Radiohead dropped surprise albums before they were cool.
Radiohead dropped surprise albums before they were cool. Though In Rainbows may not have reinvented the band or dramatically shifted its artistic direction like previous albums, Radiohead still changed the game with their seventh album’s buildup and promotion. Namely, there wasn’t any. Following Hail to the Thief, Radiohead found itself out from under their six-album EMI contract. At that point, The New York Times described them as “by far the world’s most popular unsigned band,” and they ultimately used this newfound freedom to flout the conventional way that records are released.
The surprise announcement—Jonny Greenwood only gave the world a 10-day heads-up on the band’s blog—was that much more shocking given that Radiohead’s cohesion seemed to be in question during the preceding years. After Hail to the Thief, the band took a short hiatus, with talks of a possible breakup once again surfacing. In the interim between the two albums, Thom Yorke had released a fairly well-received solo project in The Eraser and Greenwood worked on soundtracks (including There Will Be Blood). But behind the scenes the band also began work on their seventh album. By the fall of 2007, despite sporadic progress updates posted to their website, a new Radiohead album was simply not on many music fans’ radars. Even less expected was that the band would practically be giving digital copies away for free.
The pay-what-you-want experiment is perhaps the most historically relevant aspect of In Rainbows, an album that, musically, also offered another dose of top-tier Radiohead. Time magazine would call it “easily the most important release in the recent history of the music business.” Now independent, the band was salty about labels in general. Yorke questioned the necessity of labels, saying in 2005 that, “it probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say ‘fuck you’ to this decaying business model.” Of the surprise pay-what-you-want online release, bassist Colin Greenwood cited a desire to avoid the typical rollout of an album where radio-play defines the album based on singles and that the band preferred fans and critics alike to first experience the music together.
Their stab at total freedom also led to spinning wheels, as their early sessions working on the album went nowhere. The band decided to switch things up by working without Nigel Godrich, who produced five of their previous albums. Faced with creative deadlock, the band shook things up by deciding to tour in 2006, during which time they were able to flesh out some of their half-formed songs and introduce them to the world. After the tour, they realized they needed Godrich, and his return, according to Yorke, gave them a “walloping kick up the arse.”
The result was an album filled with songs that are uncharacteristically personal for a band that had taken on such an abstract bent in recent years. Yorke would define much of In Rainbows as his take on “seduction songs.” That’s not entirely evident in the opening moments, as “15 Step” melds the more experimental, glitchy elements of 21st century Radiohead with the churning, balls-out guitar rock of “Bodysnatchers.” But as the album presses on, the seduction takes hold. In “House of Cards,” Yorke declares “I don’t want to be your friend/ I just want to be your lover” over gentle strumming and deliberate drum kit work before the track grows increasingly ethereal. “All I Need” may be Radiohead at their most heart-baring, as Yorke sings of being a moth attracted to the object of his desire’s light. He’s mesmerized by eyes and is compelled to follow in the shimmering “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” and he gently celebrates a moment worth capturing forever on the piano-plinking “Videotape.”
But it’s not all sunshine on In Rainbows. There is conflict as well. On “Nude,” lines like “Now that you’ve found it/ It’s gone” speak to the fleeting nature of joy and the suffering inherent to desire. And despite its upbeat tempo, “Bodysnatchers” is as bleak as they come. Yorke sings of life sapped away and of internal lights going out even as he’s “trapped in a body and can’t get out.” In fact, it’s the contrast between the fullness and the hollow space, the desire and the numbness, that makes this album so unique in the band’s catalog. These songs are a far cry from Radiohead’s previous abstractions of lemon-sucking mornings and incessant raindrops.
The band’s unique release strategy paid off. After years of the questionable legality of online file sharing, fans had the opportunity to download an album directly from a band for free (and many did). Of course, physical copies followed, and ultimately the album sold 3 million copies. At the time of the online release, fans could also order a “discbox” to be delivered later that would include a CD, two vinyl records, artwork and other perks. The band sold 100,000 of these, thus further bolstering revenue. Radiohead bucked convention and scored big, even amid valid criticism from the likes of Lily Allen and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, saying that a wildly successful and wealthy band pulling such a stunt reflected poorly on musicians who were just starting out and didn’t have the means to allow fans to pay what they want. Radiohead didn’t tempt fate and never released an album the same way again, although they have continued to spring new albums on the public with only very short notice.
By the time In Rainbows hit, Radiohead had nothing left to prove. And yet they continued to push the envelope in other ways. That’s what happens when a band has reached the mountaintop and can dictate its own terms. Nearly a decade later, the surprise album has become an increasingly common tactic of superstars, but it was never more shocking than with In Rainbows.