It was a beautiful stunt, wildly ambitious and wildly successful, with cataclysmic import for music-biz hand-wringers and hype-machine prognosticators alike. And that grand rollout, in the end, is what Radiohead's seventh album, In Rainbows, will forever be known for, which is great news for Radiohead and lousy news for In Rainbows. The hysteria may very well bury it.
Like Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it's doomed to serve far more as political symbol than musical triumph, an emblem of Brilliant Artists Triumphing Over Industry Malaise. What we'll remember about In Rainbows is its abrupt birth (announced a week before the album's October 11 release, entirely on the Internet), refreshing lack of middleman (no label, no press copies, no exceptions) and postcapitalist pricing scheme (name your price for the MP3s, even if it's $0.00, or shell out $80 or so for a deluxe vinyl/CD/booklet package you've already forgotten you bought and won't remember until it shows up at your door in December, a wonderful surprise, like a $20 bill in the pocket of your just-unpacked winter coat).
This is the grist for 10,000 "what does it mean for the industry?" think pieces, and those have their merit; furthermore, there was unending delight that Wednesday morning, beholding the resurrection of album-as-event again — everyone on the street still packed into their iPod cocoons, but for one glorious day knowing with 85 percent certainty what everybody else was listening to.
But just as audible was every writer/blogger/elevator occupant/dinner-party guest struggling to form an insta-opinion, an ocean of noise threatening to capsize the record itself. Updating the old Don DeLillo parable, In Rainbows is the most blogged-about barn in America. We submit. So, for this particular dinner party, here is my particular insta-opinion:
Complaining about the bit rate of your free Radiohead album is grounds for immediate execution.
On now to "All I Need." "All I Need" is the jam. Everyone has expectations for Radiohead now, things they no longer do that we wish they still did. For most, this is rock. They just don't rock out like ______ anymore. With every subsequent album, we are nostalgic for a younger previous highlight: We pined for "Creep," then for "Just," then (a longer period of mourning now) for "Paranoid Android."
"All I Need" is what's suddenly an even rarer beast: the smoldering, escalating ballad. The melancholy opening, the steady crescendo of desperation and, finally, the bombastic climax. "Pyramid Song" had it. "Fake Plastic Trees" commercialized it. "How to Disappear Completely" forever perfected it.
But on In Rainbows, even amid an album fond of slower, subtler, more washed-out pageantry, only "All I Need" truly evokes it. The skeletal beat skips meekly. Two-note bass pulses push forward and pull back. Thom Yorke, his extraterrestrial melancholy as acute as ever, moans about being "an animal trapped in your hot car" and a stalker "in the middle of your picture, lying in the reeds." Two minutes in, pounding piano chords invade, drums and blaring sonics thrash about, a beautiful ascending keyboard melody floats above, and Thom moans what might be words ("control"? "Is all"?) and might not. It's the record's one moment of unadulterated melodrama, a rare instance of very explicit and very welcome arena-rock pandering.
The rest, of course, is dependably great. Radiohead's worst is similar to, say, TV on the Radio's worst: dull songs partially redeemed by fascinating production. The lesser ballads are the lesser lights here, but some disembodied coos and Yorke's blatant, exposed high note liven up "Nude," while the monotonous "House of Cards" sounds like posthumous Jeff Buckley (not "unreleased until after Jeff Buckley's death" but "Jeff Buckley singing from beyond the grave"), which probably interests somebody.
For the "they don't rock out like ____ anymore" crowd, there's the opening duo: "15 Step" sprints slickly by in lithe 5/4 time, the acrobatic drums Pro-Tooled into breakbeat-worthy shape, Yorke's tone playful but menacing: "Used to be all right, what happened? Et cetera, et cetera," he snarls, chewing lustily on the et cetera's and buttressed immediately by a farting bass fill and, out of nowhere, a crowd of children yelling "Yay!" — free candy for all those iPod cocooners wearing headphones heavier than their shoes. "Bodysnatchers" is even more blatant, the fuzz-bomb bass riff the most uncouth thing on the album as Yorke howls, "I have no idea what you are talking about" and surly guitars crackle around him.
Everything else, to varying degrees of success, is far more couth. "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" is a steadier, faster cousin to "All I Need," but the ennui is (un)happily intact, the atmospherics expertly frigid, the backing vocals quietly bone-chilling. "Faust Arp" is a quick acoustic-guitar-and-strings sketch with explicit McCartney overtones, a pitch-black "Blackbird." "Reckoner" is for the headphone obsessives, brittle drums pushed hard to one ear, insistent shaker hard to the other, mumbling guitar, mournful piano and Yorke's tremulous falsetto stretched precariously between. "Jigsaw Falling into Place" uses claustrophobic finger-picking and swooning strings to goose some sort of doomed bar hookup.
And "Videotape"...well, "Videotape" closes us out on a down note, both intentionally and unintentionally. Radiohead's laissez-faire bootleg policy allowed most of these songs to float around the Internet ether for the past year, and "Videotape" was particularly resonant, with all the makings of a world-class smoldering, escalating ballad: a simple piano riff spiraling upward, picking up volume and speed and intensity and noisy shrapnel as it ascended. But here it's shackled to a wan, clumsy beat and robbed of that exhilarating crescendo.
And sure, if it's pandering arena-rock melodrama and exhilarating crescendos you want, you can/should/will listen to Meatloaf. But "Videotape" still feels like a missed opportunity, a shallow breath that could've been a bomb. "All I Need" excepted, In Rainbows struggles to out-grandeur its extraordinary circumstances, only one song bolder and more triumphant than the means by which it was released.