Radiohead - In Rainbows
In a rather startling move announced just a week or so ago, Radiohead chose to release their long-gestating seventh album "In Rainbows" as a download from their own website, which visitors can pay as much or as little for as they like. With the music industry all in a tangle over the ever-decreasing popularity of real life albums that you buy in a shop, the news that the actual best band in the world doesn't require or desire it's help must feel like another nail in the coffin. Whatever is read into the results of what is effectively a poll of the entire world as to what music is actually *worth*, it should be noted that there's a second CD of extra material available only with the £40 "discbox" which ships in December and will presumably be part of the early 2008 CD release of the album (still being negotiated as Radiohead remain without a label, making them effectively the biggest unsigned band in the world), so most people probably typed in zero not just to see if it was actually possible but also because they know they're going to end up buying the CD eventually.
What's far more interesting about this release model is that everyone in the entire world got the album at more or less the same time. The record labels, the journalists, the fans, the indifferent people who got swept up in the hype. As a long-standing Radiohead devotee, it's the first time since OK Computer I've got to hear a Radiohead album without already being familiar with the songs from poring over live versions, unmastered studio recordings (in the case of 2003s Hail To The Thief), or early album leaks. I deliberately kept "dry" this time, musically spoiler-free, and was rewarded with one of the most surprising and culturally important events of recent years.
Which is all well and good and whatever, but what's the album like?
Well, it's a surprisingly lush, sentimental record from a band more famed for psychotic spaz-outs and clanging robot jazz in recent years. Despite their array of bizarre instruments and loops, Radiohead have always been more about songs than sounds, and In Rainbows scales back the weirdness to allow rootsy guitars, ethereal backing vocals, and string arrangements that indicate a real growth from Jonny Greenwood as a composer rise in and out of the mix, with Phil Selways inventive trip-hoppy drums and Yorkes emotive falsetto giving certain songs a slinky, sparse, soulful feel.
While Kid A / Amnesiac was like the sound of an actual nervous breakdown recorded inside a lunatics mind, lurching from Charles Mingus to Autechre via a New Orleans Funeral, In Rainbows showcases a more together, restrained Radiohead. When the band introduced a new song called "Reckoner" live a few years ago, it was a clanging mess featuring a theremin solo and Yorke wailing that he was "being pulled apart by horses", but the version that's on the album has the earnest repetition of "You are not to blame" and some pretty rolling chords. It's like a lullaby of forgiveness from a little choir of angelic Thom Yorkes, and an interesting illustration of how the band have changed over the last few years.
There's nothing here (besides the gorgeous "Nude") which on first listen has the immediacy or bonkersness of Myxomatosis, Airbag or The National Anthem, but In Rainbows has an evenness and optimism at it's heart that the albums featuring those tracks didn't. Relegating synths and theremins to the background and having Thom sing over a bit of piano that he doesn't want to be our friend, he just wants to be our lover narrows the gap between Radiohead and Coldplay uncomfortably, but Coldplay can only dream of creating something as elegant as In Rainbows. So to summise, Fatherhood, riches, and political disillusionment have quelled Thom Yorkes rage and psychosis, but it seems that his band can still record beautiful music.
There's a really fun Go! Team-esque sample of a kid cheering in the first or second song (those two are quite upbeat, before the album slips into a more subdued mood which it pretty much sticks with to the end) which is probably the least characteristically Radiohead bit of the album, but it works very well. The rest of the time the band is cherry-picking aspects of the many different styles they've experimented with in the past and using them to subtly build up refreshingly simple, folksy, pastoral songs. It's sort of radical, in a way I wasn't expecting. Like every other album Radiohead have released in the last ten years, it's just a complete masterclass.