“In Rainbows” might not be the most masculine album title, but it certainly encapsulates Radiohead’s multicolor mood swings. In the last 10 years or so, no band has matched Thom Yorke and co. as a vibe contagion—as deeply as “There There” lolls in resigned masochism, “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” is a directive to move, to make like a well-dressed greaser at a machine politics cocktail party. “Packt” makes you feel so sinister, so outside society’s grasp, that it functions better as a motivational tool than as a song.
Just as remarkable, if not more, is the way Radiohead released their brand-new album, “In Rainbows.” Their last work, “Hail to the Thief,” completed their pact with their label, so they decided to release this new one sans corporation. The album is being sold both in hard copy and as a download (about a 40MB Zip file), and is only available at radiohead.com. Here’s the twist: you, the buyer, decide how much you want to pay. You simply type in the desired price, anything from zero pounds and up (they’re a British band), and you’re immediately sent a link for the download or ordering instructions for the hard copy.
I downloaded “In Rainbows” today, and I’m giving it a mediocre review despite listening to only three-and-a-quarter songs. It’s distinctly lacking in fire, and its few strong moments are overshadowed by the reality that, on “In Rainbows,” Radiohead sounds like a Radiohead cover band. The melodies and beats are derivative, and the vocals are, on a good portion of the verses, pretty uninspired.
But that’s not the point, at least not in today’s music market. Radiohead’s sales technique was, from the start, bound to overshadow the album’s content—in ten years, “In Rainbows” will be remembered primarily as the album Radiohead independently sold for no price, and not as the average listen it really is.
In all, this year’s album crop has been just that: average. Ben Harper’s new CD was OK, as were the latest Kanye and 50 records. Indie releases were solid, if not stellar, as the Arcade Fire’s "Neon Bible," for example, wasn’t as scintillating as 2004’s "Funeral." "Zeitgeist," the first album from the reunited Smashing Pumpkins, is ironically titled, since it unintentionally captures the perfunctory attitude of our time. The problem for songwriters like Yorke and Billy Corgan is that there we're currently floating between artistic epochs. We are steadily digging our globally-warmed, watery graves, and we're hacking away at a devastating, dead-end war in Iraq, but the public hasn't sufficiently mobilized to drive an artistic age.
Someone told me recently that we’re living in the “post-post-modern” age, the restless ennui of post-modernism supplanted by a docile, inert era. It’s hard to define “post-post-modernism,” since “post-modernism” itself inherently escapes description, but we might summarize our era as follows: we’re living in the time that came after the time that came after something important. We had classicism and industrialization a century ago, which dictated the Western world’s socio-artistic values. Post-modernism followed, hand-in-hand with deindustrialization, and we knew was that it was some kind of answer to modernism, that it pushed back against the strict definitions and mechanization of the early twentieth century. Now, in the era after post-modernism, we don’t know how to regard ourselves. If post-modernism is Point A, we're having trouble getting to Point B, since Point A is undefined in the first place. Our current station is the amorphous follow-up to an era of absolute chaos and intrinsic disorder. We’re floating in the clouds, in rainbows, and without an intellectual GPS. We’re living in pretty mediocre times, and our music, our art, and our zeitgeist reflect just how aimless we’re feeling.
Stay Stolid, In Rainbows