Everything must go
Sale of the century or album of the year? Musically there are no surprises, except for the happy fact that the whole world is listening again.
In Rainbows www.inrainbows.com
AND THE verdict from the on-line reviews? A+ +, 9/10, *****. What looked at first glance like shift-key gobbledygook soon revealed the triumph of Radiohead’s great Internet gamble. In the space of nine days, anticipation for the band’s seventh studio album was massaged into an international media event by the simple announcement that it would be available as a digital download for which fans could name their own price. By the morning of Wednesday October 10, at which time a million or more punters had pre-ordered it, In Rainbows had metamorphosed from “most thrilling music industry idea in years” into the most acclaimed album of the new century.
And it is a terrific release. Everything that one associates with Radiohead’s work, at least since 1997’s OK Computer, is here. From the warped, electro-tribal thud of the opening 15 Step, In Rainbows meanders through a singular landscape of 21st century rock’n’roll (Bodysnatchers), spacious soul balladry (Nude), liquid jazz (Weird Fishes/Arpeggi), minimal mood song (All I Need), White Album pastiche (Faust Arp), weightless trance rock (Reckoner), an effortless throwaway (House Of Cards), a near orthodox crowd-pleaser (Jigsaw Falling Into Place) and a poignantly simple finale (Videotape). The electronics that have been keenly evident since 2000’s Kid A are still knocking around, but it’s the album’s lyricism and production sparseness that predominate. If there is one true failing, it’s this: no surprises.
That may yet not matter. Musical majesty aside, the album’s significance largely resides elsewhere. If In Rainbows is more Let It Be event than Sgt. Pepper aesthetic revolution, then that’s because the epochal circumstances of its release – for no more Beatles read no more music shops (possibly) – threaten to eclipse the work itself. Yet in an era when new records drop from the sky with ever decreasing significance, incapable of inspiring little more than a partisan ‘Great!’, ‘Good’ or ‘Crap’ before being marked down to the price of a fancy sandwich, that’s nevertheless a remarkable contribution.
Though it already seems unthinkable now, 2003’s Hail To The Thief ushered in a sense of Radiohead fatigue. As thrillingly eclectic as all their post-OK Computer albums had been, Thief nevertheless suggested that they were beginning to chase their own tails. They knew it too, hence Thom Yorke’s bold claim that Radiohead would sound “unrecognisable in two years’ time”. Instead, they sounded merely silent, obviously experiencing a sense of creative stasis, and quite possibly a break-up. Yorke got a solo album out of his system, last year’s personalised, piano-based The Eraser, before the band regrouped to work up In Rainbows.
At least half of it is made up of tried-and-tested material – the song that’s now Nude has been knocking around for a decade – which could explain how the whole “Let’s sell it via the website” idea might have kicked off in the first place. Of course, it’s hardly a new idea. The net is already sinking under the weight of a generation of MySpace hopefuls, many of whom would no doubt pay people to download their work. As far back as the OK Computer days, Prince was aiming his own dust-encrusted collection, Crystal Ball, at the click-and-buy audience – and failed miserably. He eventually learned from his lesson, though, releasing an all-new set, 3121, this summer as a tabloid paper freebie – and sold out 21 London gigs on the back of it. Kinks frontman Ray Davies is about to do the same. Meanwhile, Starbucks continues to woo such high-calibre names as Joni Mitchell and Paul McCartney for coffee-house CD giveaways.
Radiohead are way cooler than that. And cannier. While refashioning the material into perhaps their most satisfyingly sequenced set since OK Computer, they’ve also spent the best part of the past year plotting a new release-and-distribution strategy. The so-called “Western Communism” approach of The Beatles’ early ambition for Apple Records it is not. Registering well over a million downloads at an average price of £4, and with healthy pre-orders for December’s £40 box set edition – which promises artful packaging and a bonus CD of new material in addition to CD and vinyl versions of In Rainbows – the band are already well on the way to matching their earnings from the EMI/Parlophone deal. And that’s before a shop edition, planned for release early in 2008, addresses the industry’s barely credible complaint of limited access.
Above all, though, In Rainbows has earned Radiohead something that money cannot genuinely buy: kudos. The album might not include one of those twice-in-a-lifetime strokes of genius that graced the previous two sets – the incomparable Pyramid Song and There There. But, given the fact that no one’s really been listening for some time, it’s probably enough that it’s full of mischief and adventure, jazzy twists and swooping Eastern string parts, artful Nigel Godrich production and instrumental sophistication, all shrouded in the mild air of aesthetic intoxication and disobedience that you might expect. Even a relatively surprise-free, consolidation-style affair such as this stands head and shoulders above most everything else. The surrounding publicity – media rather than PR generated, by the way – has brought such focus on the record that all those try-hard, watered-down post-punk pastiche acts will now sound terribly inconsequential in comparison.
From the moment MOJO’s Keith Cameron described them as a “pitiful lily-livered excuse for a rock’n’roll group” in the NME around the time of Pablo Honey, Radiohead have shunned complacency and aspired to become anything but lumpen and orthodox. They came through, and grew to respect popular music as a truly elevated art form, knowing that such respect must once in a while mean tearing down a few walls that have grown up around it. Their subsequent flowering into the world’s most courageous stadium band is proof that a little tough critical love can go a long way.
With the music industry infrastructure – a word Yorke tosses in nonchalantly on House Of Cards – reconfiguring itself before our eyes, Radiohead are the only major band with enough imagination and initiative to stick their necks out and search for new ways of reaching their public. Both artistically and in terms of a new business model, In Rainbows is a necessary masterstroke. In time, no doubt, the major labels will establish their own A&R and distribution networks on-line. Until then, revel in the chaos and rejoice in a glorious moment for Radiohead, and for the art and business of rock in general.
After starting work on the album in spring 2006 with producer Mark ‘Spike’ Stent, the band reverted to longtime co-producer Nigel Godrich when sessions resumed last September.
On-line polls suggest the most popular tracks are Reckoner, 15 Step and Nude. House Of Cards generally received the thumbs down.
The download release was discussed across the globe, from The New York Times to Radio 4’s Today programme.
Industry analysis reckon the average price paid to download the album will bottom out at around £1.