The Velvet Revolution
Radiohead's Remarkable In Rainbows

So I ended up paying 10 bucks for In Rainbows.

I thought about it a lot, and I feel like $10 is just about the right price for a digitally delivered new album. Some might argue that 10 bucks is too high, considering there are no costs for artwork, manufacturing or distribution, but as I said last week, I want a say in determining the fair price for bands who don’t have the built-in fan base Radiohead has. If this is going to be the template, I want it to level as many playing fields as possible, and I just don’t believe in getting something as important as music for free.

So I paid my money, and quickly got a confirmation e-mail from the band. And when I woke up Wednesday morning, my personalized download link was waiting for me in my inbox. Three minutes later, I had the new Radiohead album. Now, here’s the ironic part – the band went to considerable trouble to come up with a distribution system that bypassed traditional CDs and record stores, one that delivered their work as a stream of digital information, one computer to another. And what’s the first thing I did when I finished downloading it?

I burned myself a CD so I could listen to it in the car.

For me, the old-fashioned pleasures of holding a hard copy of a new album, taking it out of its case, sliding it into the CD player and listening to a complete work in sequence are just not going to fade. I know I’m old, and the revolution has passed me by, but there’s something magical about the complete package to me, and something about downloaded, context-free music that just feels incomplete. I don’t feel like I really own In Rainbows yet – until it appears in record stores with artwork and packaging, I’m going to feel like I have a sneak peek, pre-release leak of the thing, despite paying 10 bucks for it.

Radiohead’s new method seems like a success so far. I keep hearing different numbers, but the ones I’ve heard more than once are these: there were allegedly 1.2 million downloads of In Rainbows on its first day of release, and most people apparently paid about what I did. That’d be about $10.2 million, straight to the band. But hell, even if the average payment was only about a dollar, that’s $1.2 million in one day, if the figures are right. Under a standard record contract, the band would only get about a buck per CD sold anyway, and it would take ages to climb to a million albums sold, cutting checks to middlemen all the while. Everything they’ve made off of In Rainbows so far has gone straight into the band’s bank account.

This is what you get when you mess with us, indeed.

But you know, smarter people than I have already weighed in on the format of this release, and What It All Means for the industry at large. I’m noticing that not a lot of people are talking about the music itself, which is odd, considering the whole idea of this new system is to get the music into the hands of as many people as possible. The fact that the band basically gave this record away for free didn’t inspire much confidence in me, and as is well documented on this site, I haven’t really enjoyed a Radiohead album since OK Computer in 1997.

So imagine my surprise as I spun In Rainbows.

Subsequent listens have only cemented the first impression – this is the album they were trying to make last time, with Hail to the Thief, and the high point of their post-OK Computer work. It is my third-favorite Radiohead album, behind Computer and The Bends, and while there isn’t a lot of competition for that prize, In Rainbows leaves it all in the dust.

But it took about 10 listens for me to really figure out why it’s better. On the surface, this sounds like Thief, especially at the start – “15 Step” opens with those same thin electronic drums that have plagued Radiohead albums since Kid A. But as the track unfolds, it blossoms. “15 Step” is probably the catchiest song in 5/8 since Dave Brubeck, and it finds the band finally bringing some actual songwriting to their fascination with electronic textures. Happily, that continues for all 10 tracks – there are no tuneless interludes here, no loop-the-drums-and-yelp throwaways.

It’s not just that, though. For roughly a decade now, Radiohead has been a cold, paranoid, hermetic band, trapped inside itself and suffocating. In Rainbows is the album that sets them free. It is the warmest thing they’ve done since The Bends, an album that finds Thom Yorke shutting down his defenses and letting the world in. And it’s a magical sound, because the music has warmed up with him. The album is full of lovely clean-toned guitars and string sections and glockenspiels, and for the first time, they sit alongside the electronic tones and textures as perfect complements.

It may not seem that way at first. “15 Step” is terrific, but it’s the top of the mountain they started climbing with “Idioteque.” “Bodysnatchers” brings the rock, more so than any song since “Electioneering,” but it’s almost ironic in its big, dumb riffing. (Although it does have a superb middle section.) At this point, you may feel like you’re in for just another closed-off Radiohead album.

“Nude” wipes that misconception away. It’s one of the best songs in the band’s catalog, a holdover from the OK Computer sessions, and this version is breathtaking. I haven’t heard Radiohead sound this organic, this human, in years, and in a setting like this, you can really tell how great a singer Thom Yorke is. The final section, with its wordless and yet totally compelling melody, is the first lift-you-out-of-your-chair moment on a Radiohead album in a decade.

In fact, the three songs that would close out side one, if there were such a thing anymore, are worthy of the pantheon. “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” rises above its bizarre title to deliver a gorgeous, spaced-out lullaby about decomposing (I think), and when the bottom drops out, then explodes back in, you’ll be cheering, even if you have no idea what the hell this song’s about.

And “All I Need” is probably my favorite thing here. It’s got a typically odd arrangement, full of synth noises and processed vocals, but at heart, it’s an uncomplicated, beautiful semi-love song. The chorus is simple and understated, and it might take you a listen or two to hear Yorke undercut it with lines like “I only stick with you because there are no others.” The song ends with a glorious, too-short coda that finds Yorke battling his own reassurances: “It’s all right, it’s all wrong, it’s all right…”

Believe it or not, In Rainbows stays in that vein, sequencing one lovely orchestral ballad after another. “Faust Arp” is an interlude for strings and acoustic guitar, while “Reckoner” is a gentle, moody tune sung in a ghostly falsetto, and laid on top of a propulsive backbeat drowned in ride cymbals. But there is no surprise here as great as “House of Cards.” The simplest pop song Yorke and company have written since “Creep,” this number hangs in the air with effortless grace. Even the words are direct – “I don’t want to be your friend, I just want to be your lover,” Yorke sings at the beginning. It’s a treat, and I love it despite myself.

I find myself having a strangely different reaction to “Videotape,” the elegiac closer – I think they all but ruined it in the studio. The song itself is a repetitive, mournful dirge on piano, with a haunting melody, but instead of letting it stand on its own, or adding ghostly textures and strings, they chose to saddle it with a seemingly random assortment of percussion. I’m not sure what they were trying to do here, but it’s the one moment of In Rainbows that strikes me the wrong way. But hey, I like the song enough to quibble about the arrangement, which is a huge step forward for Radiohead in my eyes.

As “Videotape” ended that first time, finishing off a very quick 42 minutes, I realized something remarkable: I had just enjoyed a Radiohead album, fully and completely, for the first time in a decade. A few more listens, and I figured out what was really going on: the band has opened itself up and let me in. For the first time in years, I don’t feel like I’m peering into one of their albums through thick glass. This is an enveloping experience, perhaps the most warm-hearted and genuinely pretty album Radiohead has made. This is the sound of Thom Yorke re-engaging with the world, and it’s a beautiful thing.

So, to sum up In Rainbows: You can pay whatever you want, and it’s worth whatever you pay. Now, I have to figure out if it should go on this year’s top 10 list, or next year’s…

Next week, I catch up with records from the Foo Fighters, the Fiery Furnaces, Marc Cohn, Dan Wilson, and maybe the Autumns. And maybe a bunch more, too. Plus, the Doctor Who reviews will return – I’m feeling under the weather this week, but expect a torrent of words in seven days. Thanks for reading.

See you in line Tuesday morning.