Pop's latest moon landing happened Tuesday around midnight Pacific time, when the download code for Radiohead's "In Rainbows" hit inboxes around the world. The English band startled the music industry when it announced this release 10 days ago, inspiring much debate about record pricing and the fate of major labels in light of artists taking complete control of their careers. That story is a fascinating one, still unfolding. But there's also the matter of the music itself.
By scheduling a mass download -- really a rolling download, across time zones -- Radiohead has created a communal listening experience like no other in pop history. It typifies the Internet Age, in which people sit in physical isolation, linked through the ether by blogs and message boards. Instant reviews began appearing last night and will flow on through the day as people carve out time for listening. In that spirit, I've documented my own first listening experience, hiccups and all.
6:55 a.m.: Radiohead has a way of making me feel inadequate. They're so serious, so progressive, so cool. Do I really get them? I awaken from a dream in which I am onstage but can't remember the words to the song I'm singing. Anxiety! What if this download doesn't work and I'm the only pop snob out there who can't hear "In Rainbows" today? I could just stay in bed . . .
7:20 a.m.: Knowing that the download link for "In Rainbows" is probably sitting in my inbox, I rush my daughter through her toast and chocolate milk and get her into the car seat so Dad can drive her to school. I have to get to that inbox. Art trumps life today.
8:12 a.m.: Inbox open. There's the link. Arrived last night after bedtime. Darn! That means a horde of college kids and child-free media professionals have already had their communal Radiohead experience. Oh well. I'm having the working-mom communal Radiohead experience, I guess. I paste the link into my browser.
8:13 a.m.: Something is happening. Appears to be a download.
8:17 a.m.: Download complete. Wow, that went well. I hardly had time to be tempted to go on a blog search of already-posted reviews.
8:18 a.m.: I open the file. I can see 10 song titles, including "Nude," "Weird Fishes / Arpeggi," "Reckoner" and "Videotape."
8:19 a.m.: Headphones? Computer speakers? Speakers.
[There's a break in the space-time continuum to allow for getting coffee.]
8:28 a.m.: First track: "15 Step." Starts with live drums mixed with a handclap beat and Thom Yorke singing, in a surprisingly soulful voice, "How come I end up where I started?" Valid question, if where he started was in a future-thinking, Prince-inspired R&B band. Jonny Greenwood's letting forth a snaky little chord progression. Hold on. There come the weird sonic effects. One sounds like shuffling cards.
8:31 a.m.: A Jonny Greenwood effects buzz causes one of my speakers to fall off the shelf. Headphones? No, stay with speakers. Churchy organ ends the track.
8:33 a.m.: Second track: "Bodysnatchers." Is this a rewrite of the Beatles' "Within You Without You"? They are having fun here!
8:35 a.m.: Whoa, that echo chamber guitar and Yorke singing "It's the 20th century" sure sounds like U2. But harder-rocking. Not even slightly ponderous. Then, with a shout of "I seen it coming!" they're outta here.
8:37 a.m.: Track 3: "Nude." Surge of strings. Yorke's doing his helium-croon thing. Pretty! I love the way his voice and Greenwood's guitar are interacting on some of these tracks. Their Glimmer Twins-go-to-grad school artistic love affair appears intact.
8:40 a.m: Is that a Theremin or is Thom just really happy to be singing with his band again? The song ends with his falsetto hitting a peaceful, major-scale resolution.
8:42 a.m: Track 4: "Weird Fishes / Arpeggi." More bubbly guitar and two-step-style drumming, like the first track. This one's so palatable, so smooth, so . . . watery.
8:45 a.m.: The waters are getting muddy. Noisy buildup of guitar effects. Yorke: "I get eaten by the world and weird fishes." OK, now we're back in Radiohead world -- bliss and paranoia in equal parts.
8:47 a.m.: Isn't this supposed to be a communal listening experience? I decide to do a quick search on Google Blogs. " 'In Rainbows' is incredible, expansive, a voyage," writes one blogger. Now I feel connected to all the other early adapters. Time for Track 5.
8:52 a.m.: "All I Need." Cello and a trip-hop beat ushers in a fuzzy keyboard riff. Yorke's singing is unusually laid-back, though the lyrics intimate claustrophobia, panic. "I'm an animal trapped in your hot car." It ends with an ascending melody line and York singing, "It's all wrong, it's all right." Is this his idea of a love song?
8:57 a.m.: Track 6: "Faust Arp." Acoustic guitar and hushed, rapid singing evoke Elliott Smith. The strings seem lifted from Nick Drake's great second album, "Bryter Later." Oops, it's over. That was a short one.
8:59 a.m.: Track 7: "Reckoner." With a title like that, I expect a little clatter. The cymbal-driven opening does not disappoint. Yorke comes in at around a minute, gently keening, "You are not to blame . . . we are both to blame." The track surges, lulls, builds itself again in a wash of strings. I sneak a look at Google Blogs. "This is how the soundtrack to porn in the future will be," notes one instant review. OK then!
9:07 a.m.: Track 8: "House of Cards." Quiet as it is, this one has a funky undertone. Wait, did Yorke just sing, "I don't wanna be your friend, I just wanna be your lover"? He really has been listening to Prince.
9:08 a.m.: OK, it's becoming a Radiohead song. Greenwood is processing those Nick Drake strings so they sound like they've been recorded inside a space station. A little click in the corner of the mix actually sounds like cards shuffling. Now Yorke seems to be singing, "Denial, denial." Is that a cute little reference to Kurt Cobain? It was the key word in "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
9:11 a.m.: I'm thinking about ghosts now: Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, Kurt Cobain. They're all floating around in Radiohead's air. Maybe "In Rainbows" isn't as sweet and calm a trip as it first seems.
9:13 a.m.: Track 9: "Jigsaw Falling Into Place." Lacy, looping playing by Greenwood returns the band to its "OK Computer" sound. But Yorke's vocal, low in his range, makes me think of Damon Albarn from Blur. He also sounds a little drunk.
9:14 a.m.: Choogling guitar and kick drum move this track. "Dance, dance, dance," Yorke sings. But the track never gets too frantic and concludes neatly. This one could get airplay -- if Radiohead still cared about airplay.
9:19 a.m.: Track 10: "Videotape." It's the final one. I hear they've been playing this one live for a while. Piano-based, solemn, it's presented like a closing theme.
9:21 a.m.: Someone's breathing heavy on this track. Clacking effects and a sparsely repetitive structure make it more like "Kid A" than most of "In Rainbows." The lyrics speak of death: "When I'm at the pearly gates, this'll be on my videotape." A melancholy way to close an album that, in general, is surprisingly joyful.
9:25 a.m.: The listening event of the year has concluded, at least for me, for now. The warm glow of communal music geekiness engulfs me. Time to load the tracks on my MP3 player and live with them for a while. I think "In Rainbows" is going to turn out to be a great album. It's been a great 45 minutes so far.