In September 2007, Radiohead announced that, within 48 hours, In Rainbows would be delivered to the inboxes of fans who could pay whatever they deemed an appropriate amount. There would be no promos serviced out to journalists. Reviewers were subject to the same conditions as anyone else who wanted to hear the record. Chief music correspondents of national broadsheets were effectively engaged in a race with each other, tasked with the job of maximising their employers’ online traffic by supplying the first reviews. Of course, it’s not an ideal way to listen to music, but then if you do this job for enough years, you do develop an early sense of a record’s worth. I’m not just talking about the difference between good music and bad music, but also the difference between the different kinds of “good” music: the records which will proceed to weave their charms into your world and those which bounce off it, leaving you impressed but unmoved.
An example of the latter, in my opinion, is Radiohead’s 2011 King Of Limbs – whilst In Rainbows remains a shining example of the former. It sounded no less exciting at 6.30am on the morning of its release. Dispensed into the darkness of the sleeping world that surrounded me, it felt like I was the only person listening to these songs, like I was privy to an incredible secret. And yet, hundreds and thousands of people around the world, were also enjoying an identical experience. I listened all the way through three times, jotting down whatever observations came to mind. By the time my kids came downstairs, I had half a review written, but the rest would have to wait. Breakfasts had to be made, the school run completed. I dropped them off and continued to the nearest cafe with wi-fi. At 9.55am, I pressed send. I’m relieved to see that the record I still play and love is mostly recognisable to me from these hastily-written first impressions. That doesn’t always happen.
Had there been a nationwide power cut last Monday, you could have lit a town the size of St Albans with the envy that Radiohead instantly elicited among their peers. Take away the glamour of a pop star’s job and that fact is that most of the currently trading names in your record collection are slogging through severe record deals for percentage points that Radiohead left behind a long time ago. And yet, among all the excitement, it’s worth pondering a small but important question. If the music industry collapsed tomorrow, what would most of those bands do with their new-found autonomy? In a world without A&R men and people who are paid to tell you the truth about whether your new stuff sucks, how many musicians would ultimately resist the gravitational pull of their own rectums?
Ever since OK Computer made them big enough to ignore the advice of those around them, Radiohead have somehow beaten down a path between the expectations of their fans and the abyss of absolute freedom. That they’ve done it again with In Rainbows isn’t entirely clear from the first few bars. Even before he sings the lines, “One by one/Comes to us all,” the hand of Thom Yorke, the incorrigible contrarian, is evident in the jackhammering machine beat that kicks off 15 Step. Once you’ve effectively been told to sit up straight and listen, everything is played out around a rhythm that resembles a sectioned patient trying to escape their straitjacket and Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien’s simple, pretty guitar playing. Occasional bursts of shouting children do little to dissipate the presiding air of strangeness. Welcome then, to Radiohead’s favourite default setting in 2007.
At various times, they’ve sounded like a great live band and like hermetic musos prodding around on laptops in the hope that the next noise might offer a new direction. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi is, strangely, neither. Its airless, bunker-bound anti-ambience recalls Kid A and Amnesiac, but the band themselves sound thrillingly alive, thrashing out a melody replicates on “real” instruments the gorgeous Cornish digi-folk of Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James – an album for which Radiohead have all been vocal in their affection.
Much to the ongoing chagrin of a minority who want them to repeat 1995’s The Bends, doggedly experimental rock is just what Radiohead do these days, finding common ground between hitherto ingongruent parts. Hence a song like Bodysnatchers. On it, Greenwood and O’Brien feed a chugging, elementary riff through an amp that barely sounds like it can take it, while Thom Yorke’s mostly indistinct vocals compete to be heard over the hyperactive raga-rock being played out around him.
Their attitude to the medium might be one of uncompromising modernity, but Radiohead’s almost quaint belief in the album as an art form is borne out by their dispute with Apple (the absence of their music on iTunes is down to their refusal to allow the sale of individual tracks). In Rainbows compounds their stance. In time you’ll scoot to your favourites here – the baroque fever-folk of Faust Arp is just, when it all comes down, an endlessly repeatable treat – but taken as a whole, In Rainbows adheres to a loose musical narrative of its own.
The herky-jerky clatter of earlier songs gives way to acoustic guitars, bigger melodies and a musical sense of resolution. Finally, Thom Yorke even finds himself slipping into the vernacular of the pop songs we thought he never even listened to, let alone sang. That’s him on House Of Cards, singing “I don’t wanna be your friend/I just wanna be your lover” like Prince’s shy baby brother, amid swirling strings that simulate the postcoital fug of a perfect Sunday morning. Lest we imagine him guesting on the next Sugababes album, it’s worth pointing out that the next verse begins “Infrastructure will collapse”, but no matter. It’s one of their very best songs.
Ditto, All I Need, which lobs another relatively direct Yorke lyric into sonic waters that appear to meander by the Get Carter soundtrack. Listen once and you’re unsure. Listen twice, knowing that, three minutes in, a plangent pounding piano leads you out into a snowblind crescendo of melodic light and, you’re excited before you even get there. Quite how it all ranks alongside other Radiohead albums – well, let’s be honest, it’s far too early to tell. In time, the excitement of waiting for a new release by one of your favourite bands to land in your inbox will separate In Rainbows from the role it will go on to play in your life.
For what it’s worth, In Rainbows was sent to me at 6.30am. Three hours later, it already appears to have laid down roots in my interior world. The trick, I guess, is to give your fans what they didn’t know they wanted. Radiohead, old hands at this, have been doing it for over a decade now. With In Rainbows, they appear to have done it again.