelburg
(BEN SIMON/Daily)

This album doesn’t make sense. The way it was recorded, the way it was assembled, the music itself. None of it makes any sense.

It’s heartbreaking. It’s gorgeously optimistic. It’s as soft as it is loud. It’s subtly bombastic. It just doesn’t make sense.

But such is the tradition and legacy of Radiohead. A group obviously aware of its foundation of sonic mystery, astronomical complexity and intensely loyal cult fan base, Radiohead has no fear. It’s the only group that can legitimately attempt In Rainbows – given its expansive career and the album’s unorthodox release – and get away with it. But as this latest, Internet-only release (for now) is entirely enigmatic and essentially impossible to understand among its predecessors, so too is Radiohead itself.

In Rainbows, whether Radiohead released it as such or not, is not an album in the traditional sense. Nothing about this disc breathes cohesiveness. Its movements are shaky, aggressive and collapsing – and, more telling, none of them even remotely connect to the other. In essence, this album is a mixtape: a mass of widely collected, disconnected moments aligned in single-file.

As recording for this album has been traced back to the late ’90s – circa the masterpiece OK Computer – the entirety of In Rainbows can be broken down according to prior releases. “Nude,” “Bodysnatchers” and “Faust ARP” obviously speak to the guitar-driven days of Computer, whereas “15 Step” and “Reckoner” are more reminiscent of the glitchy, electronic Kid A/Amnesiac period.

But as an album that’s more or less the transition between The Bends and Kid A – assuming OK Computer was never released, this album would’ve materialized as such – In Rainbows feels strangely out of place in 2007. Radiohead’s career is most easily likened to the coming tides: wave after wave of power, crashing ashore, wiping away and engulfing everything in its path. This album, at least at times, feels like a retroactive movement by the group, searching for something that had already been swept away by years and years of recordings.

But this shouldn’t be considered a wholly unfortunate development, because, by most standards, Radiohead’s best days are long since past. Recreating the paranoid beauty of OK Computer seems impossible until you hear the romantic “Nude.” The track’s cumulous strings and bobbing bass are heartbreaking, yet sunnier than earlier work. You don’t listen to the song, you float through it. It engulfs your every sense and wraps you up like an anxious lover. “15 Step” is similarly nostalgic. Its jazzy undertones give way to percussively driven twerps and twitches.

Yet with all its familiar pieces, it’s increasingly difficult to view In Rainbows as a Radiohead release. Shedding the mantra of several of its previous records (an overarching concept contextualizing each disc), the album stands afar from Radiohead’s other work. It plays as a coalescing retrospective rather than a unique, unified album. And yet seemingly without prior knowledge of Radiohead’s catalog, In Rainbows would be a rather easily accessible collection, the most striking contradiction in this heap of contradictions.

But maybe In Rainbows is the full realization of Radiohead’s prolific career. A career that travels sinusoidally rather than in disconnected movements. With its spacious lines weaving back upon themselves, this album has finally reached the crest of the wave once again – a point seemingly first met, though more magnificently, with OK Computer.

Maybe this album doesn’t make sense. Or maybe it makes sense of everything.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Radiohead

In Rainbows

Self-released

So, wait: how can I get radiohead’s awesome new album?

1. DOWNLOAD THE ALBUM

You can name your price and download the album at www.inrainbows.com.

2. BUY THE CD

Radiohead is close to securing a deal with a label to release a physical version of In Rainbows. More info to come.

3. BUY THE PACKAGE

The band is offering a “discbox” package, $80, for In Rainbows: a two-record set, a CD and an enhanced CD with bonus tracks. The packaging looks like a hardcover book. It’s scheduled to ship Dec. 3.

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