First impressions are pretty damn good. It’s dreamy, eerie, epic, soaring, soothing, very occasionally manic... and more.
First things first. A credit card ‘service fee’ of 45 olde English pennies aside, hotpress paid a grand total of absolutely nada into Radiohead’s much discussed ‘honesty box’ for downloading In Rainbows.
It’s an interesting idea and all, but sorry, we just don’t pay for review copies round these parts. No exceptions. Anyway, while Bono and Bob are working hard to Make Poverty History, with their innovative but risky ‘pay whatever you think it’s worth’ approach Radiohead seem to be doing their damnedest to Make Record Companies History. Certainly this is one of the first ever albums to get serious coverage in the Financial Times.
Many music fans will undoubtedly applaud their sticking it to ‘The Man’ like this, but, unfashionable and all as it is to praise the major corporations, it’s worth noting that, without solid support from EMI over their previous six albums, Radiohead would never have been in a position to pull off this stunt.
Apparently 1.2 million people downloaded it on the day of its release, but it’s still too early to tell just how big their eventual pot of gold at the end of In Rainbows will be. If mega-wealthy acts like U2 or Madonna tried this approach, they’d undoubtedly get royally screwed by a public that thinks they’re obscenely-rich enough already, thanks very much. Radiohead certainly aren’t in that financial league, but they’re still millionaires. They may yet regret calling their last album Hail To The Thief.
But enough about their sales strategy. What’s In Rainbows actually like? Well, come on, it’s a Nigel Godrich-produced Radiohead album and it took them almost three years to make (during which time they apparently seriously countenanced splitting up). What the fuck do you think it’s like?
Needless to say, fans won’t be disappointed. There may even be some converts. With Radiohead, nowadays, it’s never really a question of ‘is it any good?’ Instead you ask, ‘how good is it?’ The answer here is ‘extremely’.
In an interview done during the recording, Yorke described the album’s lyrical themes thus: “It’s 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 OK Computer was terrifying too – some of the lyrics were.”
Whatever about the lyrical themes (which are as vague as ever), musically it’s nowhere near as guitar-heavy as OK Computer (which occasionally touched on pure grunge). Nor is it as clinical, cold or experimental as Kid A. From the opening atmospherics of ‘15 Step’ (a dirty clatter of electronic drumbeats and an urgent lyric), though, it’s instantly recognisable as a Radiohead album.
On first few listens to these 10 markedly different songs, it’s a surprisingly mellow, jazzy, ambient affair, with lots of strange electronica, soaring instrumentals, scattered drums, the occasional noisy blast of chunky guitars and an unsteady stream/scream of Yorke’s unique falsettos and occasionally indecipherable vocals. He sounds like he left much of his angst behind on his solo record.
There’s even a love song, of sorts, in the creepy ‘All I Need’: “I’m an animal trapped in your parked car/I am all the days that you choose to ignore... I am a moth who just wants to share your light/I’m just an insect trying to get out of the night.”
Hardcore fans will recognise some of the songs showcased on last year’s tour, including the primal ‘Bodysnatchers’ and the epic ‘Videotape’. ‘Reckoner’ and ‘Nude’ hark back even further (‘Reckoner’ was first played live in 2001).
The sum of its parts? Well, I’ve often found with past Radiohead albums that, as you gradually notice all the attention to detail, the tiny little bursts and squiggles, the songs that initially stand out eventually pale against the ones you’d first pegged as filler.
Given that, right now I genuinely can’t tell whether In Rainbows is a masterpiece or not. It’s certainly a masterpiece of marketing, but it’ll take weeks to discover if it’s actually great or just a load of sonic smoke and musical mirrors. But first impressions are pretty damn good. It’s dreamy, eerie, epic, soaring, soothing, very occasionally manic... and more.
For the purposes of this review, I’ve been listening to it in a darkened room with rain lashing off the windows. I’m looking forward to donning headphones and taking it out for a long walk in the countryside. I hope and suspect that, like much of their work, its true greatness will only reveal itself over time.
So a priceless album – maybe in more ways than one. But pay them a fair price for it.
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