One week in fourth grade, I remember watching enviously the group of cool kids in my art class who spent every day constructing Advent calendars in anticipation of Radiohead’s third album, “OK Computer.” For them, counting down the days until the album’s release was better than waiting for Christmas, for their excitement affirmed their membership in an exclusive club of music fans. Around the turn of the millennium, as the Internet was fast becoming the common man’s tool for instant satisfaction, this same group of kids leaked “Kid A” early, so they and others around the world could skip the wait. When the band’s next two albums, along with countless works from other musicians, were also leaked, premature release became a fact of the business.
But now, in a move that seems to subvert the subversive, Radiohead has leaked its new album, “In Rainbows,” nearly three months before the scheduled date. Or more precisely, they are releasing it in three phases, the first of which is a download of the whole album from their Web site. The remarkable thing is that fans can choose how much they want to pay for it, so the album could, theoretically, come free. We are forced to reflect: Do I love Radiohead? Do I want to give them my money? Thom Yorke passes around the donation bowl — how much will you cough up?
After some contemplation, I decided to pay one pound for the download. I hate paying twenty dollars for a CD, and I’m bored of getting music for free. I found that I became thrilled — even nostalgic for days I never knew — when I paid such a tiny sum for great music. Also, one pound equals more than two dollars, so I really paid more than it seems.
It’s Thom Yorke, though, who will have the last laugh. He’s withholding the “discbox” — a package that includes vinyl and compact disc versions of the downloadable songs, and also of more songs that haven’t yet been released, with pictures and booklets to read while listening. To own such merchandise (set for release on Dec. 3), one must pay a whole forty pounds. By January, when the CD comes to normal stores, Radiohead will have executed one of the most ingenious three-point attacks in recent memory.
As it turns out, the album is definitely worth more than my two dollars. In fact, it would be difficult to assign it any price value. Not only do the songs not get old, but they also improve on subsequent listens. “In Rainbows” opens with a bare, almost hip-hop beat, and then smooths out, only to drop back later into sparsity. There is tension through the entire work — within tracks (in “Paranoid Android” style) and over the whole album, as energy-charged rhythms anchor the sound, while ethereal strings carry it through a universe of robots and gardens and stars (these are the images I see in my mind). Such nuances are best appreciated after thorough exploration. Of course, this comes as no surprise: Radiohead’s music has always had this rich, almost cerebral, sophistication. It is simply gratifying to see the band continue to produce good work.
But the album is not perfect. Yes, it’s the new Radiohead and the songs are mostly great and a “discbox” is coming out, and yes, these facts make one want to praise it unconditionally, but some of the album seems a bit too languid, even by Radiohead’s standards. I know what they’re capable of, and, frankly, they don’t always deliver. Radiohead has always expertly blended pop with its own intelligent, bizarre, beautiful, experimental sensibilities, but here there’s a bit less complexity and a bit more sprawl. It’s a lot of Thom Yorke crooning over cosmic strings and muted beats.
That said, “In Rainbows” makes a very strong impression overall. It works well as an album: the order of songs seems inevitable, as each beautifully passes the emotional weight forward. It is truly one work, rather than a collection of tracks. I wonder how the additional material coming in the “discbox” will alter or enhance this through-line.
Having spread the release of this album over four months, Radiohead has created a mini era of Radiohead, something of an extended holiday, a festival of music to help us get through the winter. Just remember: the “discbox” is coming Dec. 3. If anyone reading this is my Secret Santa, then, well, it only costs forty pounds.