Radiohead detractors may argue that the band makes music for taking anti-depressants (and that’s a fair assertion), but I can’t think of a single artist or group of the past 20 years who has received as much intense devotion, both critical and fanatical, as these five from Abingdon, Oxfordshire. During a four-album streak from 1995 to 2001, each Radiohead record significantly evolved, if not improved upon, the sound, aesthetics, and depth of the one before it, and in the process, expanded the boundaries of popular rock music as we know it. You can rightfully say that the band’s ill-conceived tempering of electronic experimentation with back-to-basics rock on 2003’s Hail To The Thief was less than spectacular, but it’s still pretty good for a band’s most disappointing album. More importantly, it set the stage for Radiohead’s reemergence in 2007 on In Rainbows, a mature, forceful reminder of the band’s greatest strengths that served as not only a return to glorious form but an introduction to a whole new audience.
Simply put, the odds are favorable that when Radiohead records a new album, it’s going to be good. Hence, the releases become big events, occurrences almost like solar eclipses that generate buzz because they are rare, reliable, and communally experienced. That last part is especially important. In the old days, fans flocked to the record store on Monday nights because they had to get their favorite artist’s new album as soon as possible. You stood in a long line, counted down the minutes until 12:01, and feverishly debated the hidden meaning of little known songs with complete strangers. Radiohead’s last minute announcement that their new album could be downloaded exclusively from their web site is designed to create the same sort of phenomenon, and it does. There are no online leaks and no single-track purchases. We all experience the album together, at the same time, as the band intended. It’s a marvelous, inventive way to generate real excitement in what continues to be a sagging music industry.
So the time has come. Radiohead has indeed released a new album, The King of Limbs, and, not surprisingly, it is very good — not just compared to today’s palette of pop music but also to the high standard set by the band’s own back catalog. For younger fans who discovered Radiohead on In Rainbows (some entranced by the proposition of paying nothing for music then actually liking what they heard and deciding they might want to stay awhile), The King of Limbs is probably not going to be the sequel they wanted to hear. Some will argue that The King of Limbs is to In Rainbows what Kid A was to OK Computer — a deconstruction of sound, a journey into experimentalism, a repurposing of a band’s pop sensibilities into something more obscure and more complicated to unravel.
But with a few more listens (preferably on headphones), The King of Limbs actually reveals itself to be a beautifully compact, concentrated synthesis of all of the band’s previous works. It is in some ways more accessible than ever, and in other ways, delightfully difficult. It’s also their best record since Kid A, and a reminder that two decades into their career, Radiohead remain daring, inspired, and remarkably relevant.
A few things immediately stand out at first listen to The King of Limbs. Phil Selway’s drumming is spectacular; it’s a nimble, driving locomotive that powers most of the songs. Guitars are heard only sparingly and when they do appear, they’re used mostly for nuance and embellishment. Lastly, Thom Yorke’s voice is front and center, his upper register undistorted and sounding prettier than ever. As a whole, the album is short, dense, and strikingly rich — there are only eight songs, and they’re filled to the brim with wonderful aural detail. Radiohead wastes no time building up or coming down; from the album’s very beginning, you’re immediately transported into the thick of things.
On first track “Bloom,” it takes just fifteen seconds for a delicately off-kilter piano signature, looped synths, and a furious drum n’ bass line to all lock into place as an intricate backdrop for Yorke’s swaying vocal melody, strange underwater imagery, and a multitude of minute sonic flourishes. By the time Colin Greenwood’s first sinuous bass note slides in, the song is firing on all cylinders. The band sounds warm yet flawless, so much so and you can’t tell what part is human and what part is machine. Halfway through the track, a trumpet and orchestral strings unexpectedly rise up through a gap in the syncopated breakbeats — it all comes together sublimely, implausibly, like Miles Davis jamming with Leornard Bernstein and Goldie at the bottom of the ocean. “Bloom” is a bona-fide stunner, the kind of innovative music Radiohead are famous for, and easily their best album opener since Kid A’s “Everything In It’s Right Place.”
The next two tracks are both dense, twisting pop songs, comprised of some of the more familiar musical elements in the Radiohead catalog. “Morning Mr. Magpie” has been knocking around the band’s set lists since 2002, and it finally surfaces with a sheen of skittering percussion and an ominous, creeping churn. “You’ve stolen all my magic, and took my melody” says Yorke, lamenting either music piracy or writer’s block. “Little by Little” repurposes the ascending acoustic guitar riff of Hail to the Thief’s “Go to Sleep” into an engine that fans the flames of Yorke’s old bugaboos — disconnection from self, an unhealthy dependence on technology, and a widespread social malaise that threatens to turn modern living into a walking prison. “Routines and schedules/Drug and kill you” Yorke says forebodingly, and the music mirrors the fear. During the chorus, the guitar and vocal tempos becomes slightly detached from the time kept by the drums, embuing the listener with a sense of uneasiness that can’t truly be placed until the two parts have realigned and the song is back on track.
The album’s first side concludes with “Feral,” the band’s hynoptic, throbbing exploration of the dubstep/ ghostly vocal manipulation space made fashionable these days by fellow Englanders Burial and James Blake. If it seems like Radiohead is following the trend, think again; they practically invented the genre on Kid A and return here with a vengeance. “Feral” is particularly impressive over headphones, latching on to your ears and not letting go.
It is with “Lotus Flower” and the remaining second half of the album where The King of Limbs truly finds a signature sound and offers the greatest reward. Throughout their career, Radiohead have been labeled with many adjectives: mopey, brainy, angst-ridden, grandiose, and brooding, but they have rarely, if ever, been called sexy. But the word applies here. On “Lotus Flower” and “Separator,” the descending chord progressions, hand claps, and slinky bass lines play openly with R&B tempos and structures. Yorke’s lyrics are at times unabashedly romantic, especially when sung in that gorgeous falsetto: “Slowly we unfurl/As lotus flowers”, “I’m such a tease and you’re such a flirt”, “Every woman blows her cover/In the eye of the beholder.” When a bare acoustic guitar riff finally surfaces on “Give Up The Ghost,” the moment is so surprising that it underscores the tender, aching vulnerability of Yorke’s request: “Don’t hurt me/Don’t haunt me.” As “sexy albums” come, it’s probably the most cerebral in history, but there’s no denying Yorke and co’s songs are aimed as much below the belt as above the neck, in their own odd, English sort of way.
Along with opener “Bloom,” the second half of The King of Limbs should also translate particularly well to the band’s live shows. If the music video is any indication, Yorke will vamp up “Lotus Flower” to the hilt, (see the “Idioteque” dance), and I can already imagine what “Give Up the Ghost” will sound like piping out over amphitheater speakers on warm August nights of the band’s American tour. It’s the kind of pretty, sing-along melody that Yorke has practically trademarked (see “Fake Plastic Trees” “House of Cards” and live favorite “True Love Waits”).
And if conspiracy theories are true, by summertime there may even be more material for the band to play. Some fans have already suggested that after a four-year hiatus, Radiohead couldn’t have possibly recorded only eight songs. Bloggers tantalizingly point out that the last song on The King of Limbs is called “Separator” and includes the lyric “If you think this is over, then you’re wrong.” If any band could release two albums in a year, it would be Radiohead, who just a decade ago followed Kid A with the surprise Amnesiac and has a history of hiding work up its sleeve.
Whether or not it ends up as an Irish Twin, The King of Limbs is a work of formidable power that stands on its own. Each one of its songs is literally teeming with hooks, luxurious details, and sonic nooks and crannies — there’s no filler here — and the album’s brevity actually adds to its replayability. It’s a soulful, sexy album from a band that plays with ruthlessly lean, mechanized precision. Is The King of Limbs really Radiohead’s love-making album? Kid A’s sexier younger brother? Maybe, maybe not. I suggest we keep an eye out for a baby boom in the hipster population by year’s end. Time will tell.
Download the entire album at The King of Limbs.