The wonder of Radiohead’s very good new album “In Rainbows” isn’t that the band has invited the world to download it for a pittance (if you’re stingy) at least six months before it’s likely to be available in stores. The wonder, actually, is why it took so long to arrive in the first place.
All 10 tracks were debuted during the band’s apropos-of-nothing tour last summer - indeed, these and several more were aired across two nights at L.A.‘s Greek Theatre alone. Thom Yorke explained around that time that the reason it was taking so long for the English quintet to get `round to recording a new disc (its last was “Hail to the Thief” four years ago) was that life - marriage and children in particular - had simply gotten in the way. And why shouldn’t it? They should be on no one’s timetable but their own.
But the arresting thing about last year’s brief series of performances was just how studio-ready this bounty of new tunes already was. Whether futuristically raucous in the manner of the last few discs (“15 Steps,” another heavily rhythmic opener) or echoing an earlier Radiohead approach (both “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” and the Nick Drake-ish swirl of “Faust Arp” would fit just fine on “The Bends”), these songs find the celebrated boundary-busters scaling back to some kind of conventionality.
(Click here to get your own copy, at whatever price you think is fair.)
UPDATE: I’m now noticing that when you go to the site to download In Rainbows, it doesn’t seem to allow you to order it - when you click to continue it wants a password. This may be a glitch soon to be resolved, along with the site’s frequent crashes today. Reports out of just about everywhere (Wired.com had the most insightful) have noted that, depending on when you went to download, servers have been very slow, understandably. (After all, fans did crash the server the day after the presale was announced.)
Also, several other acts are quick to follow Radiohead’s lead. Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor announced on his site last week that the band’s next album would be issued much like “In Rainbows,” while three other English bands - Oasis, Jamiroquai and the Charlatans - are considering this method as well. So far Oasis’ next single, “Lord Don’t Slow Me Down” plus two live cuts (due Oct. 21), is available for preorder at Oasis.net.
Certainly “Hail to the Thief” restored some recognizable order after the daring puzzles of “Kid A” and “Amnesiac,” but it did so without forsaking the experimentalism that has fueled (and furthered) Radiohead since its masterpiece, “OK Computer.” “In Rainbows,” though still richer and more contoured than most records released these days, nonetheless often plays as if the sonic advances the band has made in the decade since this touchstone were tossed aside in favor of achieving an intimate immediacy.
Phil Selway’s drums, for instance - almost always delivered in reminiscent patterns that first emerged as long ago as Pablo Honey’s “Blow Out” - are this time routinely miked flat and close. The guitar work of Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, meanwhile, is far less effects-laden than usual, with clean arpeggios and pretty riffs at most surrounded by gentle swells of background distortion.
Likewise, Yorke’s lyrics are more easily deciphered than ever before, though that doesn’t mean they’re always so easily understood. The dramatic climax of the Bjork-ish yearning of “All I Need” isn’t so confusing, but I’m still trying to make heads or tails of Mephistopheles-filled fever dream of the closing “Videotape” and I’m stumped as to what he’s saying in “Reckoner.”
Whether retreating is the smartest move will probably be debated long after today’s flurry of blog posts about “In Rainbows” and its attempt at a sales paradigm shift subsides. After spending the morning with it, I’m inclined to declare it mostly a winner, albeit one that measures up to Radiohead’s gold standard only in spots.
One-third (culled mostly from the first half of the album) is instantly rewarding, while another third has grown on me quickly. Yet I find it hard to deny that the remaining third is guilty of meandering (the plainly stated “House of Cards” is the worst offender) or threatening to lapse into generics (sucker that I am, I like “Jigsaw Falling into Place,” but it’s blatantly recycled, while one can clearly detect perhaps deliberate traces of “No Surprises” in “Nude”).
But back to my original point: Given how little soundscaping there is of this material - orchestrations are the chief accoutrement, loops and assorted knob-twiddling a distant second - why did it take more than year for Radiohead to get this stuff down and out?
Precise though the playing resolutely is, everything about “In Rainbows” still comes off as though it could have been bashed out in about a month, with a long weekend set aside for wilder overdubs. The long gap of time until its electronic delivery, then, only adds to the album’s prevailing mood of uncertainty: For the first time in its career, Radiohead doesn’t sound like it knows what to do next. Some driving, unifying spark seems to be missing here; consequently, the material never comes together as tightly and vibrantly as it should.
Which leads me to two conclusions:
1) They really would have been better off rushing through this one, releasing whatever came quick, perhaps even cutting it live in the studio - the better to have achieved electrifying results. Not only would this grand experiment in pay-what-you-like, label-free downloading then have an arguably more energetic album to push, the process itself would have come a great deal sooner. (Although it’s such a basic concept, it’s baffling no one else on Radiohead’s scale thought to risk it.)
2) Methinks the motivation for said grand experiment is twofold. Surely Radiohead aims to set a trend that, in its generosity and goodwill toward listeners sick of getting gouged or litigated against by major labels, could further damage the crumbling music-biz infrastructure. At the same time, I bet its rapid release is chiefly a way to get this one out of Radiohead’s system - and without harboring ill will for making fans wait until 2008 for tunes they first heard in 2006.
Despite everything else it represents, isn’t this give-it-away stunt also a means to deflect haranguing for taking so long to finish a less-than-stellar album?
Regardless, it’s still worth $5 at least.