As much as critics pigeonholed Radiohead as luddites in days past, perhaps no other band has embraced and incorporated technology as successfully as they have. Their fans? Equally savvy. Before OK Computer, Radiohead's obsessive following had already created a tight-knit online community, one whose overpowering ubiquity indeed helped facilitate the so-called "revolutionary" release of Radiohead's seventh, self-released new album, In Rainbows. But believing the album's unique distribution method could or should serve as a contemporary template is premature. Can you imagine every artist offering digital downloads for whatever price the consumer chooses? Aside from lacking social and cultural clout, most artists couldn't pull off a consumer-driven, variable pricing model without serious connections and a staff, not to mention the disposable income reaped from over a decade's worth of financial backing from a major label. It was Radiohead's cultural currency, financial situation, and impeccable timing that made this possible.
I'm not saying the release method of In Rainbows is an improbable or bad idea. Radiohead were simply in a privileged enough position to wage such a hefty bet. During the 10 days between the announcement and its digital release, we weren't really placing value on music as such with our fill-in-the-blank pre-orders (How could we? It was a pre-order); we were placing value on both Radiohead as an institution and the prospect of a distribution method that didn't reek of stacked gold bars. We were placing value on a medium, the pricing of which had been indoctrinated with industry values. In turn, music's arbitrary value and consumer culture's ritualistic behaviors were simultaneously exposed. Yet the majority didn't see it on those terms. Marx's materialism and McLuhan's "medium is the message" theory were smacking us in the face, but in a culture of heroes and celebrity, the majority retained faith in idealism and individualism through starry-eyed tongue-wagging and blind devotion, reducing it all to rhetorical waste. It was kind of cute, but it severely missed the significance. (This is when the "pragmatism not idealism" platitude from "Fitter, Happier" achieved a new, ironic pitch.)
Some people, myself included, even tried to politicize the event -- and the release was, if anything, an event. But speaking to Gothamist, Jonny Greenwood said the release method was really about "getting it out quickly" and that people "making a big thing about it being against the industry or trying to change things for people" was unfounded. Still, it's no surprise that commentary had extended its reach into chalkboard politics; hell, a discussion of its political implications is practically built into Radiohead's history. Ever since The Bends, the band has had an intense relationship with trite industry mechanisms and standardization. From the modified promo copies of OK Computer, to the "no logo" marketing approach of Kid A, to the subsequent tent tour, to casual theater stints post-Hail to the Thief, to their resistance to iTunes, and finally to this new label-less distribution "experiment," Radiohead's cautious steps with the industry show the band's desire to lead the dance. It's about control and not allowing one's identity be dictated by a conglomerate, and with Thom's political intuitiveness and Radiohead's leverage, it's understandable that the whole shebang was embedded with politicisim, even though it was idealistically (and dubiously) more about direct cultural exchange than about biting the hand that feeds.
Indeed, In Rainbows comes with a whole lot of cultural baggage. But privilege, idealism, and politics aside, the only elements that separate the album's blistering sonics from this weighty context are the coded musical gestures. As with any "pop" music, you have to believe in the music's signifiers in order to truly immerse yourself in a band like Radiohead, or else it sounds like just another cultural exercise. They are a pop band whose experimentations lie primarily in approach; the closest they got to forging a truly singular language was with the dissonant, reactionary theatrics of Kid A (and to a lesser degree, Amnesiac). As relatively alienating as Kid A might have been tagged, though, it had the most entry points for fans, since its appeal was broadened over a more diverse musical and intellectual spectrum. You're almost as likely to find a fan of theirs listening to Nurse with Wound as one who can swallow Coldplay's transparent musicality, which is saying a lot. Essentially, Kid A's musical disposition matched its groundbreaking marketing approach -- attempting to fuse the context of In Rainbows with its music, however, only serves to underscore how rarely the two align in any fundamental way.
Generally, In Rainbows sees the band doing what they do best: adopting a new vision and seeing it through. The vision this time around is one that favors rhythmic consistency over dynamicism, simplicity over complexity, clarity over the obtuse. The ferment has been calmed, the abstract defined, the tension relieved (relatively speaking). It refrains from proffering a grandiose statement, which is, on a purely subjective level, good and bad. The good is that Radiohead aren't trying to replicate past successes. Every approach has its time and place, and In Rainbows' somewhat tepid disposition perhaps reflects the consonance of their personalities behind-the-scenes. Amazingly, it lacks any pretense: their aesthetic is organic and fluid, indicating a band that responds honestly and artistically to circumstance, rather than one that imposes a rigid, stagnant aesthetic for more idealistic purposes. And its warmth is an indication either of my temperament and presumptions or of Radiohead's increasing self-assuredness and confidence in the studio.
With the 5/4 timing of "15 Step," the White Album-esque fingerpicking of "Faust Arp," and the poignant yet subdued "Videotape," it's clear their musical concerns have shifted away from overt attention-grabbers. Radiohead are obviously adept at crafting songs replete with arcs of tension and release, but these methods didn't make it to this album for a reason. Case in point: while you wait and wait for a climax on tracks like "Recokner" and "House of Cards," they never come. And just when you think you've got "Bodysnatchers" and "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" figured out, they'll either let it short-circuit or cut-and-paste a structural change. But it's okay. And it's actually refreshing. The driving viscerality may be missing (I blame both Nigel Godrich's production and the foundation+addition songwriting tactic), but the linear structures display yet another desire for a fresh trajectory, perhaps most successfully displayed on “All I Need.” Radiohead are only comfortable in new approaches, and I certainly prefer that over the alternative.
But without introducing a musical statement that goes beyond simply making a "full-bodied" album, the distinguishing characteristics of In Rainbows seem much more consciously stylized than before. It's miles from bland, but only inches from compromise. In its weakest form, the emphasis is placed on beats that fall so uniformly flat that tracks like "Nude" (finally released!) and "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi," both stunning in their early versions, would sound better without the incessant drumming. The rhythms are supposed to drive the music forward, but it sounds like the music's standing still. Phil Selway's traditional, rather cautious drumming has veered from delightfully programmatic ("Airbag") to innovative ("Myxomatosis"), yet it's often hindered Radiohead's rhythmic possibilities, too. (I'm willing to bet he had little or nothing to do with the captivating beats of "Idioteque," "Kinetic," and "Kid A.") At the same time, it certainly doesn't help that the guitar lines this time around are so riff-oriented.
The lyrics on In Rainbows won't necessarily blow minds either. At best, Yorke's ruminations have been obscured enough to attribute to surrealism, yet sometimes discerning enough to chalk up to critiques of the postmodern variety. On this album, both are approximated with allusion rather than struck with conviction. According to Yorke, the lyrics are "about that anonymous fear thing, sitting in traffic, thinking, 'I'm sure I'm supposed to be doing something else' [...] It's similar to OK Computer in a way. It's much more terrifying." But while reading through the lyrics, it's clear that the "anonymous fear" is filtered through poetics that all but skew the language into Radiohead-speak. With lines like "I have no idea what I am talking about/ I'm trapped in this body and can't get out" (“Bodysnatchers”) and "In the deepest ocean/ The bottom of the sea [...] I get eaten by the worms." ("Weird Fishes/Arpeggi"), perhaps the intellectual jumps required to discern meaning are best left to psychologists and/or courageous fans. Yorke's lyrics were never meant to be lucid.
While the soundworld of In Rainbows is not as provocative as Kid A's, and the lyrics not as timely and relevant as OK Computer's, any aesthetic critiques of the album will be surely overshadowed by what it will represent culturally 10 years down the line. Sure, Radiohead are financially successful, and sure, they're probably even more so with In Rainbows, but money always seemed like an afterthought for them. Just imagine the advance or royalty rate they could've gotten if they resigned with EMI. The signs of capitalism point to distribution, publishing, and diversification, but instead of only looking at this experiment as a business plan for a label-less future (despite the fact that Radiohead are releasing a "standard" physical version next year), the discourse should also include serious discussions about shifting cultural values and political inescapability. Save the aesthetic contemplation for leisure time and outlines for boardroom meetings. If there was ever an opportune time to highlight that music is much more than notes and rhythms, that reviewing music is not simply a subjective assessment of what's "good" and "bad," that what's important here is the medium, not the message, then that time would be now. Sure, Yorke's not directly singing about music as commodity or industry politics, but what In Rainbows will always signify is just that.
1. 15 Step
4. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
5. All I Need
6. Faust Arp
8. House of Cards
9. Jigsaw Falling Into Place