It's hard to tell what's more enjoyable: Radiohead saying fuck you to the record industry, or the album they did it with.
In Rainbows, Radiohead's seventh full-length, is a breakthrough, a sign of things to come, a must have, legendary. But I'm not even talking about the actual music; we'll get to that soon. I'm talking about the way the band released In Rainbows. You know the deal, anyone who uses a computer knows it. Instead of putting their new album out on a record label, the band just dropped a few notes on the internet telling us they have a new album, it comes out in ten days and you can only get from their website. Oh, and you can pay as little or as much as you want for it.
What?! Are you kidding me? Radiohead has a new album and they are literally giving it away? It's good to be the King. And for once, it's good to be the King's disciples.
News started dripping in from Dead Air Space last January about a new album in the works, then in September they announced recording was finished, but everyone figured we were months and months away from hearing anything. Then, one day while I'm staring off into the deep abyss of my computer the news hits like a bomb. We all figured Radiohead would do something interesting after fulfilling their six-album deal with EMI with 2003's Hail to the Thief, but this is huge, even for Radiohead.
When you are one of the biggest bands on the planet you can afford to do things your own way. The real question is, will other artists follow suit? We're happy to let you know that Oasis, Jamiroquai and The Charlatans are already talking about following this "new-model." This is truly the most exciting part. Radiohead already changed the world: The Bends (1995), OK Computer (1997) and Kid A (2000) rank up there with the greatest, most important three album runs ever, putting them in the same breath as The Beatles (Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band), The Rolling Stones (Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St.) and Pink Floyd (The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals), but could Radiohead actually evolve from changing the face of music to re-writing the entire business plan? Climbing up that mountain past all those record moguls and label dinosaurs is daunting, but if any artist on the planet can do it, it's probably Radiohead. And the best part is, they aren't even trying to screw the record industry, they're just being who they are (ahhh true revolutionaries), and what they want is to get the music to the people. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood made this clear earlier today when he told the Gothamist that the motivation behind releasing the album like this was "Just getting it out quickly. It was kind of an experiment as well; we were just doing it for ourselves and that was all. People are making a big thing about it being against the industry or trying to change things for people but it's really not what motivated us to do it. It's more about feeling like it was right for us and feeling bored of what we were doing before."
Okay already, Radiohead are great dudes who do things on their own terms, so what about the music on In Rainbows already!?
To be honest, it's a little difficult to say. Another aspect of this "new-model" is that the press didn't receive pre-copies weeks ahead of time like we always do. There was no repeated listening. No time for deconstructing each and every song for nuance. So what we have are first impressions. And upon the first five or so spins, we're off to a damn good start, but my head wasn't blown straight off either (the one bad side to being the best is that expectations are often un-realistic). That said, it's still clearly one of the best albums of the year, and one could truly use extra time when trying to digest music that is this dense, layered and filled with inspiration. Just today Yorke said how "Most great composers rely on folk music. I rely on pop music" and in many ways this sort of experimental, futuristic, emotional elaboration and mystification of pop music is what makes Radiohead so brilliant, and often so hard to clearly see.
What you can't miss however is the way In Rainbows kicks off with the stutter-funk drum beat of "15 Step" and a quick reminder that producer Nigel Godrich is as good as it gets. It's a complex number with shifting tempos, echoed vocals, weird electronics, jazzy guitar, pockets of pulsating bass, children cheering and Yorke sounding as driven and disturbed as ever. "Bodysnatchers" is a bit more straightforward and features lots of Jonny Greenwood's guitar and brother Colin's bass. It even has a somewhat traditional breakdown that devolves into angular guitars and heavy Yorke. Based on the first two songs it appears Radiohead is revisiting that peak period between The Bends and OK Computer.
After the aggressive one-two punch to open the album, "Nude," "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi," and "Faust Arp" showcase the band's brilliant, symphonic arrangements and delicate string details. "All I Need" is slow, heavy and dark, moving through the album like an animal at night.
The record has a definite flow to it and when it gets to "Reckoner" the compositions get simpler, there are less electronics and the sound becomes a bit earthier. Yorke's voice is always filled with knowledge and pain, here his distant falsetto is allowed space to cover you, or float around you like on "House of Cards" where Yorke's reverb-drenched croon evokes the spirit of Jim James.
Some of the greatest albums ever take time to sink in. As I'm writing this, In Rainbows was released less than 24 hours ago. Each time I listen I hear new songs, new sections, new phrases from Yorke that pull me in deeper. This is a serious album by one of the most important bands we have, no matter how hard we try, we won't figure it out in one day, or even one week or one month. I'm not willing to say that In Rainbows is Radiohead's greatest, but I'm also not willing to dismiss the possibility quite yet either.
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