On seventh studio album, iconic post-rock band trades alienation for populism
On Wednesday, Oct. 10, hundreds of thousands of music fans booted up their Internet browsers to download mp3s. Normally, this wouldn’t be exceptional. But in this case, the fans were doing it legally, and the mp3s comprised a new studio album by one of the biggest bands in the world. By sanctioning fans to pay whatever they want (including nothing) for In Rainbows, Radiohead parlayed a pragmatic approach to modern musical commerce into a brilliant marketing ploy. It sounds like an anarchist’s wet dream: the band forewent a label and a fixed pricing scheme, effectively taking hold of the reins of production and shifting the power to the people.
It would be easy to forget that there’s music involved in all these commercial ramifications if In Rainbows weren’t such a powerful album, where Radiohead’s cool-headed marketing strategy is paralleled by cool-headed songs. Not only is this Radiohead’s most straightforward, organic-sounding album since The Bends, it finds the band shedding the bulk of its trademark anxiety while remaining indomitably themselves. On Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief, Yorke’s emergent passion for computerized music left his bandmates often tapping their toes, waiting for something to do. These three albums earned Radiohead a reputation as ambassadors from a post-human future. Masterful as they were, In Rainbows is like a sigh of relief, a pre-apocalyptic album that’s obviously the work of a full band. It’s the sound of Radiohead funneling everything they’ve learned about space and timing and digital enhancement back into melodic, accessible songs. Where recent Radiohead albums might cite inspirations like the dot-matrix printer, this one harks back to garage rock, soul and R&B.
Ever cagey, Radiohead opens the album with a bit of a red herring: The itchy mechanical percussion at the front of “15 Step” sounds like a refugee from Yorke’s solo laptop album, The Eraser. But when the downright soulful vocal and Jonny Greenwood’s sinuous guitar lead leap out, the jig is up, and the song proceeds through anthemic upsweeps and chiming breakdowns that focus on movement and melody more than stasis and structure. This artful directness defines the concise, 10-song record. On “Bodysnatchers,” Yorke’s voice hovers majestically above a bruising, mutating fuzz riff. For once, the band sounds more fun than important. At the outset, “Nude” calls to mind OK Computer’s imaginary film scores, with Yorke’s melting harmonies drifting through a deep wash of cinematic synth-strings. But it soon fades into a terse, languid drum-and-bass pattern that foregrounds Yorke’s mellifluous crooning, making for one of the album’s most gorgeous moments. “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is a fleet spiral of ringing guitars and sleek percussion that the band teases through a couple of stirring crescendos, as Yorke sings like a man at peace, one moment retiring, the next effortlessly emphatic. “All I Need” expertly contrasts baggy bass bleats with tiny, concise glockenspiel, its drama tempered by “Faust Arp,” a breezy yet rooted Brit-folk interlude. Such counterintuitive juxtapositions abound: See also the balance of delicate guitar work and cacophonous percussion that make “Reckoner” so alluringly strange. By the time “Videotape”—a starry piano ballad wracked with percussive volleys—closes out the album, it’s clear that Radiohead has reinvented itself along with its marketing strategy. “How come I end up where I started?” Yorke asks on “15 Step.” Hard to say, but fans who worried that the band had painted itself into a corner with the scattershot Hail to the Thief will be thankful for it.
For Brian Howe’s full, 1,000-word review, check out the upcoming Dec/Jan issue of Paste.