Everybody who’d pre-ordered it received their download of Radiohead’s In Rainbows at the same time – public and critics alike. The physical product, for those without computers to aid their aural pleasure, will appear nearly two months later with various extra tracks, vinyl and artwork for the princely sum of £40. But if you want the download now, you get to choose what you pay for it. As the band’s website says, No really, it’s up to you.
This novel distribution method for the Oxford quintet’s seventh album, and first since 2003’s Hail To The Thief, has seen the record’s release details splattered across main TV news bulletins and even business press pages. Out of contract with EMI, Radiohead have at a stroke redefined what is possible in the hard and fast brave new world of the digital age, at least for a major band.
Indeed the story of the album’s release has been the main talking point, with no promos for journalists to discuss the music. There’s an argument that says when a band is as big as Radiohead, reviews are superfluous: their work is critic-proof. Nor do they care about the charts – In Rainbows, available only through their official website, is not chart eligible. But that’s not going to stop anyone writing – finally – about the music.
So what’s it like? In Rainbows, in common with much of Radiohead’s output, is still revealing itself a layer at a time. It needs to be heard on headphones. And then loudly through speakers. It will doubtless continue to unveil nuances for days and then weeks. But initial impressions suggest that, despite several of the featured songs gestating for years, it doesn’t sound like a collection of out-takes, nor does it sound like ground being retrodden. It’s not an electronica experiment a la Kid A, though there are plenty of synthesised sounds (producer Nigel Godrich’s trademark).
That it sounds fresh is less to do with songwriting progression, though it’s discernible, and more to do with the band’s performance and the album’s production. After a lengthy spell away from the spotlight that spawned a solo record for Thom Yorke and film score work for Johnny Greenwood, the band sound like they’re enjoying being together again.
Of course, this being Radiohead, enjoyment is tempered by the redoubtable fact that their music has never exactly been a bag of laughs. Instead that enjoyment’s manifestation is in little details. Moments of experimental, playful drumming that sound like they were composed by Yorke on a drum machine and then learned by Phil Selway to play on a drumkit. The particular bars instruments or drums kick in on, never in the most obvious places.
The arrangements are equal parts organic and mechanistic. Familiar elements of jazz beats, proggy space rock and even garage rock mix and meld and seep. Opener 15 Step, as upbeat an introduction to an album as Radiohead have ever penned, actually sounds like a 15-step dance. The pace stays up for Bodysnatchers, but then the first of the blissful numbers, Nude, reigns things right back to a reflective place shared later by centrepiece All I Need.
Reminding most of Kid A’s wide-open aural spaces, Nude could be Radiohead’s sex song. It’s a gloriously laid-back track and one of several to conjure images of duvets and early morning cuddles. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi, despite an uptempo drum skit, also feels musically warm. This though is while Yorke revisits previous impressionistic, dark and watery lyrical themes (see also Pyramid Song). Yorke’s voice could sing the telephone directory and make an audience cry, so while it’s never completely clear what he’s singing about, it sounds weighty.
“Wakey wakey, rise and shine,” he whispers on Faust Arp, almost lost under a string section. On the stand-out House Of Cards, to a shuffling garage rock beat, he’s intimately prosaic again: “I don’t want to be your friend, I just want to be your lover.” If Radiohead’s earlier lyrics were most often unintelligible or slanted to the political, this album’s songs sound personal. There’s a choral quality to Yorke’s multi-tracked vocals too that makes him sound less isolated this time round. And, especially on Reckoner, a song that could soundtrack a biblical film, it’s quite beautiful.
As a reassurance to those fans who will always want endless reiterations of The Bends, Jigsaw Falling Into Place underlines the fact that Radiohead can still rock when they fancy to. “The beat goes round and round,” Yorke describes, yelping. “Come on and let it out.” This one has ‘live favourite’ written all over it, even if it wouldn’t sound out of place on Hail To The Thief.
The finale, Videotape, for a band redefining uses for technology, seems to be a rather ironic ode to old devices supplanted by new. Or maybe it’s about departed loved ones. A simple piano line is eventually an off-kilter drum line and haunting backing vocals join in the reflective mood. And then it’s over.
Leaving aside the box set, something of a collector’s item, how does this basic album of 10 tracks stack up on first analysis to a back catalogue second to just about nobody’s? Well… It’s short, but it holds its own and it sounds like a progression. By turns danceable, blissed out romantic, familiar and new, it’s technologically and musically fascinating. Its juxtaposition of orga and mecha is one of its many well executed contradictions. Packed but sparse, thrilling, complex, innovative, simple. Without even a dud bar never mind a filler track, In Rainbows is more than any fan could hope for.