Hypothetical questions can be titillating pastime. Some of my favorite moral dilemmas include: would I jump on a suicide bomber to save a bus full of passengers? (Of course); would I keep a suitcase with a million dollars I found even if I am sure no one will ever know? (No way); would I be willing to lose a vital organ just to realize my fantasies with Scarlett Johansson? (Depending on the organ and only after I watched her in “Match Point”); would I steal/pirately download Radiohead’s new album even if it was offered for the price I decide it to be? (Nope)
The one nice thing about evenings dedicated to hypothetical questions is that they end when the alcohol is finished and everybody goes back home in one piece but without Johansson. But Radiohead must play it smart, musn’t they?
The answer is yes. I am one of those who paid (3 Sterlings, if you must know) for Inrainbows, their latest album. I did it for several reasons. It took me a while to figure them out them, but while waiting for the album to slowly drop onto my hard drive, I had some time to ponder. There are two significant reasons: I feel guilty for years of illegal music downloading: Songs and albums that brought so much joy to my life, with no apparent return on my behalf to the people who created it. And the second reason is that Radiohead left me without any excuses. I always justified illegal downloading in the insane CD prices – a result of greedy record companies, mega expensive mega stores and New York talk music agents. What can I say to a band with no music label offering me to purchase their entire new album for as little as 1 penny.
This is what I like so much about Radiohead and what makes them one of the most intriguing bands in the world. They will always make you think. The listening (and now consuming) Radiohead experience is a thought provoking one. Listening to ‘OK Computer’, ‘Kid A’, ‘Amnesiac’ or ‘Hail to the Thief’ is a demanding mission. You have to think, not just feel, anyone who thinks that it is forced, unnecessary or outright snobbish, misses a fascinating process that very much defines the development of our world in the last two decades.
The opening of In Rainbows aligns with all prior expectations: a fast pace and precise tempo of cold electronic drums, accompanied by Thom Yorke’s sharp voice. Taking note on previous albums, from this point onward the song should disintegrate with no recurring chorus, without a familiar verse structure, maybe with a singular line repeating 46 times. Yet, 41 seconds into the song something surprising happens. What is it? Guitar, bass, Yorke’s voice softening, it is melodic, nice and comfy. Radiohead suddenly sound like five people playing together in an alternative rock band and not in the most important band in the world (which is a completely different musical style). The music sounds familiar, serene, it ceases to constantly challenge the listener. ‘All I Need’, for example, is one of the most simple, direct and beautiful love songs Yorke wrote in a long time. “House of cards”, which opens with the words: ‘I don’t want to be your friend, I just want to be your lover’ is a sexy song which explains what Yorke meant when he said this is the ultimate bedroom Radiohead album.
Anyone following the interviews with Radiohead right after the release of their previous album could hope/fear (depending on the reader) that this was bound to happen. Talking to Chuck Klosterman they said they took ‘this music’ (or however you choose to define it) as far as possible. In the following years Radiohead changed and this makes the listening experience very different. It is almost too easy to fall in love with this album even from the first time. The entire compendium of electronic manipulation, filtering and meaningful/meaningless play on words, is left outside. Instead, In Rainbows is a dark atmospheric album with mysterious songs that excite through the heart, not the brain. Yorke’s voice sounds great, the production is spot on, Radiohead doesn’t strain themselves anymore; they are relaxed, even friendly. I find the songs so surprisingly likable I start to wonder whether my mother will also like them. In the next few listening sessions something happens. I can’t help thinking that something is missing. What first sounded simple, direct and meaningful became just simple and unsophisticated? This is a disturbing thought and it takes me a few days to further analyze it. I think I’ve got it now.
But first, I must confess. I lied earlier. I am not sure I will ever have the guts to jump on a suicide bomber and perhaps I will not have the morality to give back a million-dollar suitcase. I would like to believe I would, but I am not certain.
So here is one last hypothetical question. If I would’ve listened to the latest Radiohead without knowing it is their album, would I be disappointed? Would I be bored after the tenth time? The answer to both questions is no. I would probably file it under one of my favorite albums of 2007. And in that I am certain.