Radiohead - The King of Limbs Review

Since Radiohead has spent a good portion of their career being cutting edge innovators, audacious deconstructors, and malleable superstars, they can’t afford to come up short of an epic game-changer every damn time they release a new album. It’s a cruel disadvantage, but that’s the fallout when you blow minds nearly every outing. It has become such a burden that, not too long ago, Thom Yorke declared that Radiohead would no longer be making albums. Making them had become too much of a burden on their collective nerves and psyche (“We can't possibly dive into that again, it'll kill us”). If pressure to do something genius every time out wasn’t enough, the painstaking, psychologically-damaging process of creation was proving far too taxing. Even though The King of Limbs’ very existence is contradiction, Yorke wasn’t being a sleight-of-hand master when he made the statement (at least, not as of yet).

Yes, it is technically an LP, but not on the terms we’ve now taken for granted with Radiohead. As it stands, some might even declare it to be a mini-LP. Not just because at just eight songs over about thirty-seven minutes, it’s the band’s shortest full-length to date—plenty of artists have released pithier albums in length and records with fewer tracks. And it’s refreshing for a Big Important Band to be choosing brevity over bloat; too many acts equate magnum opus with epic grandiosity, resulting in overkill that only Roland Emmerich aficionados could embrace. But really, its slightly callous “mini-LP” tag would arise from the fact that The King of Limbs doesn’t “advance the brand,” so to speak. It’s not an aesthetic reinvention, a brand new manipulation, a musical progression. I wouldn’t go so far as to declare that the band’s on “cruise control,” but there aren’t many significant surprises in store.

Which leaves plenty of time to rediscover what makes Radiohead so special. It’s not like they’re always defined by being new. Amnesiac was clearly a byproduct of the Kid A wellspring, Hail to the Thief was a synthesis of many of their former traits (and In Rainbows a more satisfying fusion of the same), and debut Pablo Honey was largely derivative of the ten previous years of guitar rock on both sides of the pond. And that didn’t make any of them bad albums; even if they fell short by various degrees and margins of masterwork status, they were all highly enjoyable either much or all of the way.

Instrumentally speaking, KoL is clearly an offshoot of the Kid A/Amnesiac mindset—three guitarists and hardly a noticeable guitar line in sight. Excepting the watery figure of “Separator” and coiled interplay between Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien on “Little by Little,” even those that can be gleaned rarely behave in traditional guitar roles. Fragile, glitchy beats and airy keyboards overshadow, predominantly “of digital” when the rhythms dictate and “of analog” when the melancholy keys take over. In this case, the emotional overwhelms the cerebral—despite all of the clever, slippery touches of dubstep, jazz and electronic music infused (okay, outright controlling) the animated material, KoL glows brightest when it calms down into a somber soothe. Following the Bowie/Eno model on Low, the album is clearly divided by its two halves, with the urgent, itchy stuff upfront and the drifting, dreamy stuff covering the back end. Although the band has mastered both avenues, this time the slower, more overtly melodic stuff greatly outshines the busy, brittle business that gets us going.

It can take time to separate the mechanics from the scenery, to really figure out what’s going on and whether or not it’s actually worth the effort in discerning. Some might describe several passages as being minimal, but really they’re just miniature, a competition of the same balance between the frozen and the chaotic that has long been a trademark of the band this millennium. Opener “Bloom” arrives with willowy piano burbling that’s later overrun by scattered, looping percussion and symphonic keyboard tones running both over and under the tricky rhythm, the vocals following suit. Thom Yorke is in a restrained mood for much of the album, and this is no exception, featuring his trademark ability to sound disembodied-alien and passionate-human in the same gasps. “And while the ocean blooms, it’s what keeps me alive,” he sings obscurely, “So I lose and start over. Don’t blow your mind with why.” This strategic ambiguity presses on with the next track, “Good Morning Mr. Magpie,” but he manages something that, if taken demi-literally, is Radiohead in a far more mischievous state of mind than typical—“Good morning, Mr. Magpie, how are we today? They’ve stolen all my magic and took my melody.”

Along with the jingling patter of the frosty “Little by Little” and the jerking disjoint of gonzo jazz-dancer “Feral” (an instrumental with broken, treated murmurs from Yorke), the album’s first half is almost jarring in the how quietly it jars. Easy melodies are difficult to find, and though they may not sound unfinished, the first listen or two will likely make you think they’re sketches improperly resolved. Returns embellish their subtle intensity and marvelous movement, but it’s not until the second half that the record really kicks into high gear. The next side embarks with “Lotus Flower” and begins a three-track run that convinced me even on that first listen that this would be a record worth exploring ad nauseum.

The title of that song sounds like it should have already been adopted by Radiohead—something about a “lotus flower”’s simplicity amidst dense evocation practically bleeds the band’s amorphous style. But it would have been inappropriate before, since I can’t imagine that the band members didn’t feast on a banquet of Flying Lotus before and/or during the creation of many of these songs (especially “Feral”). Elsewhere, cross-sections of Justin Vernon and Afrobeat slide and stutter through—Phil Selway provides much of the polyrhythmic enterprises (and KoL
is a showcase for his unnaturally timed talents) and the wintry folk “don’t haunt me” harmonies, quavering horns, and acoustic plucks of “Give Up the Ghost” echoes formidably of Bon Iver. Since The King of Limbs isn’t presenting a screeching new skid in Radiohead’s musical direction, maybe its fitting that they borrow so explicitly, including from their own back catalog, particularly Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief.

Dividing “Lotus Flower” and “Give Up the Ghost” is “Codex,” which resembles a somnambulant, anesthetized reprise of the haunting piano figures found on ventures like “Pyramid Song” and “Videotape,” and is darkly gorgeous enough to make you stop in your tracks. Usually consumed by future-paranoia, it’s startling to find Yorke expressing relaxed optimism: “Jump off the end; the water’s clear and innocent.” Closing out the flawless second half is “Separator,” which unifies more than it splits, notably in its continuation of the pervading theme of nature in its lyrical imagery and concentration. The sound of birds and windy shuddering lead into the song’s opening and Yorke warbles, “It’s like I’m falling out of bed from a long, weary dream. The sweetest flowers and fruits hang from the trees falling off the giant bird that’s been carrying me.” The exceedingly cryptic nature of the oft-minimalist lyrics throughout begin to take shape, yet remain elusive enough for multiple interpretations at every turn. And despite the weariness that Yorke was awaking from that also signifies the gloomy nature of much of the album’s musical keys, it also reflects of the hope that had been glowing in greater radiance as the record spins onward—“If you think this is over then you’re wrong.” One can only hope this is a wink at fans that more music from the band is on its way very soon.

Though both halves are more than worthwhile (the first very good, the second possibly brilliant), the noticeable partition is one of the album’s few flaws. Selway excels at the worldbeat and programmed loop-derived rhythms of the early run, but the studio gestures of that section clash with the more organic and serene material awaiting the listener on the back end. Side two matches best with the aforementioned references to flora and fauna, and ties in nicely with the album title inspiration, a millennium-old oak tree growing near the house where the band recorded some of the tracks for In Rainbows
. Although not like a splash of ice water in moving from “Feral” to “Lotus Flower,” it’s still a shift dramatic enough to make KoL seem like two EPs clapped together to appease the fanbase desperate for a new full-length, which I’m sure is not what Radiohead would consciously do.

Maybe I lingered too long on the importance of Radiohead as an album event band, but isn’t it really their own fault? It’s rather amazing that after all of the drastic changes in the way we hear, process, study and record music that the long player still exists as most artists’ most viable means of collecting and releasing pop music, and more than any other act in the last fifteen years, Radiohead made sure it stayed that way. If the “album age” really is over, then it’s hard to argue that OK Computer
wasn’t the final hurrah; if it’s not over, then it’s hard to argue that Kid A didn’t save it (makes for a curious timeline, I know). So The King of Limbs doesn’t usher in a new era for the band; it doesn’t meet impossible standards and unreachable expectations. Maybe that’s why the release was announced completely out of the blue a mere five days beforehand. But if this is a band treading water, may all acts linger in the deep end of the pool. Curse those Brits for spoiling us all these years. For a “minor effort,” they’re definitely still spoiling us.

"The King of Limbs" is on sale February 18, 2011 from Self-released.

Matt Medlock


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