I don't think that I've ever had to write a music review quite like this before.
You see, first there we're records. Twelve-inch slabs of vinyl that you put on a turntable, and then laid back in your "stereo chair" — conveniently centered between a pair of speakers of course. From there, you usually cracked a cold one, lit up a fat one — or whatever your chosen mode of attitude adjustment might be — and then flipped open the jacket to pour over the lyric sheet and the liner notes.
Then there was the CD. Smaller, cleaner — if not exactly warmer sounding. But pretty much the same deal, even though you might need a pair of glasses to read the lyrics cause the print was so much tinier on those damn little booklets.
The thing is, writing a review was something made easy because what you were writing about was something tangible. Something you could actually hold in your hands. You could look at the artwork, read about who played what on which track, and take down your necessary notes while going about the joyful task of giving your chosen subject a critical listen.
So at this point, I should probably interject that it is not my intention to open up a debate about the merits — or lack thereof — of today's music delivery systems. The MP3 download is here to stay whether I personally like it or not — and there are a number of reasons that I don't, which I won't go into here. It has its obvious advantages — the most notable of which are accessibility and mobility in use. It also has its drawbacks, which include the ability to hold a piece of art in your hands the same way you would hold the Mona Lisa, or say, a copy of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Another drawback though, would be making writing a review the simple, enjoyable task that it used to be. But here goes anyway. The new Radiohead album, In Rainbows, is the first album I have ever written about that — at least at this moment — is available only as a download.
So here is the story so far.
Earlier this week, Radiohead made the album available as a downloadable MP3 file obtainable only through the band's In Rainbows website. Customers are given the option of paying whatever they choose to pay, including the sum of $0.00 save for a nominal download fee.
For those who still prefer something more tangible, you can also pre-order a "disc-box" edition that includes an extra disc with eight more songs, a booklet, two vinyl discs, and some actual artwork. That version will ship to customers on December 3, and can be yours for about $80 American (no freebies there). There are also credible reports about a more traditional CD version being in stores early next year for those who choose to wait it out.
Meanwhile Radiohead's unorthodox — to say the least — method of delivering this album has opened up all kinds of debate about everything from the band's motives in doing so, to heated discussions about things like bitrate.
You've gotta hand it to Radiohead here. They definitely have got people talking about their new album. Which leads us to the million dollar question — what about the album itself?
But before I get to that, just one more thing about the format. I personally find it frustrating the way that once you unzip the download file, it breaks into ten tracks that have to be played seperately. Yeah, I know I'm eventually just going to burn a CD anyway. But for now, having to refresh my Windows Media Player to play each track while I try to write about the album is just plain annoying. Now that I've got that off my chest…
Much of the ten new songs on In Rainbows are not really new at all. In fact, several of them — "Nude" and "Reckoner" for example — have been floating around for a number of years, albeit in often radically different versions than the ones found here.
The first time I heard the song "Reckoner" for example was at a Radiohead concert at the Gorge Ampitheatre in Eastern Washington back on the Kid A tour. The version on In Rainbows is quite a bit different however. As a melancholy piano and clanging drums form a backdrop, Thom Yorke lays down one of those trademark haunting vocals that seem to float and glide, rather than lead the track. By the time the strings and orchestration kick in, the effect is simply stunning. And beautiful. Thats really the only way I can describe it.
Likewise on "Nude," there is a degree of familiarity there, yet the version here is a lot different than what I remember. It begins with a simple bassline, and one of those jazzy Jonny Greenwood guitar passages (think a slower version of Amnesiac's "Knives Out"). Again, Yorke's vocal here is at once haunting and gorgeous, as strings drift their way in and out of the minimally layered atmospherics.
What becomes most apparent on an initial listen is that In Rainbows is an album that doesn't just suggest, but absolutely demands repeated listenings because it is so densely layered.
There are the sort of beats here that characterized Radiohead albums like Kid A and Yorke's solo album, The Eraser. But there is so much more going on here than the minimal arrangements you hear the first time out. On the opening "15 Step," the beats almost seem to be eating their way through the song towards the end. But there's also more of those jazzy guitar lines, a lilting keyboard, and more layered effects than you can possibly take in all at once.
But not all is simply atmospherics here. On "Bodysnatchers," which was widely heard on the handful of shows Radiohead played last year — I was fortunate enough to see one of them in Berkeley — things get rocked up considerably. The track is anchored in the same sort of filthy-sounding bass heard on tracks like Kid A's "National Anthem." By the time Radiohead get around to touring again next year, I could see this as the set opener easily.
"Weird Fishes/Arpeggi," which I believe was simply called "Arpeggi" during those same shows last year, starts the same way many of these songs do. It seems to be almost a fragment of an idea that gathers intensity as the track moves forward. Yorke again sings in that beautifully detached voice of his — only this time he harmonizes with a doubled track of himself howling away in the background, finally building to a dramatic change in time signatures and a crescendo of sound at the end.
On "All I Need" Yorke's vocal plays against a dark, foreboding keyboard bass as he sings the lines "you are all I need" as an almost agonized sort of plea. And just like that, the dark minor chords are countered by lighter tones that sound almost like a xylophone. The contrasts and shades in this track are once again, simply stunning. On "Faust/Arp," one of this album's few — at least as far as I can tell — truly "new" songs, an acoustic guitar and strings back what appears to be more of a tone poem than anything else. I couldn't make out a lot of the lyrics here (where's that tangible jacket with a lyric sheet that I so miss?) — but here again, the sound alone provides the track with everything it needs.
As much as the music included on In Rainbows — both on this download version, and on the expanded one coming later this year in the "disc box" — seems to be drawn from a variety of different sources and time periods, the album still stands as a cohesive, unified work. It is deeply atmospheric in places, while dark, dense, and gorgeous in others.
I've only listened to In Rainbows twice as I sat down to write this, and I already know that I'm going to be spending a lot more time with it. It sounds as experimental as a lot of Radiohead's work has since around Kid A, yet is starkly different. One thing is for sure. In Rainbows is an album with so many layers, there is no way you'll hear everything going on here in one listen, or even in a couple of them.
I'm not sure I'm ready to call In Rainbows Radiohead's best, but I'd rate it right up there. This is a stunning, gorgeous piece of work that is going to be on my disc changer, or I mean "hard drive" for months to come.
I just wish I had a jacket to look at.