Review by Michael Morgan.
When a band you admire goes on a four-years-plus-long break in between releasing albums, there’s one thing you think: oh shit, they’ve lost it. After Radiohead took 53 months to follow up Hail to the Thief, an album built of half-hearted compromises, I thought an era had passed—another group of rock icons had slipped into the ether of the past tense.
When In Rainbows finally dropped, I was hesitant even to download it. This was Radiohead, after all. These were they guys who gave us Kid A, the album that shifted a generation of musical output, the album that alerted us of our post-90s musical boredom. If they were indeed fading into cultural irrelevance, I couldn’t bare to witness it. I preferred to plug my ears and pretend otherwise.
The only reason In Rainbows caught my attention was its stunning release strategy. To speak nothing of the music within the album, it was obvious that the historically protean powerhouse called Radiohead was once-again reinventing itself. On October 1st 2007, the band revealed it had secretly and without the help of a record label completed an album; on October 10th, In Rainbows was released via a proprietary website as a radical pay-what-you-want (including nothing) digital download. While this concept seems banal in the context of 2017, it was nothing less than revolutionary a decade ago. The veritable media shit storm that followed drove millions to their computers in October alone.
The hard numbers are impossible to know. Radiohead has exercised their right keep private how many people downloaded the album from their website and how much they paid. Speaking to Dave Fanning (see above) six months after the release, Thom Yorke and Ed O’Brian insisted that their shift away from corporate backing wasn’t financially motivated, but an attempt to avoid a “rationalized” product meant solely for sale. Rather than squeezing their record through the time-tested and proven protocol of major record label releases, In Rainbows was about “the spirit of the thing.” It was a hyper-successful, hyper-talented group of musicians exercising their right to act autonomously and to provide their fans with farm-to-table artistic output.
The result was ten tracks that feel unlike anything Radiohead had ever produced before. Three-and-a-half years of working in isolation, outside the protective but obscuring umbrella of their long-time record label EMI, created the most stripped and polished product in their repertoire. Most of the glitches in their previous three albums were forgotten and the tracks instead featured fewer layers, fewer instruments. The lyrics are uncluttered and agonizingly honest—it’s a 43 minute collection of self conscious fears that menace our alone hours.
In Rainbows thrives on the ambivalence inherent in the daily choices that amount to a lifetime. “Nude,” which has all the sonic trappings of a love song, is actually a cautionary tale “You’ll go to hell for what your dirty mind is thinking,” Yorke warns. “Videotape” is the creepy confession you’d rather die with, the secret you avoid and that makes you sick to your stomach whenever you’re reminded of it. Lyrically, the record time and again undermines any bit of confidence you fake when you’re out in public. Yet the whole thing is packaged in beautifully sedated bedroom music, a safe atmosphere where these worries can live without growing too large to manage.
It’s a masterwork, a stroke of musical perfection that can stand alone against the annals of time forever and with confidence. If Radiohead had re-signed with EMI and released their album traditionally, it would still be remembered as one of their most powerful products. That they (once again) executed such a coup when a stale music marketplace needed it most only lifts its position in the pantheon of music history.
It should be mentioned that while fans were overwhelmingly supportive of In Rainbows’ wallet-friendly release strategy, not all industry insiders shared the sentiment. Some condemned it for devaluing music, others for displaying a lack of industry camaraderie. “Spare a thought for the thousands upon thousands of bands and singers who, nowhere near Radiohead’s levels of fame and fortune, now have pretty much no chance of ever making a living from their music,” wrote Will Hodgkindson in The Guardian nine days after the album’s release. Trent Reznor and Liam Gallagher weighed in as well with comments of insincerity and bad business.
In the same interview mentioned earlier, Dave Fanning (in a much more optimistic tone) asked Ed O’Brian if he thought Radiohead had inadvertently “opened a whole new virtual world,” one in which the value of art would be forever subjective. “No,” O’Brian spasmed instinctively, “no, no, no.” Only in retrospect is it clear how wrong he was.
The release of In Rainbows not only had severe consequences on the music industry, but on media distribution of all types. In 2008, Bandcamp was launched on the principle that musicians of any status should be able to upload their work and allow customers to decide its value, with many following suit.
It’s not to suggest that these examples couldn’t have been conceived without In Rainbows’ pioneering splashdown, but the fanfare it kicked up in 2007 certainly lubricated the market for future artists. It was the first major release of its kind and the benchmark against which so many current experiments are still measured.
And then, in the middle of the data-storm that hasn’t yet seemed to cease, there’s Radiohead themselves. While the band was obviously aware of the originality and potential of the album’s release, it hadn’t been their intention to (once again) change the face music forever. Rather, the strategy surrounding In Rainbows’ release was a reaction to one band’s discontented relationship with the record business at large. It was meant to be “a solution for Radiohead, not the industry,” their managers said.
In 2007 Radiohead was asking “What’s the point of instruments?” on “Jigsaw Falling into Place,” Ed O’Brian confessed in a 2010 interview with MIDEM that their break from EMI and resultant self-reliance “rejuvenated us as a band.” So not only did In Rainbows shift our focus away from the traditional marketplace of mainstream music, it very likely also saved the life of one of the most important bands on the planet.