I didn’t pre-order my download of Radiohead’s new album In Rainbows because I didn’t want the frustration of receiving my username and passcode weeks before just to be frustrated on the day when the website inevitably crashed under the weight of so many hits and downloads. So as it was I just popped along yesterday morning on the off chance, swiped my credit card through the honesty box, and a few moments later I was listening to my favourite band’s seventh studio album. And a good job I did it that way too; when I checked the website later in the afternoon it was running as slow as a pig. By nighttime it was down completely.
And? Well on first listening In Rainbows is just fantastic. It kicks off with the sort of scattergun staccato drumbeat intro that tells us we’re in welcome and familiar territory, before settling down into an opening track that at times sounds like Doves, at other times seems reminiscent of late Talk Talk (which can be no bad thing) and that soon had me jigging around my kitchen (not what one expects from Radiohead. Or from me for that matter.) From there on in it seems quite the most instantly likeable Radiohead album since OK Computer, which may or may not be a good thing; with Kid A it took me a while to work out what the hell was going on, but it is now probably my favourite Radiohead album, while Hail To The Thief was more immediately accessible, but repeated listening revealed that after a great start it sags at about the quarter-way point, before picking up majestically towards the end. Overall, though, and interestingly considering the unconventional way it has been released, In Rainbows sounds more like one complete, flowing album rather than just a collection of individual songs bunged together as Amnesiac and (to a lesser extent) Hail To The Thief seemed to me. Often sounding pared down and minimalistic, and with more use of acoustic instruments than I rememeber previously, In Rainbows is not a radical shift or quantum leap as Kid A or OK Computer were, but it is rather a wonderful continuation of the unique brand of music Radiohead have been exploring down the years. Best of all, there appears no equivalent of “Treefingers” or “Fitter Happier” present to make you leap instantly for the skip button.
As is often the case with a brand new album it can be difficult to pick out your favourite songs at first, it can take time to isolate the individual standouts track from the album as a whole, not least of all because being without a CD cover to peer at and pore over while listening makes is harder to associate each song with its title at first; squinting at the LCD display on my MP3 player without the backlight doesn’t really do it. But perhaps it’s just me; I still find it takes me longer to become familiar with CDs today when compared with the old vinyl LPs of my youth, where you could play side one to death before gradually discovering and falling in love with the second side. Ah, the ceremony of easing the precious record out of the paper inner sleeve you have been studying on the bus all the way back from Woolworths, holding the delicate black vinyl horizontally between your fingertips, carefully reaching forward while blindly trying to locate the pin in the centre of the turntable and placing the album flat down, then gently resting the stylus on the spinning disc, the buzz and crackle as the needle seeks the groove, then the anticipation, the waiting for the new sounds the pristine recording will reveal. I miss it all, I really do.
Much has been made of the unusual way this album has been made available, for people to pay as much or as little as they like for it, and I think it could make an interesting study for a psychologist or perhaps a sociologist (I don’t really know the difference) to question what motivated each individual to pay what they did; as you have to provide your contact details prior to downloading I’m sure it could be arranged quite easily. Take Justin’s embarrassment in saying that after listening to it he is “now quite ashamed at the piffling amount I paid for it” while Swiss Toni excuses paying nowt because he felt he was owed after shelling out £30 for a crap Radiohead gig a few years ago; “debt paid, I would say” he concludes. I imagine an erring on the side of caution instinct predominates; better to pay too little and feel guilty than too much and feel like a fool (and where because you have chosen the price yourself you can’t even displace your grievance by complaining that you’ve been ripped off.) For myself, I paid a rather insulting £1, that with the 45p admin charge means it cost me about as much as my first 7” singles when I was a kid. My motivation was simply that, as I still like to own the tangible product, I reckoned I would eventually want to buy In Rainbows when it comes out on CD, and I’m damned if I’m going to pay full price twice for something I could get for free; at the same time I wasn’t sure I would like the album enough to stretch to the £40 being charged for the special discbox set. £1.45 seemed a fair down payment to sample what was on offer.
And so what was the upshot? Well after listening to the album several times I liked it so much that I went back onto the website (hence how I know it started running slow and finally crashed later in the day) and eventually, this morning, I went and ordered the £40 box set anyway. So I’ll get my 2 sides of vinyl after all (well, 4 sides actually) and another collectors’ item to continue my run of Kid A (with the hidden pamphlet in the box) Amnesiac (which came in the form of a “damaged” library book; even more damaged now after my young son ripped off the front page a few years back) and Hail To The Thief (packaged to resemble a town plan map). This means that it will be the third consecutive Radiohead album I possess that won’t fit in my CD rack. Hoorah! Is it sad to still be a bit of a record collector at my age? I think so, but at least The Boo Radleys have split up, so that particular pressure to purchase everything they ever released in every possible format has eased.
If you haven’t already downloaded In Rainbows, then I do recommend it. Sure, as a fan I’m biased, but this time what have you got to lose? Even if you don’t trust me, when was the last time you could guarantee value for money when buying a brand new album, or indeed anything? If in doubt just get it for free; go on, I’m sure they won’t mind.