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CD Review

Radiohead's revenge is sweet

On Radiohead's 'In Rainbows,' Thom Yorke's voice is front and center instead of buried in a toxic mix. On Radiohead's "In Rainbows," Thom Yorke's voice is front and center instead of buried in a toxic mix. (Laurent Gillieron/Associated Press/file 2006)

The Internet went a little bit bananas yesterday at 1:30 a.m., as did the blogosphere, when fans began downloading Radiohead's new album, "In Rainbows." The digital-only release was supposed to launch at 7 p.m. (midnight in London), but the activation codes arrived 6 1/2 hours late. Needless to say the delay hardly diminished the cultural significance or revolutionary business potential built into the release of Radiohead's seventh album, which is being offered to fans for whatever price they choose to pay.

Nobody knows how many pre-orders were taken or how much fans opted to pony up, but anecdotal evidence suggests the first number exceeds 4 million and the second hovers around $10, the typical cost of a digital album. Every cent goes to the band, which is no longer affiliated with a record label, and the timing couldn't be better: smack on the heels of the recording industry's victory in its first lawsuit against a music downloader.

It's a brilliant goodwill gesture, although the pay-what-you-want model probably isn't viable in the broader marketplace. Only a band with Radiohead's large, devoted fan base and reliably stellar catalog could pull it off. But here and now, in a perfect storm of credible artist, adoring public, and hostile industry, the psychology is sheer genius. Whatever you paid for "In Rainbows," it's going to be worth it because you, the newly empowered consumer, have assigned the value.

The real beauty is that "In Rainbows" is a wonderful, absorbing album. It falls on the subdued side for Radiohead; the lion's share of these 10 tracks are more contemplative than raucous, filled with strings and finger-picked guitars and Thom Yorke's voice front and center instead of buried in a toxic mix. But subdued doesn't mean laid-back. Radiohead finds intensity wherever its members' collective experimental streak leads them, and this ruminative new album is no exception.

Dry, crisp percussion and Yorke's eerie coo kick off "15 Steps," a crackling, sinuous tune that builds to an anxious peak and could have been lifted from sessions for "The Eraser," the singer's solo album. Next comes "Bodysnatchers," built around a thick tangle of distorted guitars and a frantic beat; it's going to be positively epic onstage.

And that's pretty much it for the rockers. From here on the album swims inward - and at the same time outward, toward listeners who have been alienated by the band's devotion to abstract experimentation on the past several albums. "Nude" is a dreamy waltz, a futuristic blues ornamented with virtual choirs and space-age gauze. "Reckoner" flows like soulful benediction, all shimmering rhythms and burnished strings. "All I Need" builds from a rumbling keyboard meditation into a soaring symphony, but the skewed chamber pop of "Faust Arp" asks nothing of the listener but to fall under its lovely, aching spell. That alone is a novelty for Radiohead, a band that in recent years has demanded a rigorous level of intellectual engagement from its audience.

"In Rainbows" is concerned with love, its gentle dissonances and endless, minute contortions. "I'd be crazy not to follow where you lead," Yorke sings on "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi," following fluid guitar lines into a watery soundscape that grows murkier and murkier, until the singer hits bottom and is left wondering how to escape. "Jigsaw Falling Into Place" toggles gorgeously between anxiety and euphoria; Yorke rushes to deliver his questioning, quick-witted lyrics, and they tumble out list-like, like so many puzzling pieces of information.

The piano ballad "Videotape," set at the Pearly Gates, begins simply and then grows misshapen over its 4 1/2 minutes, as a drum materializes with an offbeat wallop and uneasy textures begin to bleed into the song. "No matter what happens next, you shouldn't be afraid/ Because I know today has been the most perfect day I've ever seen," sings Yorke, just before the beat starts skipping around and the tune breaks into chunks that fall out of synch. Time becomes unreliable, harmony vanishes, and the song leads quietly into chaos. But Radiohead knows its way around the void, and on "In Rainbows," it sounds beautiful and true.

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com. For more on music, visit boston.com/ae/ music/blog.

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