Radiohead’s revolution is about distribution, if not musical innovation on their latest disc, In Rainbows.
In 2000, Radiohead brought out their follow-up to what was considered to be a breakthrough album in 1997’s OK Computer. That album was Kid A, a controversial release which dared to put guitars second to the the use of sequencers and laptop technology. It’s popularity was most likely a surprise to their record company, EMI, just because it refused to follow the furrow which had been established by the smash of not only its predecessor, but also the album before that; universally lauded The Bends. Radiohead seemed to be on a course of their own determination, not bending to convention, and going forward with their own ideas about how their music should be made. Above all, they seemed to trust that they would have an audience which would be open-minded enough to see that the parameters of the group and their material wasn’t bound by the confines of traditional rock instruments. They were, of course, correct.
In 2007, Kid A and its sister album Amnesiac, along with the textures that carried over into 2004′ Hail to the Thief have been accepted as the true sound of the band; the icy electronics, the lyrical concerns about the political swing to the right in international politics, and the increased emphasis on the sound of the band, rather than the shape of individual songs. As such, it seems that the musical boldness of the first half of the decade are over. Radiohead have settled. Most of the time, this would be a damning indictment. But, the artistic currency the band has generated, along with the artistic momentum built up by the standards set by past releases, have allowed them to make their newest disc In Rainbows such an enjoyable and consistently interesting album.
Thom Yorke’s voice has taken the same role as Elisabeth Fraser’s in the Cocteau Twins – a means of providing a texture as opposed to conveying a story, set of thoughts, or a polemical social statement. This also may serve as a damning indictment, depending on listener expectations. But, what In Rainbows does as a whole is demonstrate what Radiohead does very well; provide a platform for sonic contrast. Yorke’s voice through out, the electronics, the beats on the opener “15 Step”, the Robert Kirby-like strings on “Faust Arp”, matched against Jonny Greenwood’s increasingly jazzier guitar lines make all the difference. Overall, the songs come off more as pieces of a whole aural landscape as opposed to individual entities or potential hit singles. The songs themselves don’t stand out as much as they have in the past. There is no “Drunken Punchup At A Wedding”, a “Knives Out”, or “No Surprises”. But, this record feels whole. Again, this is entirely due to what the band has built up for themselves in the past. As such, there are no disappointment musically here; it’s a rewarding listen. But, there isn’t much artistic movement either, no “next big thing”.
The real revolution of course has been in all the papers, both the rock press as well as in news and business journals like Business Weekly and Time. The band have challenged traditional channels by having allowed fans to download the album for whatever price they saw fit, even if that price was ‘free’. The upshot was not a total flop of download sales, but an average of about $6-$9, depending on your source; a respectable showing, considering all promotion and sales were done by the band themselves without the added mark-ups of record company costs. While the RIAA and its international equivalents witch-hunt their own customers, it seems that music fans in general are willing to pay for music after all – but not for twenty dollars a pop for a hit single or two with thirteen tracks of filler. For most, this isn’t really news at all. But the revelation here was that the band were really willing to give voice to the validity of downloading, as well as another gesture of trust to their audience. Again, they were correct.
I waited until the disc was released. Like a friend of mine once told me, there is a difference between an album and a bunch of files. I tend to agree. But, if Radiohead once led the charge in reminding fans, as well as other musicians, that the risk of changing artistic direction didn’t begin and end with Bob Dylan going electric, they now lead the charge , or at least begin the discussion, regarding the role of commercial channels in the music industry. For starters, one aspect of this is making sure that albums remain to be artistic statements, rather than mere souvenirs of concerts, or cobbled-together vehicles for hit singles. And In Rainbows is a good album. Yet what it represents is the real winner here. And hopefully the right people are taking notes.