Never has Radiohead shied away from surprising its audience. When In Rainbows was released in the autumn of 2007, the biggest, and even headline-grabbing news was the format it was released in. For the first time in the history of the music industry, a major band had decided to release an album itself, without a record deal, at a price to be determined by the buyer. The Smashing Pumpkins had previously released Machina II when they found themselves in a similar predicament, but that was for free, and it is precisely the power given to the buyer to determine the prize that raises interesting ethical questions about the value of music. A free download was possible, as was paying a multiple of the price a regular CD costs.
Leaving aside the big news and the element of novelty surrounding this release, it is the music itself that shines. In Rainbows had a long history, with scrapped sessions from 2005 leading to a 2006 tour on which a lot of new material was played. Reconvening with regular producer Nigel Godrich, the final hurdles were jumped in 2007. Reduced to 10 tracks, with eight others surfacing as bonus tracks, the album is an exercise in restraint. The production is also remarkably frank, stripped down and crisp, especially by Radiohead’s laptop-composition standards. Tasteful strings and sparse beats adorn certain tracks, but it’s mostly dry, minimal drums, sparsely effected guitar and angelic crooning. For those familiar with the 2006 material, and particularly its presentation at the time, the actual album initially feels a step backwards. Eight of the 10 tracks were played the year before, and their final studio incarnations sound a bit tame. Particularly Arpeggi and Videotape lack the extensive guitar workouts that raised the earlier versions to the next level.
Over time though, the simple, bare and organic production may prove to have been a winning decision. It suits the material; a more adult, passionate take on Radiohead, largely steering away from the paranoia, howling and 21st century alienation of the previous albums. Vulnerability and love fill the album, making it somewhat of a rarity in Radiohead’s catalogue. It is the arrangement and change in tone that set In Rainbows apart from its own heritage, a highly successful reinvention. Owing to its relative brevity, all tracks can shine, and filler is virtually non-existent. Only the longest track on offer, House of Cards, feels like treading water in the latter half of the album, but at least it is treading water in the most beautifully lit tropical lagoon that the Pacific Ocean’s sunset has to offer. From the upbeat opening track, through the definitive approach to the ten year old Nude right to the final fading note of Videotape, In Rainbows does not disappoint.
Few, if any of Radiohead’s peers have accomplished such a late career renaissance. When it came out, its members were approaching forty, arguably having already reached a creative peak in the period between 1997’s OK Computer and 2001’s Amnesiac. The Oxford five-piece’s next moves are highly anticipated, with rumblings suggesting a late 2010 release of a follow-up. Since In Rainbows we have seen a few solitary tracks released for various occasions, one even being released “undercover” through a BitTorrent network, initially without any official announcement. No matter what will follow, music lovers wait with bated breath.