Slightly over four years ago, while I was in throes of a major Radiohead obsession, Margaret and I stood in line outside a record store in Boston, waiting for the midnight release of Hail to the Thief. Later that same summer, I saw Radiohead in concert twice, once in Boston and once in Salt Lake City; when my car broke down on the highway on the way to the Boston concert, I called a tow truck and then a cab, choosing to abandon my car at a gas station in Hopkinton for the evening rather than miss seeing Thom Yorke dance around the stage singing "rats and children follow me around." I have never regretted it.
Had last Wednesday been four years ago, I would have been nearly hyperventilating with excitement. Wednesday marked the release of the newest Radiohead album, In Rainbows, a welcome gift to fans who have waited four years, amidst rumors of the band breaking up, the album coming out in 2006, and the band changing their tune, again and again. And, as if that weren't exciting enough, the band only announced the album ten days before its release, and, and, and announced a new marketing strategy: the album would, at first, be distributed online, with customers paying whatever they wanted. Yes, that's right: whatever they wanted. On the official site, the "price" line was kept blank, with a small hyperlinked question mark next to it; when clicked, a small window popped up that said "It's Up To You." When clicked again, another small window popped up: "No, Really, It's Up To You."
My corners of the internet have been abuzz since then. Pitchfork, the usually staid bastion of indie hipper-than-thou superiority, announced the new album with the headline "NEW RADIOHEAD ALBUM AAAAAAAHHH!!!!" Before the album's release, economics blogs discussed the price discrimation model, Pitchfork gave a song-by-song breakdown of the history of the new album, several friends emailed me to chat about the news, and a Google blogsearch brought up roughly 14,000 hits for "In Rainbows" between October 1 and October 9. After the album's release, "how much did you pay" polls abounded, several friends geeked out about the music, and the internet hype machine went crazy.
At the moment of the album's release--and remember this was all done online, so I can pinpoint a moment; I got my download code at 11.50 PM on October 9--I was still awake, finishing--okay, fine, starting--some homework. When I saw the email come into my inbox, I forgot all about the structure of wh-word questions in English and got downloading. A few minutes later, I was listening to the new album and reading reviews of it online. These weren't professional reviews: all over the internet, people were live-blogging their first listen, or sometimes their second, telling us where and when they first listened: in the middle of the night, after waiting up for it; early in the morning, while getting ready for work; on their lunch break. When I learned the new album would be a download, I lamented, a little bit, for the loss of the zealous-fan camaraderie I experienced at that record store four years ago, but I realized, while trying to load a message board for a Radiohead fan site, that digital media don't destroy community, they create it. It just happens to be virtual, and far-flung. Listening to Thom Yorke wail "It is the 21st century," I reveled in the fact that, in this hyper-accelerated modern world, a band can build hype, release an album, and get reviewed by thousands of loyal/ardent/obsessive fans, all within the space of ten days and twenty minutes. Thank you, Al Gore.
Abler minds than mine have weighed in on the implications of the new marketing model--some say it marks a death knell for the record industry, others point out that just because Radiohead can get away with this doesn't mean it's the wave of the future; Radiohead, despite being, by some definitions, an indie band, consistently tops the charts, and even 2000's Kid A, which was widely (and illegally) leaked on the internet before its release, went to #1 in the U.S. on the week of its release, even though the band didn't release any singles. I will say, though, that whatever you think about the future of this model, it has succeeded for the present: as of today, the day after its release, Radiohead have sold 1.2 million copies of In Rainbows. Kid A, by comparison, sold 1.3 million copies in the first three years after its release. Now, that "sold" should probably have quotation marks on it, as many people were paying only the 90-cent transaction fee, but still, I'd say the band's probably doing pretty well, financially speaking--especially when you consider that they're taking most of the profits themselves, having cut out the record-company middlemen.
(Oh, and if you want to know, I paid about $7.)
I hesitate to turn this into a full-blown album review, partly because it usually takes me longer than a day to really make up my mind about an album, partly because, though my obsession has abated since four years ago, the very mention of the name Radiohead still makes me a bit dizzy, so you know I'll be biased, and partly because, well, there's only so many synonyms for "depressed" one can find in a thesaurus before one needs to take Prozac and a break. I'm not sure if I agree with the "best album yet" judgment--it's pretty hard to compete against what is widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest albums of all time, and don't even get me started on Kid A--but, so far, I think it's the best album I've heard all year, and definitely better than Amnesiac or Hail to the Thief. (Not that I'm saying they're bad, Oxford forbid!) The album as a whole is muted and mournful, with Yorke's trademark voice used as an instrument every bit as much as the piano or drums or guitar. (Fans will be delighted to note that there are guitars in this album.) I can't name just a single highlight; "House of Cards" caught my attention right away, for its opening line "I don't want to be your friend/I just want to be your lover," because in most Radiohead songs romantic themes are usually suppressed, subverted and carefully covered in symbol and metaphor; I love the transformation of "Reckoner" into a quiet, drum-driven piece rather than its original incarnation as a crunchy guitar anthem, just like "Electioneering," only bad; I shrieked with excitement to realize that "Nude" was just "Big Ideas (Don't Get Any)," which has long been one of my favorite unreleased live tracks; and the understated "Videotape" easily rivals any of Radiohead's other piano ballads for beauty, as Thom, playing the piano and accompanied by stuttering percussion, croons "When I'm at the Pearly Gates/This will be on the videotape, the videotape." I'm trying not to gush, but I can't help myself: when I'm at the Pearly Gates, this will be on the soundtrack.