Monday, February 9, 2009

"In Rainbows," by Radiohead

Having fulfilled their major label contract, Radiohead quietly released the revolutionary album, In Rainbows, through their website in October 2007, asking fans or the curious to simply pay whatever they felt the album was worth. While no exact figures have been released by the band, insiders indicate approximately 1,000,000 downloads of In Rainbows occurred in the next two and a half months, of which 1/3 of the customers paid nothing for the album. That said, band profits from sales of the online “pay what you will” approach reportedly surpassed those of the band’s last studio album, 2003’s Hail To The Thief. For established artists, that’s epoch-making. For the Music Industry, that’s reason to worry. In Rainbows was released to retailers in January of 2008 and debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts, going on to sell 3 million copies worldwide in CD format. But the story behind the album’s release isn’t even the best part.

The “music” on In Rainbows bubbles just below the jingle-jangle surface of rim shots, metallic clicks, computer blips and whirs, and scratches. The album is filled with jarring, strange, and unexpected noises that somehow work as music, and stunningly so. On “15 Step,” for example, a children’s chorus was brought in to clap along with the track, but it didn’t feel right, so the band opted instead to record the children shouting. Curiously, their triumphant “yay!” is my favorite part of the song. “How come I end up where I started? How come I end up where I went wrong?” Yorke asks on the opening track. “I won’t take my eyes off the ball again. First you reel me out, and then you cut the string.” Is it an angry confrontation? Self-motivation? Or is it both? Add to that Yorke’s vocal style, having been described by one reviewer as “one of the best singers in the music world who can’t actually sing.” At times jarring and at times gentle, Yorke’s singing seeps into your head and lingers.

Every time I listen to In Rainbows, my favorite song changes: the album opener, “15 Step,” is definitely my favorite song,” and then “Nude” begins, and I change my mind (again), and then “Weird Fishes” and then “All I Need” take their turns at the mantle, and I’m confounded to pick a favorite track. “Don’t get any big ideas…they’re not gonna happen,” Yorke sings on “Nude,” a song that warns the listener that the people, feelings, and objects that define our lives ultimately turn up missing: time, love, life, joy…all fleeting. Once you find it, once you feel it, it’s gone forever. Ultimately, what remains and what we share is human frailty and raw vulnerability, open and exposed. Kinda makes the Commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself” much more feasible, no?
The songs on In Rainbows are staggering. The album will no doubt go down as one of the very best of the new Millennium. And while I’m not always sure what the lyrics mean (in fact, they imply different meanings depending on my mood), I find the album completely comforting, revelatory, and elevating, every time I hear it. It's as if Yorke has found the Rosetta Stone for human solace and has translated these ten songs to show us the way. After hearing In Rainbows, can world peace be all that far away?

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