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Message 281: What Happened?

The lyrics and music for “15 Step” are arguable the perfect opener for In Rainbows.

How come I end up where I started?
How come I end up where I was?
Won’t take my eyes of the ball again.
You reel me out and then you cut the string.

How come I end up where I started?
How come I end where I was?
Won’t take my eyes of the ball again.
First you reel me out and then you cut the string.

You used to be all right.
What happened?
Did the cat get your tongue?
Did your string come undone?

One by one. One by one.
It comes to us all.
It’s as soft as your pillow.

You used to be all right. What happened?
Et cetera, et cetera.
Fads for whatever.
15 steps then a sheer drop.

How come I end up where I started?
How come I end up where I went wrong?
Won’t take my eyes of the ball again.
You reel me out and then
you cut the string.

As Mark Pytlik wrote:

In the end, that which we feared came true: In Rainbows represents the sound of Radiohead coming back to earth. Luckily, as it turns out, that’s nothing to be afraid of at all.

Radiohead asks the question on “15 Step”, “how come we’ve ended up where we started?”, but they ask the question just as they’re pointing us in the other direction, that is, where we think they probably are right now sonically. The song begins with the skittery cascade of beats Yorke has been (admittedly) siphoning from Warp Records (and which sound like of some of more difficult b-sides of the The Eraser, like “Iluvya”), but just as those beats gain traction we get pointed in another direction: to Selway’s drums working out nothing less than what I will call a kick-ass beat. Jon Pareles wrote for the NYTimes on Oct 11 that much of the album “comes across as fingers on strings and sticks on drums.” Those sticks on drums is exactly what “15 Steps” gives us, but not after making us look in the opposite direction first. The electronic beats never disappear completely, but layered on top and far in front we get Selway at his best, as well as a “Scatterbrain”/The Smiths-sounding guitar movement (is that Ed or Jonny or both?) that balances with an equally kick-ass bass-line from Colin Greenwood and Yorke’s voice slows down, a slowing down that the song’s start would never anticipate: “Used to be all right. What happened?” The cat, with all certainty, didn’t get Radiohead’s tongue. So, what happened? In Rainbows happened, one of the best albums of any artist of the last ten years made without, to borrow a phrase from Wilco, a company in their back.

Oh: and children yelling and clapping? Radiohead, making music that might be their must mature, turns to children for help. Genius.

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