This is what I feared, and secretly hoped, was happening in some dorm room at some crappy state college.
Jared: (bong hit) Dude, lets just make this cheap ass looking website and ask people for their credit card number to get a new Radiohead album.
Dustin: Dude, who pays for music?
Jared: True, true. (Coughing fit) OK, wait, what if they get to put in their own price. And we'll make it look British so it looks more real.
Dustin: Every dumb motherfucker that reads BoingBoing and MetaFilter is gonna be all 'I'm toppling the system, dude' (makes exaggerated typing gestures)
Jared: Right! (Repeats gesture) 'I'm gonna only pay .25 cents' or whatever that British money is, Euros and shit. We are gonna be rich!
Dustin: (Looks back at monitor) OK I got a page up, lemme register it.
Jared: (Gets on Blackberry) Cool. I'll text those Pitchfork motherfuckers. Let's give it a gay ass name like 'Unicorns'
Dustin: No wait, Rainbows, that's even worse! Yes. (High fives Jared as he reaches for bong.)
But I bit and I bought and there it was in my inbox, the new Radiohead in download form. I guarantee a bootleg Bit Torrent would've taken less time, but I'd already spent an undisclosed sum on this adventure in the new marketing and found the whole situation rather painless. It's too early to call the dismantling of the paradigm but I can say that the product lives up to the hype. It's like the Apple Corporation made it or something.
I dredged up the past couple Radiohead albums in preparation, because even though I've listened to them and all, I'm a busy man. I don't have the time to dedicate to a single group like I did in my twenties. OK Computer is a classic, as well as we can apparently make classics anymore, death knell for 20th Century culture, yes, I concur. I liked Kid A a lot for that first week, and predictably among musos I have a fondness for the much maligned Amnesiac, especially "I Might Be Wrong." I want to purchase some very expensive consumer electronics, listening to it in the kind of badass headphones I imagine Kanye West wears on helicopter rides. I will wear expensive sunglasses in this dream sequence as well, and they will be prescription ones, since sunglasses will look stupid over my regular glasses.
But this is not the 60s, hell, not even the 80s anymore, dream time is over. Instead of lining up outside a records store, we are hitting refresh, hoping the download will be quick so we can dump it to the iPod and get to work already. Our big cultural events are happening as mass mailouts.
The nice thing about music is that it can transcend all this. The weeping over the death of the album cover, waxing nostalgic over the crackle of needle on plastic, is tired. There was a time, and still are people, who swear by reel-to-reel tape, but I also remember listening to the Bay City Rollers on a crappy transistor radio sitting with Tracy Quackenbush on my swing set at a weekend at my dad's, only to be suddenly interrupted with a moment of silence for the death of John Lennon. Music is sound is reference is processing is history is memory is food for the soul, and nattering about the transport medium is missing the point.
So that said, how is the record? In Rainbows is great, actually. I'd say the group took a hard critical look at the mixing of techno noodle craft and mopey balladry that either made them the best band in the world or the worst, depending on your temperament, carefully avoiding the Coldplay side of the Venn diagram up on the studio white board and got to the essence of what makes Radiohead a good band.
"15 Steps" erupts in a clatter of disjointed handclaps and some surprising soulfulness on the part of Thom Yorke. A minute in, the song has gone into Radiohead playing to their strengths, low key repeated guitar and synth melodies with Yorke swooping and diving, all dotted with dated but somehow fresh synth flourishes. "Bodysnatchers" follows with fuzz rock, psyche-flavored riff 'n' roll that could've been lifted from The Fall, except The Fall never could make anything this slick and expansive sound this good. In Rainbows strikes me a lot in the same way the latest Kanye album does. I don't want to like something this mannered and cleaned up, but I do. Both records almost make me want to listen to Daft Punk. Almost.
"Nude" is what one could call a typical Radiohead song - slow-mo narco-lullaby with lots of orchestral texture and a stadium ready hum to it. Johnny Greenwood has made his dub reggae peccadillo known with the sampler he "controlled" earlier this year, and there is a touch of that in the bass line. It's a sweet song, but not really a wrecking ball.
"Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" is a thing of rarified splendor. It is soft rock as hell, its shuffle beat submerged under a cool blue bed of interlocking thumb piano-sounding guitar. Or maybe it is thumb pianos? It is an innocuous as wall-to-wall carpeting of the dull hum of air conditioning, but the way ole Thom moans through it, working the whole mess up into lather like his Mickey Mouse in a postmodern staging of Fantasia in an office park cubicle grid. The second portion is the vaguely aggressive destruction of the cubicle grid's order, with him standing in the middle, facing the viewer. This sense of ennui and more importantly, the sense of working through the ennui is what make Radiohead such a great band. I would think anyone that has spent some time in those grids can relate.
"All I Need" is organ-heavy, big ambiance deconstructed power ballad, leading into the pastorale "Faust Arp." On title, I was hoping for their answer to the actual Faust's power dynamics, but instead we get the kid of syrupy stuff present on those Nick Drake albums that aren't Pink Moon. "Reckoner" doesn't do a lot of reckoning either, though the tambourine is a nice ice breaker. Thom Yorke's falsetto has gotten stronger, gliding effortlessly over the anthemic skeleton of this song. I think that is what makes this record work, just like the way the Kanye album works: they both are examples of lush production with just enough of exposed bone to keep it human.
I've used up all my soft rock-interlock terms in this review so far, so lets just say "House of Cards" is their soft-rockiest, with the shockingly populist lyric "I don't want to be your friend/I just want to be your lover" opening it. "Jigsaw Falling into Place" is an up-tempo variant on the theme with a nice acoustic guitar running through it, but the songs are all bleeding together, like this is a soundtrack more than a record. And maybe that's what it's about. The great Kraftwerk albums are done that way, and it's not too much of a stretch to seat Radiohead's alienation next to Kraftwerk's embrace of the cyborg. Even when the band gets a little funky, it still sounds completely under control, and maybe that's what it's about. I usually prefer my art to result from riding off the rails, but there is something said to the correct operation of well-oiled machinery.
"Videotape" brings on the closing credits as they shovel dirt into the record industry's open grave, as the flash sequence of the hackers that started this whole mess are seen buying fancy cars, partying with hookers, doing lots of sketchy drugs, give in to paranoid delusions depicted in that which their foolery created and finally get led away in handcuffs. And maybe we are like those fictional hackers, thinking we have gotten one over on 'em, paying .25 euros or whatever they call their money there, drumming idly away on our desks as this record bleats away in sub Kanye-grade earbuds. Maybe this is move is the final play the service economy has for us, that the Matrix has transcended such foolish notions as price and product and materiality, that we are trading fake money for ones and zeroes and finding our withered souls in the process. Maybe we'll see the light and quit our crappy day jobs and write poetry and wear loose shirts and eat bread and cheese and wine on checkered tablecloths in our bullshit bohemia daydreams all to have the illusion flicker off, like the beach did for Syler on that last episode of Heores, and then we realize that by merely getting that reference (or seeking out on the Heroes website so that we can), we've severed the last tether we had, and are now adrift, seeking for anything to attach to, like proteins in the bloodstream of a beast, like atoms succumbing to gravitational pull, like lonely stars reaching out to other lonely stars with thin tendrils of gravity.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com