Album Review: Radiohead - King of Limbs


The King of Limbs
Radiohead: The King of Limbs (Courtesy the artist)

Radiohead are a band with a knack for turning an album release into an event. 1998's OK Computer and 2000's Kid A (as well as the latter's sister album, Amnesiac, released the following year) were hailed for their fascinating synthesis of genres and trends as well as their epoch-capturing sense of both alienation and possibility. Ultimately, though, these releases were eventful by virtue of their stark breaks from the band's previous work. It was this sense of innovation, unexpectedness and radical self-redefinition that Radiohead gleefully cultivated and that soon became their calling card.

In some ways, their last album, 2007's In Rainbows, was the biggest event of all--less for its music (although it was some of the band's best ever) than for its surprise release and its infamous pay-what-you-please digital release model. In Rainbows circumvented not only the traditional model for marketing music but also the hype circuit which had assigned such massive relevance to their earlier work. Then, after nearly over three years of cryptic mumbling about their next release, the band announced on February 14 that their latest, The King of Limbs, would be released digitally in five days (though you'd have to pay for it this time).

Given how the suddenness of the King of Limbs announcement paralleled that of In Rainbows, it seemed that this album was destined to be another event. Instead, The King of Limbs is something a bit more like the band's 2003 LP Hail to the Thief: a chance for the band to pause and collect its thoughts and ideas and to draw upon their innovations without laboring under the expectation of crafting a masterpiece.

The King of Limbs consists of eight strange and understated songs. There are no anthems and no multi-part epics, no nostalgic returns to form and no game-changers. Instead, it's the kind of record that a band their age should and would make: modest in scope, yet unselfconscious, exploratory and wise.

What's most striking about these songs is their openness--and I mean that in every sense possible. There's a literal expansiveness of sonic space in this record's production, as if various instruments, whirring electronics and Thom Yorke's yearning voice were all moving in strange, shifting orbits, sometimes cavernously far apart yet sporadically reunited. The band also takes an eagerly inventive, wide-eyed approach to sound, erratically pulling in ramshackle polyrhythms, skewed loops, eerie digital effects and spare, gentle live instrumentation in dizzying combinations.

Perhaps the broadest sense in which this album feels open, though, is in the attitude Radiohead seems to evince. They sound unencumbered by their longtime status as an important band. Instead, with total goodwill towards each other and their audience, they've set about playing with their inspirations and fixations in whatever fashion they like, neither embracing pure experimentalism nor sticking to standard rock forms.

At first, The King of Limbs sounds underwhelming and even confusing. With repeat listens, it becomes clever and intricate. The first half of the album is the more difficult, insular one. Opener "Bloom" builds upon an uneasy piano loop with thudding, cluttered drums, Yorke's mournful wailing and what sounds like a sample from Kid A's "In Limbo." The band then dips into drowsy, nerve-wracked rock on "Morning Mr. Magpie" and "Little by Little." On these songs, the different instruments and the vocals often sound a bit out of sync with each other, creating a peculiar atmosphere.

"Feral," though, is the record's strangest moment, aping British electronic music's recent trends while approximating a live-band feel with its hurried percussion and throbbing, repetitive bassline. Yorke's vocals, meanwhile, are processed nearly beyond recognition, fluttering spectrally in and out of the mix.

Things really pick up steam on the record's second half. Single "Lotus Flower" is powered by a sinister groove, cryptic lyrics and Yorke's yearning vocals, building to a lovely emotional climax that recalls In Rainbows highlight "Reckoner." "Codex" is a slow piano song in the vein of Amnesiac's "Pyramid Song" or Hail to the Thief's "Sail to the Moon," but where those songs were frail and fraught, this one sounds genuine and lovely.

"Give Up the Ghost" is the album's high point. Swathed in reverb and anchored by a gentle acoustic guitar, the tune features a distant-sounding, constantly repeating sample of Yorke's falsetto singing "Don't hurt me/ don't haunt me." As he delivers the powerful lead vocal, a swarm of spectral, static-caked voices descends, dancing wraith-like around the song before the whole thing dissolves.

Closing track "Separator" is the most conventional Radiohead tune here. Powered by crisp, propulsive drumming, it's a beautiful mid-tempo number that sports a sprightly treble guitar figure redolent of Vampire Weekend. "Wake me up, wake me up, wake me up," Yorke croons, and indeed, the gnarled, playful experimentalism of the preceding tracks feel dreamlike in contrast to this clean, clear ballad.

"Separator" ends with the lyric, "If you think this is over, then you're wrong," which prompted fans disappointed by The King of Limbs to propose that more new music is on the way from the band. Indeed, Thom Yorke has long threatened to shift the band's focus to shorter albums and EPs, and this is the band's shortest album. "None of us want to go into that creative hoo-ha of a long-play record again," he told The Believer in 2009, adding that "we've actually got a good plan, but I can't tell you what it is, because someone will rip it off. But we've got this great idea for putting things out." So it's possible we'll get more music as a part of this album, or that was recorded during these sessions. Perhaps Radiohead will even take a route similar to Swedish singer Robyn's trio of Body Talk mini-albums last year, or maybe The King of Limbs' different formats (digital, vinyl, CD) will each contain different music.

For now, though, it's safest to assume that the eight songs released as The King of Limbs is all we'll get. And if that's the case, Radiohead may have finally abandoned the album as event, instead giving us exactly the album they wanted to make--no more, no less.