In Rainbows, by Radiohead
Suggested by Jamie Walsh
2007’s In Rainbows, by Radiohead, released in 2007, was their first pay-what-you-want release.
I remember the press coverage, back in the day. It was not sympathetic, although most outlets were cautious rather than hostile. It was viewed as a faddish eccentricity, a conceit afforded to a mega-rich power-band, not something your grass roots or limited audience act could viably suggest. Most journalists were scathing, albeit guardedly. It might cut down on piracy, the argument went, but it’s unlikely to make the band a million.
My research has fallen short in the quest for sales data, with figures of three million pounds profit, or one-point-two million, or less, roundly labelled as bunkum by the band. It was a profitable venture, but it also made no odds to the pirates: the album was one of the most torrented works that year.
I’m no real Radiohead fan, but I’d like to think I’d have paid a total related to my means had I bought it. Maybe a tenner, I dunno. Realistically, though, I’d likely have done what most people did at the time: told their friends they paid a fiver, downloaded it for nothing.
The album itself was widely praised on release, hitting every metric you can list that measures critical success. I didn’t know this, when I listened. If I had, would it have changed my opinions? Maybe a touch, but in no substantial way. Perhaps I’d have presented as vaguely bemused, rather than actively hostile.
Because I did not like this album. I did not like this album at all.
Historically, my knowledge of Radiohead is spotty. I know they are a lynchpin of the late Nineties / Millennial British Rock sound. I know they are Scott Tenorman’s favourite band. I like their debut single, Creep, and I know the meme-tastic genesis that named their first album Pablo Honey.
This album is not Pablo Honey. These songs are not Creep.
I was hugely surprised at how experimental In Rainbows feels, with its Neu!-style repetitive tracks and breathless, mannered vocals. It’s mesmeric in parts, and stultifying in others. Songs merge into one, which I can only assume is a style choice rather than an oversight. From the opening hand-clap-grubby-drum chic of 15 Step, with its high and low-key vocal, to the plodding piano and droning warble of the closer Videotape, we have a suite of events that, while intricate, feel malformed and improvisational. Even my standout, Weird Fishes / Arpeggi, paddles fitfully in this dank pool, although at least it has the good grace to build from something into something else, and the drums are direct and funky.
Maybe the issue lies with me. This is the seventh Radiohead album, a well-regarded release from a well-regarded band. By 2007, they had every right to release something more challenging, with music for them instead of for me, or for us. And they didn’t even charge us for a copy, so how can I complain? Bands grow and evolve, as does their sound, so me expecting something akin to their debut work is rather patronising. It’s not their fault my head was stuck in 1992.
Nevertheless, I’m still only stretching to 4/10 for In Rainbows. If I’d downloaded it for free back in 2007, I’d still feel like I’d overpaid.