How does one review a work that largely speaks for itself? Using only Nintendo 64 sounds, an anonymous artist going by on4word has carefully recreated Radiohead’s 2007 album In Rainbows. Titled In Rainbow Roads, the project samples the system’s flagship game Super Mario 64, adjusting the pitch and key of its sounds to convincingly mimic Thom Yorke’s pained wail, Philip Selway’s hyperactive drums, and Jonny Greenwood’s moody guitar riffs. Impressive though the album may be, it’s unclear how to write about it. There seem to be (at least) two approaches: (a) the objective (what is it that I’m listening to?); and (b) the subjective (what does it mean to me?).
Starting with the objective approach, what is it? On first glance, one could mistake In Rainbow Roads for the kind of gimmick project that was popular during the decade In Rainbows was released (think Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, or Team Teamwork’s Ocarina Of Rhyme), evocative of the bygone era of mashups, when blending two disparate works was still a novel idea. (The album’s cover art—a fake, KA-rated N64 game cartridge parody of the In Rainbows album cover—calls to mind Kyle Mabson’s head-scratching Photoshop juxtapositions.) Production-wise, it doesn’t sound dissimilar from the standard 8- or 16-bit game soundtrack (not a knock, as plenty of those games have excellent music). Midi composition might be the exact opposite of In Rainbows’ grand production style, which includes a string ensemble and children’s choir, and a few elements get lost in translation (i.e. the kick pattern that begins “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”). Unsurprisingly, hearing a record like In Rainbows reconstructed as a wall of midi notes is a bit like seeing someone try to replicate a Seurat painting on an Etch A Sketch.
More than a hybrid of two highly distinctive styles, In Rainbow Roads is a marriage of two distinct time periods: the late-1990s and the late-00s. It’s the breezy, pre-9/11 Clinton years disassembled and reconfigured as a Bush-era lament. It’s patient zero in the enduring laissez-faire, pay-what-you-want online music market, refashioned from parts of a game that once sold for $60 per cartridge (the last of its kind, as all subsequent systems would use optical discs and online downloads). It’s an album I barely listened to from the most miserable year of my life, built from pieces of a game that came out during one of the best years of my life.
I’m slipping into approach b, so I might as well go headfirst down Cool Cool Mountain. There are only so many things a person with as limited a knowledge of music theory and composition as myself can write about an album like this before resorting to the more personalized playing field of the subjective approach. The 11 years between Mario 64 and In Rainbows saw major shifts—analog to digital, peace to wartime, online to extremely online—that roughly coincided with my own coming of age, and on a personal level, In Rainbow Roads is a celebration of shared interests between a weird but happy elementary school student and a depressed, heavy-drinking college student.
After my first listen, I revisited In Rainbows, an album I paid $5 for, listened to once, and promptly forgot. It’s not surprising that John the Rap Fan didn’t go for In Rainbows during the same year that Da Drought 3 was playing from every passing car window, but I’m surprised that John the Weed Fan didn’t like it. Songs like “Nude,” “All I Need,” and “Faust Arp” all sound like stoner classics; had Radiohead released the album a couple of years earlier, I might’ve played it in a dorm room with a towel jammed under the door (as I did with Kid A and Amnesiac). In 2007, though, the critical trend of poptimism—the call to open-mindedness toward commercial pop that soon became the dominant mode of discourse, reverberating through almost every facet of culture—had its stranglehold on my senses, and if I guessed, I probably thought of In Rainbows as a musical depressant, something that didn’t have much to offer a listener looking to the fun and excitement of modern pop music as a means of escaping, or at least ignoring, severe depression.
In hindsight, In Rainbows is full of gorgeous, melodic pop music, and if nothing else, In Rainbow Roads proves how well-crafted a record In Rainbows is. Even stripped of Yorke’s voice and the Greenwood brothers’ guitars and Selway’s percussion—what made Radiohead the band that it is—these songs stand on their own as beautifully-written works of pop. I was just too drunk to hear it at the time.
As much as In Rainbow Roads highlights the band’s songwriting talents, it also stands as a testament to Mario 64’s sound design. Experienced players will recognize certain samples (a highlight: substituting Yorke’s grunt at the beginning of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” with the sound of Mario running into a wall), but the number of elements at play in a given moment makes them much harder to pick out individually. on4word, whoever they are, does a terrific job of finding sounds within the game that best correspond with In Rainbows alternatingly aggressive (“Lethal Lava Land”) and ethereal (“Dire Dire Docks”) energies.
Movies long ago replaced video games as my entertainment of choice, and I no longer own any gaming systems. But late last year, I treated myself to a N64 controller that connects to my laptop via USB, which I can use to play just about any Nintendo 64 game I choose. The first game I downloaded was Mario 64, and it’s the only one I play with any regularity. I find something comforting about revisiting the castle with Mario, collecting stars at my leisure (current count: 63) while taking in the detailed scenery of each level: the familiar wonderland of Bob-Omb Battlefield, the apocalyptic desert of Shifting Sand Land, the bizarro arctic of Snowman’s Land, whatever the hell is happening on Tiny-Huge Island.
The comfort I feel revisiting Mario 64 is inextricable from my memories of it, particularly one: it was January, or maybe February, 1997. A snow day. I threw on a snow suit and met up with a friend of mine, and we walked over to a nearby park and played on a frozen pond—a terrible idea that thankfully didn’t end in tragedy. We went as far as building a snowman on the pond. Afterwards we went to his house and played Mario 64 for hours, handing the controller back and forth each time Mario died while our socks dried next to the radiator.
I’m not sure why this memory stands out. Maybe it was just the first time I played the game at any length, or maybe the combination of a snow day and video games conspired to overwhelm the senses in a particularly memorable way. Or maybe it’s just a happy memory that I enjoy returning to. In any case, when I listen to In Rainbow Roads, it’s like revisiting 1997 and 2007 simultaneously: cautioning my 10-year-old self about how bad things are going to get while reminding my 21-year-old self that everything isn’t bad, that good things still exist—things like Mario and Radiohead. In Rainbow Roads is all the good and the bad in the world, fused together like a ratking, calling to mind Yorke’s refrain at the end of “All I Need”: it’s all wrong, it’s all right.