Tuesday, October 30, 2007

You'll Go To Hell For What You Did

Radiohead – In Rainbows

Measured in terms of both critical and commercial success Radiohead are probably the greatest band in the world today, and having held that position for some time now they can pretty much do whatever the fuck they want, and so they are. Sitting in a comfortable financial position gives them the freedom to allow people to download their new album for a price of their choice, just to see what happens. I suspect that the commercial aspect of their decision is a little savvier than some might give them credit for. Someone asked me recently why they didn't just charge a fixed price for the album, in the nonsensical economic assumption that if you offer something for free there's no reason that anyone would give you money for it. The fact of the matter is that people now have the option of paying any value at all for the music, from nothing up through to maybe twenty pounds, (at which point you may as well just buy the forty pound hard copy version), whereas with a flat fee they have the choice of either paying the fee or nothing (i.e. getting it off soulseek). It's hard to explain without drawing a graph but my guess is that it will actually be more profitable for them this way. And even if it's not, I'm sure the expensive 2CD, 2LP boxed set will cover costs.

My box set will be arriving in December sometime, but in the meantime we have the first disc worth of material available to listen to. It was nice receiving it completely out of the blue like that, with no early reviews to give you any idea of what to expect. Take that critics! You had to wait just like everyone else!

Radiohead have never done the same thing twice but even still In Rainbows is surprising in many ways. For a start it's easily the most quiet, restrained thing they've ever done with almost no high or low hooks to latch on to. It's an album that's so minimal (especially compared to their earlier work) that it demands careful listening to really appreciate a lot of it. Thom Yorke's distinctive voice is still front and centre but Johnny Greenwood's guitars and electronica are vastly subdued compared to his normal style. Unexpectedly enough this album gives Phil Selway a chance to shine. I've always thought he was a great drummer but in the past he's always been buried by the huge musical personalities he's keeping time for. However the biggest surprise with In Rainbows however is the upbeat, positive emotional vibe of the music. Coming from the most miserable band on the planet and on the heels of Yorke's maudlin solo release it's at least as stunning as their novel distribution model.

In many ways the album is also a bit of a return to rock. The electronic and avant garde elements that have dominated their last three albums are still present but are never anything more than background to the traditional rock elements. Hell, 'Bodysnatchers' sounds like it could have been on Pablo Honey, with it's fuzzed out indie rock tone and Thom's shouted but upbeat vocals. Yet the album as a whole reminds me mostly of Amnesiac, not just because they're both albums that greatly disappointed me, but because of the wilfully obtuse, opaque nature of the songs, especially Thom's voice, which goes out of it's way to confound my melodic expectations in ways that are not necessarily satisfying to the ear. 'All I Need' from the new album reminds me a lot of 'You And Who's Army' from Amnesiac, in the way that an song that I found unsatisfying for most of its length suddenly bursts into a wonderful, soaring piano break segueing to a beautiful outro that doesn't last long enough.

At least Amnesiac contained a few songs that I really liked ('Pyramid Song' and 'Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box') but almost everything on In Rainbows leaves me with this unsatisfied feeling. I can't fault the songwriting, every song seems to have been crafted with great care and skill, but it's so minimal and subdued that it's often hard to appreciate this. I feel as though this is perhaps the bands intention. Just as they are one of the only bands with the power to do something audacious like their record-label-less free download idea, they're also one of the only bands who can make a deliberately obtuse, difficult album and expect people to have the patience to give it time and attention to grow on them. For now I'm giving In Rainbows a tentative thumbs down, as the least incredible album to date (save Pablo Honey which doesn't count) in a spectacular career, but I can't shake the suspicion that it's precisely crafted songs are going to unexpectedly unveil hidden depths some day when I'm least expecting it.

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