In relation to In Rainbows, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke said the album was about “that anonymous fear thing, sitting in traffic, thinking, ‘I’m sure I’m supposed to be doing something else’” and “the f—ing panic of realizing you’re going to die! And that any time soon (I could) possibly (have) a heart attack when I next go for a run.” This is a rare instance where a musician not only displays a full understanding of their own work’s significance, but also explains it directly to the audience without reducing the potency of it one bit.
Those feelings of fear and panic surface for Yorke from the outset on “15 Step,” where his dissatisfaction with his current life puts his mortality into a terrifying perspective. His feeling of discombobulation is compounded with the revelation of how few “steps” he has before his “sheer drop.” This discombobulation is explored further on “Bodysnatchers,” where Yorke sees his monotonous, frustrating life and existential crisis as a product of his age and the time he’s living in. “Nude” is where Yorke’s feelings turn from his own personal dilemma to a conscious observation on the timeless quandary of existence and the philosophy of In Rainbows becomes fully formed. The undeniably gorgeous instrumental contrasts against the most bitter lyrics on the album to develop the notion that true satisfaction is unattainable in the incredibly short time we have on this earth. Yorke’s confusion becomes the human condition, and the contrast between beauty and bitterness in the music drives Yorke’s exploration of life and death.
“Videotape” is the moment death finally arrives. In opposition to “Nude,” the instrumental and vocal delivery is sorrowful yet the lyrics contain the most positive revelation on the album. Despite the feelings of confusion, directionlessness, and meaninglessness that will inevitably pop up in life, all you have in the end is the collection of memories stored in your brain. The fear that runs throughout In Rainbows does not abate on “Videotape,” but now it’s not a fear of death but a fear that life is not being lived to the fullest. Death is inevitable, but what you do with your life is your choice. What matters is that you make the most of your time. So stop being afraid and live a little, or, as one of my favorite Instagram reviewers (@birdmusiclog) put it, “stop reading reviews and go kiss someone on the mouth.”