Radiohead — In Rainbows

Wonderfully coherent, thoroughly of our time, strictly Radiohead and yet gilded with a strange and subtle beauty ― a really great album of non-pop at last.

This is an essay in two parts. I want to discuss the download issue separately from the musical content of the album, because in too many articles the latter is dismissed to focus on the former. If you don’t want to hear any more about online distribution, then flick straight to part II.

Out of the blue, Big Band Radiohead announce their new album is available for download, at whatever cost the user cares to pay. Or, fans are asked to wait a few weeks to get the normal compact disc (and optional extras) via the usual channels.

From a marketing POV, this leak-release strategy was all aces: the fans get a freebie (of sorts), the hype built itself (it was the novelty news item of the week, it became Radiohead Day), and hey it’s a New Thing, which marketing always needs. For the music industry too, this represents an important step in the trend to online distribution, and for genuinely changing how distribution works in the music industry racket. The industry had it too easy for too long.

Sure, now that the initial rush and excitement of the idea has settled, this might be another story ― a very interesting one-off case-study in online distribution. It could be a rare intrusion of Freemium thinking in music and fandom that for once completely ignores business-as-usual.

But I like the boldness of it, the decisive placement of the ball in the consumer’s court; saying You’ve waited long enough, now you can decide how much to pay for it. It’s an act of amazing modesty on the one hand, and a powerful inversion of how value and cost is determined in the industry. It’s modest because it puts the onus of value purely on the consumer; it’s a way for the consumer to express his appreciation in real terms (obviously a tricky move on the free Internet). And it’s a new level of choice in a previously set-price racket; you pay what you feel is right. This is important ― it puts Major Band Radiohead squarely on par with Average Joe Guitarist and his webpage of noodling MP3s and a PayPal button. It’s a top-down levelling that hails and respects the new distribution model. It also seems very much the right thing to do right now, considering how far behind the ball the music industry is with respect to Internet-based business models.

Let me repeat the point because it’s the radical kernel here: the consumer drives value. This goes against thinking that market-driven supply and demand determine cost, and it goes right against fat industry profit margins and the cynical marketing of manufactured pop brands. It’s a triumph for the fans and the open distribution philosophy as a whole.

Sure, Radiohead didn’t need big-buck record deals to fatten their coffers. They’d get plenty of income from their occasional tours & EPs if that’s all they did. And they could angle for a new distribution deal at their leisure; there’s no contract in fixed terms hanging over their heads. So in a way it’s a great exploitation of their position that they can do this whole alternative marketing; it’s a braveness brands like U2 can’t enter into any more. And still, with a million plus downloads, it’s not going to be unprofitable either way. I’d expect most kids will pay zip for the download (ex CC fee), with all the idiot glee of peer-to-peer morons who don’t value or absorb music ― but it’s the value-fans that matter. I paid two pounds, or five Australian dollars ― because I’m a fan. Even if only several thousand people felt this way, the venture would be a success.

Trent Reznor took a similar download-distribution path for his Ghosts I-IV and The Slip albums, and in an interview I heard him carping about Radiohead’s ‘cynical’ use of a deliberately mid-quality download (160 kbps) to ‘push CD sales’, which is just smarmy. I don’t think The Trent realises most people consume music on MP3 players with cruddy earphones and therefore don’t understand the subtleties of fidelity and mastering… as you would with a noisy NIN record. In Rainbows doesn’t sound the greatest when converted back to CD format, but there’s always the disc option should I crave that tiny extra degree of bottom and top-end clarity on my average-to-ok stereo. Trent’s servers fell over soon enough because he only wanted to peddle high bit-rate MP3s to his discerning fans. But the Internet is all about access ― and there’s yet no single standard of how things should be done. Everything is still in flux.

If the Internet had been a viable medium back in the 70s, then all the punk bands would’ve embraced it wholeheartedly. Cheap distribution without cigar-chomping middlemen; cheaply produced music made in home-built studios. No fancy promotional campaigns or market segmentation and hype-generation. Just putting great product out there into the hands of fans. Directly. There’s elements of the punk ethos in this Radiohead deal, a certain anti-pretention perhaps or a renegade stance which helps make In Rainbows the album of Now (for now).

And the beauty of the album musically is that it’s perfectly in sync with this distribution sensibility: despite sounding like typical Radiohead (slightly gloomy, paranoid, locked in solitude) ― above all it sounds like any halfway decent and original band could do this and put it out there. Any talented band that has lived thru some degree of modern absurdity {and a singer who can impart this}. It’s experimental in ways that modern recording technology makes easy. It’s bold in its near-minimalism. It forefronts the importance of a good voice, of songwriting intuition and a strong rhythm section. It sounds democratic and wholly of its time. And it doesn’t sound like millions were dropped on studio or fancy producer costs; it sounds completely can-do. What else is this if not a punk ethic?

This is the new deal in music and music distribution. And though you might not like the resultant tunes, the undeniable truth stands: this band works and the push to market was just right.

II

Musically, the first thing that struck me about In Rainbows was the sheer kinetic drive of some tracks. “15 Step” (track 1) opens with laptoppy flutters from The Eraser, but kicks up with a great Colin bassline. It’s a scattered song of cut ‘n paste mix styles, synth guitars and fractured beats mixed around Thom’s vocal. And then comes the awesomely heavy guitar riff of “Bodysnatchers” (track 2). A manically driven song with an urgent, near-punk momentum that’s physically impressive ― as though they’ve rediscovered the faculty for rhythm, to clear the paranoid head. The opening guitar riff almost sounds like a bass, for heaviness.

Lyrically, the ambiguity and vaguely circular Radiohead despair have set in by now. There are no literal truths to impart on In Rainbows ― my feeling is that even though Thom probably does a whole lot of writing and editing, he nonetheless downplays the importance of lyrics to better accentuate the keening quality of his voice. At times his lyrics hardly seem to matter in terms of literal meaning. “Nude” (track 3) may be an exception, but then it’s also one of the blackest tracks on the album.

Thom writes and works in a lyrical dream-mode, a mode with a peculiar subjective cast (and not always positive); but there’s also a sense of addressing his own conscience here. Or rather, of Thom addressing the conscience of the mediated celebrity Rock God he is supposed to have become (and largely eschewed), and whatever’s left of his normal old mind and soul. And what that conscience does when faced with inevitable death and dissolution. A kind of arid conversation between two parts of a self, filtered through dark media, and possibly schizophrenic to the core. At a loss to remember the Human.

In terms of song vibe, these cuts are all in the ‘classic’ Radiohead style (and I don’t mean OK Computer) ― connotations of paranoia, vaguely despairing doubt, and disaffection. Some of the melodies sound innately familiar ― either the Radiohead modality has become part of the familiar world, or the album is skirting an instant classic vibe. Also, having said that, if this is a classic album, it is so not because of Thom’s vocals ― emphasis on which this albums depends ― he is the voice of the band ― more that it’s classic because the vocals and band interact and complement so well. No mere backing band, no musical henchmen or associates, Radiohead know how to balance themselves musically to really service the vocals; the vocals in turn sound completely grounded and contextualised by the band. A hallmark of maturity perhaps, the hard-won interplay and dynamics of a seasoned creative band. Or the result of an intense {and nearly despairing} amount of work.

With the Scotch Mist videos on YouTube, you get a real sense of the simplicity of their working ethos: a buncha guys in a studio sans ego, all collaboration, servicing the music. Lead guitarist on synth? No prob. No drums but a loop? No probs for the drummer. Add some knob-twiddling? OK for second guitarist. I love the way Radiohead play just what’s needed. OK, the video might downplay the months and acres of doubt and the two plus years it took to record, but the band sounds unified and more egalitarian than ever ― in terms of balance and not playing when needed.

It’s the whole that matters here, the Radiohead Group Effect, the resultant album-vibe. One of the measures of success is that In Rainbows feels consummately like an experience. I don’t mean in the concept album sense of thematic unity, but that there’s strong and pronounced feelings at work in it. Identifiable ones, shared but ambivalent impressions, the common disaffections of modernity perhaps. And ― several bright shining stabs of beauty.

Take “All I Need” (track 5) ― a dirge-like b-side which Harmonia might’ve concocted on a particularly bleak German afternoon. But in the last quarter ― enter the Radiohead/Pyramid Song piano chords and sonic strings, the cymbals riding hard ― and Thom throws in these beautifully affected notes on the word ‘Sun’. It’s a near-instant reach for epic beauty.

Thank god their compositional skills are still intact, that they can pull off such amazing emotional arcs in their songs. “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” (track 4)  is another case in point ― the lyrics and melody aren’t flash, but musically the arpeggios carry an amazing, budding beauty that blooms naturally. Also note how deceivingly simple the song is ― the drumbeat, guitars and perfectly minimal bass ― yet it’s textured all the way.  A song about hitting rock bottom {though not in the Robert Wyatt sense, alas, though for some reason In Rainbows reminds of his last three albums; maybe, again, compositionally}, a song that also never quite comes up for air.

A strange paranoid beauty perhaps? If this is Radiohead trying to sound seductive or at ease, I’d be checking their prescriptions. And yet there’s a strange optimism in it too, a sense of perspective that aligns with what it feels like to be alive in the world today ― a feeling Mogwai also deliver sensitively, but without vocals.

The band is striving for beauty. Maybe this is its optimism; and maybe this is what’ll ultimately tag it a classic. It’s hard enough talking about beauty in modern music let alone creating it, but I had a small insight listening to “Weird Fishes” on the bus the other day, looking at the commuters scurrying about, young couples kissing and middle-aged ones in a hurry ― I thought: the more beauty you hear, the more you see as well. The effect of the song carried over to other senses. There was new beauty in the anonymous and intimate movements of people ― the late yellow sunlight conveyed meaning; there was synchronicity here. This must be the subjective or transformative magic of art, its weird filtration.

Sound-wise, there’s a nicely consistent use of finger-picked and arpeggiated guitars ― I remember several photos on their blog of tiny practice amps mic’d real close, to give that very up-front guitar sound. There’s deep reverb and occasionally dub-y drums, as well as some familiar Godrich glosses. Jonny Greenwood brings his fine compositional sensibility to the sound. And for all the OK Computer purists ― all the fans who came to Radiohead as BritPop saviours but who got lost in the arcana of KidNesiac ― it’s good to point out how much their sound still depends on guitars, and always will.

It’s an essentially Radiohead-sounding album. But I understand better now what that means ― especially after I gave OK Computer another spin. Everyone wants that OK value to come back ― as though OK is the gold standard Radiohead experience. But OK is essentially a guitar-pop record, and everything after was a distancing and widening of that narrow sensibility. People expected pop and instead got Kid A. But what if Kid A is their best album, the one by which all others should be judged? OK was the perfect continuation of The Bends, and Hail to the Thief was the confused and doubting/difficult reprise to KidNesiac. In Rainbows sounds more like the inheritor of the Kid A tradition of sonic experimentation and at times raw or stripped-back mixing ― which to me is a welcome return. Take a look back, purists, at Kid A and count the guitar-based songs. Count ’em. Heaps.

There’s touches of Eraser too, mostly in the primacy accorded Thom’s voice, as well as the familiar paranoia and vaguely depressing or off-putting lyrics. The distancing element in the lyrics might be there just to avert all those pop-saviour/deep-meaningful expectations that plague the successful artist, especially in the British presses; all the people hungry for meaning and answers in a cynical world ― with Radiohead as the anti-Beatles, perhaps. But it’s definitely not pop any more. It’s several steps forward in thinking.

A doubting, experimenting band that embrace beauty. A very distinctive-sounding band who disown their past and yet sound more and more like essential Radiohead. It sounds contradictory, but it works, no?

In Rainbows is also near-perfect 43 minutes in length too; just right, whatever your listening medium.


This essay is also available in the collection Song Logic.

Author: Rino Breebaart

Editor.

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