How do you review a Radiohead album? There’s a sense of insignificance in trying to talk about this band, a sense of shouting to be heard amidst a chorus of fans and critics. Swirling conspiracy theories, hubbub about release method, endless speculation. This is a band that people want to talk about. More than any other artist, Radiohead seems to inspire listeners to contemplate what it all means rather than just how it sounds. Whoa dude.
In some ways, Radiohead cultivated that urge to philosophize with the release of King of Limbs. By announcing the album just a few days before it was available, avoiding leaks, and then releasing the record a day early, they built a community around the first listen, a buzz hardly felt since the days of lining up at a record store to buy an album the day it dropped. In another way, though, Radiohead didn’t have a choice; no matter how they released King of Limbs, it would have been endlessly discussed by critics. After releasing In Rainbows in a pay-what-you-want format, anything else would seem like a statement – a retreat to old practices or a push toward new ones.
Radiohead is in a unique position where everything they do is a media event, and it’s not their fault. Well, it’s not completely their fault, at least. They did make some public statements about moving away from LPs that have led to rampant speculation – fueled by, for example, “TKOL1” confirmation codes, the album’s brevity, the re-naming of final track “Mouse Bird Dog” to “Separator,” and that song’s lyric, “If you think this is over, then you’re wrong” – that this is just Radiohead’s first volley in 2011. And maybe it is. Maybe they’ll release ThePrince of Branches next week and there will be a whole new swirl of exhilaration and backlash. But that’s just flying pigs and wishery. The fact of the matter is that Radiohead released a new album last week, and it’s pretty damn great.
In many ways, King of Limbs is a study in two parts – a skittering, free jazz first half followed by a ballad-based, reverb-soaked finish. The album’s first single, “Lotus Flower,” is the fulcrum around which the album pivots, the link between the melodic trio that closes the album and the headier quartet that precedes it. But to view the album as separate parts is unfair. Instead, I think it functions best as a progression, from the electronic melee of its genesis to the swirling guitars of its closing lines. Because what Radiohead has done so successfully on King of Limbs is incorporate the soundscapes of modern electronic and post-dubstep music in a warmer, more organic way. Where artists like Burial, James Blake, and Flying Lotus are often distant and cold in their production of such sound, King of Limbs sounds tantalizingly close.
This is heady music, no doubt about it, and certainly not jammed with sing-along choruses, or even many definitive hooks and melodies to latch on to. If there is any album that King of Limbs draws comparison to, it is Thom Yorke’s blip-heavy solo album, The Eraser. The fact that many of these tunes were premiered by Thom Yorke, either solo or with his side project band Atoms For Peace, shows he played as integral a role as ever in the production and creation of these songs. But make no mistake – this album is as layered as nearly any of Radiohead’s past efforts, albeit to often simpler effect. The band isn’t missing here, they’re just so closely tied together as to render them nearly indistinguishable as separate parts.
It’s in Phil Selway’s drums that the difference is most dramatically heard. His ticks and taps are cut up and reworked, noticeably ricocheting around on “Bloom” and the quasi-instrumental fourth track “Feral.” Unless Selway has grown a third and fourth arm, it seems that his drumming has been chopped to give the tracks a sort of spastic, clattering feel. Radiohead has flipped the paradigm; on the aforementioned “Feral,” it is the guitars and vocals that keep the pulse of the song, rather than the chattering drums, which often stretch towards spiraling out of control. That balance – between rhythm and melody, between control and chaos – is what lies at the root of King of Limbs. The melodies are circular rather than linear, the drums form rather than function.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Radiohead is inching closer to the popular music avant-garde and further from the mainstream. Yorke chose Flying Lotus to open his shows with Atoms For Peace, and he contributed vocals to a track on FlyLo’s Cosmogramma. But this isn’t a completely drastic shift for the band, either. It’s more a toe or two dipped into a new pool.
King of Limbs is purportedly named for a thousand year old oak tree found in the Savernake Forest, not far from where Radiohead has recorded in the past. Throughout the album, the band seems to puzzle over where their music resides in this natural world, as if inspired by the massive tree to contemplate their own significance. At the end of “Codex,” a twisting dial transforms into chirping birds before shifting back to become the opening of “Give Up The Ghost.” The album’s entirety traces a similar line, toeing the line between electronic and real, while wondering if they are really different things.
In some ways, it seems that In Rainbows may have given the band a shove in this direction; after a grueling recording marathon for that album, the band seemed ready for a break, both from the studio and from each other. Selway has noted the difference in recording process this time around, saying at one point that King of Limbs recording had “been quite the opposite” of In Rainbows’ predominantly live recording process. The idea of assembling a cohesive album from distinct parts is an intriguing enigma.
Forgive me for pushing a metaphor, but it’s easier for me to envision this album like the King of Limbs itself, whose sprawling boughs extend both horizontally and vertically from its impossibly giant trunk. There are no songs on King of Limbs that sounds like anything other than Radiohead – the band hasn’t lost its muchness. But from the center of its established sound, these songs unroll like feelers, connected but experimental, resulting in a record that is, paradoxically, cohesively disconnected. It doesn’t have the technical purpose of OK Computer, or the ideological vigor of Hail To The Thief, but it manages to sound familiar and new simultaneously. King of Limbs finds one of the greatest bands we have ever known pushing their sound into a new sphere, remaining relevant at the risk of alienating some fans, rather than slipping slowly into the comfortable fog of repetition and compromise.
The lyrics on King of Limbs seem to acknowledge some of the band’s wavering exploration. On “Morning Mr. Magpie,” Yorke claims that the title character has “stolen all the magic/took my melody.” On “Bloom,” the album’s opener, Yorke announces, “I’m moving out of orbit.” “Lotus Flower” is unapologetic – “do what we want” and “slowly we unfold.” But this is not Radiohead abandoning pleasant music in favor of abrasive tone studies. This record is imminently relistenable; the initially simple sound opens up to reveal smaller and smaller dolls inside – the rainstorm snaps of “Bloom,” the disintegrating loops of “Give Up The Ghost,” halted introductory swell of “Codex.”
There are those who have said that King of Limbs is the sort of album that would garner little attention if it were produced by another band. First off, I fundamentally disagree with that assertion; now, more than ever, we as music listeners are armed to the teeth with tools to discover great music, even when it’s hidden in albums that don’t fit on the radio. But even if that cynical proposition is true, isn’t that exactly the point? Again and again, since the days of “Creep,” Radiohead has pushed its audience away from comfort zones and familiarity, without worrying about commercial success or mainstream appeal. The result? A legion of unwavering fans. If any band has earned the right to release an album like King of Limbs (with little fanfare, I might add) it’s this one. I’m glad they did. When the brief album comes to a close, there’s not a second’s hesitation before I hit play again.
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LISTEN: Radiohead, The Kings of Limbs