Typical dose of sardonic alienation - and worth every penny

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The Independent Culture

Whether or not the walls of the music business will come crumbling down in the wake of this clarion blast at its financial foundations remains to be seen, but one requires no clairvoyance to predict that Radiohead's pay-what-you-like download album would have been perched atop the world's charts come the weekend, had it been eligible.

For while fellow philanthropist Prince gave away an album that would have struggled to reach the lower forties, Radiohead remain one of the world's most avidly supported bands, whose releases routinely sell by the truckload. And while it might be tempting fate to rely on the good favour of purchasers to determine their own retail price, the band are doubtless shrewdly banking on their fans echoing Radiohead's own stance as people of righteous conscience – just imagine the ignominy if, after blagging the album for a penny, one was then subjected to withering emails from one's heroes decrying such opportunist ingratitude. For my part, I thought a fiver – £5.45 including administration charge – seemed about right.

The first thing that strikes you about In Rainbows is how much more direct it sounds than their last few albums: "15 Step" and "Bodysnatchers" are as close as Radiohead have come to "proper" rock music since OK Computer, the latter track a particularly potent piece of Krautrock-style motorik featuring a striding, distorted bass powering a pulsing Neu!-beat, while Thom Yorke wails like the John Lydon of PiL's Metal Box. "15 Step" is probably closer in manner to Yorke's solo material than Radiohead, with a doggedly jerky drum programme and neat, fluid guitar lines carrying his falsetto through the subtly dubbed flashes of elements such as burring organ and cheering children; elsewhere, the piano part to "All I Need" recalls the sombre foreboding of Coldplay, until it swells with the kind of dramatic tension so notably absent from Chris Martin's band.

As the album progresses, however, a more rarefied series of comparisons springs to mind. The percussion bed rattling and shaking at the core of "Reckoner", for instance, recalls the legendary blind street musician Moondog, while the blend of acoustic guitar and strings, combined with Yorke's understated but intimate delivery in "Faust Arp", can't help but summon the ghost of Nick Drake.

Lyrically, the album is an almost standard Radiohead exercise in grimly sardonic alienation, with lines such as "You'll go to hell for what you did" and "I'd be crazy not to follow... everybody leads if they get the chance" hinting at a high concentration of political bitterness.

But it's carefully balanced by the more personal concerns revealed in comments such as "you reel me out, then you cut the string" and "I don't want to be your friend, I just want to be your lover", the latter dismal compliment overheard at the sleazy swinger's party disdained in "House Of Cards". Given Yorke's keening vocal manner and his impressionistic lyric style, it's too early yet to state with any certainty what the individual tracks are actually about, but taken as an overall experience, In Rainbows offers plenty to comfort those fans perplexed by Radiohead's recent jazz-odyssey excursions – not least in its prevailing mood of dark but stylish weltschmerz – but doesn't turn away completely from their more testing musical questing. Just about exactly what you'd want from a Radiohead album, really.