If one were to believe all the hype and text written about In Rainbows, they really might think that it's the beginning of the end (or possibly somewhere after that time period) for record labels. Let's be honest, though, Radiohead isn't just every band. They have a built-in audience of rabid fans not only hungry for new music from the group, but willing to shell out a sizeable chunk of change for either a massive collection of LPs and CDs or a product (medium-quality MP3s) that acts as more of a teaser for the real thing (the group is currently in negotiations to release their work on CD sometime in the new year) than an actual true digital distribution.
Lest it sounds like I'm ripping on the group, I have to admit that their strategy was brilliant. Announcing their album only ten days before it was to be made available made for a fever-pitch media frenzy that not only got them coverage in places they normally wouldn't have seen mention, but drew enough traffic to their site that it actually crashed the servers. So yeah, it wasn't all without hiccups, but the quintet certainly have certainly done okay for themselves so far. Reviews poured in quickly (five star assessments dropped less than 24 hours after the album was released) and the general consensus was that In Rainbows was the best work from the group since Kid A
I've sat with the album for several weeks now, and like their past couple of releases, I get a completely uneven feeling while listening to it. When "15 Steps" burst out of my speakers, I was completely giddy and ready to believe the hype, as the track is the perfect amalgamation of their style-jumping sounds, with choppy drums, indie-style guitars, great vocal hooks, and yes, even a sample of children yelling. It's downright exuberant, and one of my favorite tracks they've done in their past couple albums. Unfortunately, from there the release is completely hit-or-miss.
"Bodysnatchers" cranks things up to 10, but sounds like a faster, horn-less re-hash of "The National Anthem," while the mellow "Nude" just sort of limps along through mumbling vocals from Yorke and gooey passages that betray the bitrate more than any other song on the release. Honestly, I never thought I would hear York sing a line like, "I Don't Want To Be Your Friend, I Just Want To Be Your Lover," but that's exactly the opening line on the overlong "House Of Cards," one of only several songs on the release ("Faust Arp" is another) that seem content to just drift along without much of anything for dynamics.
That said, the middle-section of the album is strong with the one-two punch of "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" and "All I Need." The former powers along with a propulsive front section of warm beauty before morphing into a minimalism-inspired closing section while the latter rumbles with a super-juicy analogue bass line and some of the most gorgeous orchestral flourishes I've heard this year. Album closer "Videotape" finds things falling apart nicely, as the dark piece mingles delayed drum hits and melancholy piano into a downcast gem.
In some ways, I can see why In Rainbows has received almost universal praise, and I think it's largely because it's some of their most "safe" work in some time. Lyrics are much more straightforward (the aforementioned "All I Need" finds Yorke repeating "You're All I Need" over and over again) and although there are a few style jumps, the overall mood (other than album opener and closers) of the release is one of calm and understatement. It's certainly pretty, and definitely has its moments, but it simply lacks the vitality of past work. Of course, maybe the songs that will really punch me in the gut will be found on the second CD of the release, which I'll have to buy when it comes out next year (since I didn't splurge for the discbox). They've still got me waiting, so I guess the joke's on me.