Rock column, Mail on Sunday, October 14 2007

Radiohead
In Rainbows
download only, out now at www.inrainbows.com
FIVE STARS


For rock fans, this is the event of the year so far. An album that might have been only mildly mouthwatering, on recent form, became a must-have the minute Radiohead opted to turn it into an economic experiment. It is on sale by download only, for the moment, and buyers pay what they want apart from an administration charge of 45p.

The attraction is not just the fact that they are trusting us to set the price. It’s the audacity of the coup: the sudden announcement, the confident execution, the stylish website and the quirky timing. In Rainbows did something unheard-of in the rock world: it made Wednesday morning exciting.

However, an event is one thing and a success is another. After the flurry of interest in the commercial mould-breaking, there could easily have been a critical backlash. Thom Yorke and his mates might have used their freedom, after fulfilling a six-album deal with EMI, to drift even further into the realms of difficulty.

Instead they have gone the other way, moving back towards the mainstream as well as making a splash. As Yorke explained on the band’s blog: ‘You make your little pond but if your pond isn't connected to the river, which isn't connected to an ocean, it's just going to dry up. It's just a little piss pool. I've lived too long to be happy in a pond.’

Firm fans needn’t be alarmed: Radiohead haven’t turned into Snow Patrol. But they have hit on a style which is much more accessible than their last three albums, without being much less edgy. From the opening track, the bustling, bracing 15 Step, there is no doubt that they mean business.

The structures are still unorthodox, but in a good way. Several of these 10 songs head in a fresh direction in the final third, an area where many bands give up and settle for mere repetition. The songs take you on journeys, and they do it without being long: most are four minutes, and one is half that.

The words are still elusive, at times occluded. Heaven knows, Yorke is still fairly miserable now. Even on a song that begins ‘I don’t want to be your friend, I just want to be your lover’, he soon finds himself crooning, ‘The infrastructure has collapsed’.

But tunes matter more than words and here there has been a change of heart. Yorke notoriously told Q magazine in 2000 that he had ‘had it with melody.. all melodies to me were pure embarrassment’. The malady lingered on for years, but he’s all right now. All these tracks have tunes and two or three of them are outstanding.

Faust Arp, an orchestral folk song, has a segment of melody that could have flowed straight from the pen of Paul McCartney. Nude, an ethereal ballad, is as beautiful as anything Radiohead have ever recorded. In places you can even sing along, if your voice goes that high. Yorke’s command of falsetto is superb: he is just about the only prominent singer who uses it to convey anything more complex than disco delirium.

The arrangements have got easier too. The twitches and glitches are now used as flavouring rather than being the centre of attention. With one exception, a powerful blues-rock number called Bodysnatchers, In Rainbows has a consistent palette – gentle guitars, subtle percussion, keening vocals, mournful piano. Radiohead’s refusal to let fans download individual tracks may be obtuse, but they do make sure the whole album hangs together.

What they have done, as well as shake the whole edifice of the business, is to reconcile the two sides of their personality. In Rainbows is still a much edgier record than, say, Coldplay’s X&Y. But it’s also good company: you can play it in the car, the gym or the tube. It is recognisably related to all six of its predecessors.

The eternal question music lovers ask each other – what do you think? – has been joined by a new one: what did you pay? I paid a tenner, because that seems a fair price for a new album by a major band. It has already been well worth it.