If this wasn't unorthodox enough, the band said that the album would be available only as a download from InRainbows.com, and consumers could name their own price. Many fans did a double take and for good reason. Had Radiohead gone bananas?
Freed from the constraints of a record label after completing Hail to the Thief in 2003, In Rainbows is in many ways an attempt to shake up the traditional music industry distribution while conducting an interesting sociological experiment: how much is the everyday consumer willing to spend on their music in 2007? The download-only nature of the album, which reduces CD packaging and manufacturing waste, is also consistent with Yorke's environmental activism. Regardless of the motive behind the release, it's a revolutionary move that will shake up the music industry. Only an artist with the clout of Radiohead could pull it off.
Well, that's all good and interesting, but what about the music itself? In Rainbows is a gripping, engaging collection of songs which strips down the music to its basics without losing any of the elements Radiohead developed over the past 15 years. The album features the least electronic elements of a Radiohead album since "OK Computer," but that's not to say there isn't plenty of it; it's just used more subtly than, say, "Kid A." With a couple of exceptions, the album is low-key, often haunting and occasionally melancholy. It isn't as sprawling or epic as "Hail to the Thief," "Kid A" and "Amnesiac" (the last two of which were recorded at the same time); it's a modest 10 tracks and just short of 45 minutes. This brevity lends the album a focus not seen in Radiohead's past work.
Many of the tracks on the album are actually re-arranged vesions of songs that Radiohead has written and performed live previously. Most were featured on Radiohead's 2006 tour, including "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" and the opening track "15 Step." Despite the fact that the songs weren't written together as a cohesive unit, the album doesn't end up sounding disjointed. Instead, the back-to-basics soul of the album shines through, with Yorke's lyrics providing thematic glue to hold everything together. That theme is often one of pessimism and fear, (Yorke laments, "don't get any big ideals/they're not gonna happen" on "Nude") which shouldn't come as a big surprise to Radiohead fans, but that's not to say there aren't the occasional glimpses of sunlight, like the laid back love song "House of Cards."
It's hard to weigh criticism against a standout album like this, which might be Radiohead's most accessible since OK Computer, but there's always room to nitpick. The album lacks a standout single, and it's hard to imagine any of the songs getting mainstream radio play. Maybe that was Radiohead's intention all along; In Rainbows, more than their other work, completely lacks self-consciousness and feels more like a love note to long-time fans than radio fodder. And while the length of the album gives it a tight, focused sound, it's hard to swallow such a short album after waiting for four years. Haven't they produced more than this in all that time? Perhaps the eight-track bonus disc on the lavish "discbox," set to release in December, will provide more substance.
So what's the final verdict? In Rainbows is one of the best albums of the year, and its unique distribution method will hopefully push the music industry in new directions. Already, other major artists like Madonna and Nine Inch Nails have altered or abolished their relationships with their record labels in favor of increased recording freedom. Radiohead seems stronger and more comfortable in the studio than ever, which should be a comfort to fans everywhere. Expect a major world tour next year, after In Rainbows sees a proper physical disc release in early 2008.