Review: Radiohead’s “The King Of Limbs”

Feb 22, 2011 11:49am

There’s something really refreshing about hearing about an album on Monday and being able to download it on Friday.  That’s exactly what Radiohead did for their fans last week.  Following their liberation from EMI, they used a similar approach to release their last album, “In Rainbows” in 2007, setting up a special website where the album could be ordered.  Unlike “In Rainbows,”  “The King Of Limbs” comes at a set price.  They didn’t go with the “pay what you want” approach this time around.  For nine dollars, you get the mp3.  For forty-eight dollars, you get the mp3 now and a physical CD and double-vinyl hard-copy in May.  It’s actually a pretty good deal when you read how complicated the album’s artwork sounds.  (It’s dubbed as a “newspaper album,” supposedly giving you a lot of little pieces.  It will be interesting to see if this means some sort of puzzle is included.)   The album is a brisk collection.  At only eight songs and thirty-seven minutes, it will no doubt leave fans wanting more, but at the same time, you have to admire its leanness. No time is wasted.  It’s all top-notch.    Longtime fans have come to expect nothing less.  Here’s a band that are always on top of their game and have never released anything even remotely sub-par.  “The King Of Limbs” is no different.  It continues the trend, no doubt finding its place as one of the best albums we are likely to hear this year. The record oddly plays like a third part of a trilogy started by “Kid A” and “Amnesiac.”  It is quite spacey and drum-machine heavy, sporting commanding electronic beats.  Some fans may wish for the return of the heavy shoegaze guitar found on “Pablo Honey” and parts of “The Bends.”  They aren’t going to find that here.  This is an expansive, meticulously assembled piece of sonic art.   “Bloom” is dizzying at first, like “Kid A”‘s opener, “Everything In Its Right Place.”  The beat stutters along as if it is layered with a delay.  Ultimately the backdrop sounds a little like what would happen if Four Tet remixed a track from Stereolab’s “Dots And Loops.”  It’s a haunting, swirling mess and yet it has a fixed order.  Thom Yorke’s voice is as mysterious as ever, spouting out the cryptic opening lines, “Open your mouth wide, / The universe inside.” This band has remained innovative and thought provoking.  No other group today has the market cornered on authentically cerebral weirdness quite like Radiohead.   Next is “Morning Mr. Magpie,” an awesomely angular track with a touch of “Tomorrow Never Knows” psychedelia.  (I would like to think John Lennon would be proud.)  Even the track’s name brings to mind a very “Revolver”/”Sgt. Pepper”-esque  kind of feeling.  “Little By Little” half sounds like it could have scored an episode of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”  and half like the theme music for a wary villain wearing a crooked, snarling smile.  This is a dark, sneaky sound that the band has been playing with for a while.  (Think about “Go To Sleep” from “Hail To The Thief” with an even smarmier tinge.)  Yorke sings, “Little by little / By hook or by crook. / I’m such a tease / You’re such a flirt,” with a fitting amount of ready-made bile and contempt.    “Feral” is a wash of beats and cut-up vocal samples.  One wonders about the division of labor between the five members on such a track.  At times it seems like it could be just Yorke singing with all the other members manipulating samplers.  This kind of track is just as compelling as it is frustrating.  But that’s what keeps things interesting.  The lack of concrete song-structure lets you ponder the dynamics and lets you get lost in the sound.  When the bass comes in, it takes command.  It really pumps and makes your speakers and walls thud and vibrate.  Again, this is sonic collage at its best. “Lotus Flower” is the single.  The video shows Yorke in a bowler-hat doing a puzzlingly madcap dance.  The hook won’t quite stick with you like “There There,” “High & Dry” or “Creep,” but the song possesses an almost paranoid-sounding vibe.  With repeated listens, the track reveals some real warmth.  Again, with the exception of Yorke’s vocals and Phil Selway’s drumming, the track is very sequencer-and-keyboard heavy.  This is closer to trip-hop than alternative rock.   I cannot say enough nice things about “Codex.”  If the album lacked an overt sense of warmth up until this point, here it more than makes up for lost time.  Never has this band produced something to welcoming, whimsical and dreamlike.  Like a major-key answer to the “Amnesiac” track, “Pyramid Song,” this is a shockingly beautiful and enveloping piano ballad. It almost seems like it could have been on “In Rainbows,” which on the whole was slightly brighter in tone than the bulk of this record.  “Codex” is a masterpiece.  If they don’t release it as a single and license it everywhere they possibly can, they are missing an obvious opportunity.  It’s one of the strongest tracks in their catalogue. 
  With its campfire-esque folk-fueled guitar and its close-to-the-sleeve lyrics, “Give Up The Ghost” plays like Radiohead’s answer to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.”  One hopes that future generations will continue to discover Radiohead like new generations today continue to discover Floyd.  I actually have no doubt that this band has made such timeless classics.  They are the closest thing to a modern answer to Floyd, building their own canon of thought-provoking greatness. The album closes with “Separator,” which again is strikingly warmer than the rest of the record.  It actually sounds like a happy groove.  Again, along with “Lotus Flower” and “Codex,” this would make for another stellar single.  Yorke’s voice is slightly garbled and awash with echo, but he sings with an operatic sense of joy, backed by a tight beat and a melodic bass-line, thus ending the album on a surprisingly upbeat note.
  “The King Of Limbs” may be brief, but it is as solid a record as Radiohead has ever produced, standing firmly side-by-side with the rest of their albums.  Longtime fans should not be disappointed in the least.  They have remained vital, more than living up to the challenging (if not intimidating) legacy put forth by their past work.  This is just their latest in a long string of classics. 

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