Review Summary: Radiohead revisit their weakest albums and sharpen them up to gold standard.
In the wave of surprise and excitement that greeted last week's sudden announcement of this album's release, it would have been easy to miss the sighing and eye-rolling that greeted it in some quarters. The cynics had a point, too; surely a Radiohead album is enough of an event in itself to make all these cloak-and-dagger manoeuvres just seem like attention-grabbing? And yet, maybe the surprise element serves another purpose. Maybe Radiohead's aim is to cut as short as possible the period of speculation about the album's sound, thus forcing people to go into the album with no real idea what to expect? If that's the case, then it's not just a success, but also an important way to give The King of Limbs
the time it needs to make its mark.
The when, and the how, of the release of The King of Limbs
mean that the immediate temptation is to make comparison with In Rainbows
. Yet, even after one listen, it becomes obvious that the two Radiohead albums that this bears the closest resemblance to are Amnesiac
and Hail to the Thief
- their only mature albums not to enjoy the kind of universal acclaim that Radiohead albums tend to. It also shares common ground with The Eraser
, the Thom Yorke solo album that remains a divisive release amongst the band's fanbase. Worrying? Yes, of course; at first it seems like The King of Limbs
offers neither consolidation nor innovation, and instead take a couple of steps backwards into the middle of the band's most uninspiring period. That may be where the sudden release of this album works its magic - how many of the people that excitedly scrambled to download this today would be put off even listening to this if they read a review that marked out the likes of "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors" and "Backdrifts" as the closest antecedent for it?
You might think that this retreat is a result of Radiohead losing their spark, falling back on what they know because it's the safe thing to do. Yet the more and more you listen to this album, the more it seems that Radiohead have done this deliberately because they have a point to prove. The King of Limbs
, to these ears, is an attempt to set the record straight about those three albums, to prove that they weren't just failed experiments. Retreading old ground? More like righting old wrongs. As close as "Bloom" comes to the atmosphere of Amnesiac
, and as much as "Feral" sounds like it might belong on Hail to the Thief
, it's hard to imagine either having been on those albums and been as good as they are here. The conversion works in reverse, too - it's hard to imagine a King of Limbs
version of something like "I Will" being as mediocre, simply because the quality control on this album is ridiculously tight.
Despite that, Radiohead are, as ever, taking cues from the music around them that most excites them. There's a strong and obvious influence from Burial's self-titled debut on "Feral" despite the frantic drums, which hark back to "Sit Down, Stand Up" - it's a hypnotic combination between serenity and nervous energy that carries through into the excellent "Lotus Flower", which is surely the song here that most deserves the title of 'Radiohead classic'. "Give Up the Ghost" seems to be informed by How to Dress Well too. To contrast those, there's "Bloom", which opens with a loop that calls Terry Riley to mind, and the piano ballad "Codex", which sounds distinctly Beatles-esque when compared with "Videotape" and "Sail to the Moon". Flying Lotus and Can are other touchstones, if ones that are harder to pin down to individual tracks.
For all this, perhaps the defining feature of The King of Limbs
is that it doesn't feel like a 'big' album. In fact, it feels exactly the opposite - this album mostly feels and sounds like the work of a niche band with thousands (rather than millions) of listeners, and I can't help but think that's deliberate. It's something that Radiohead have never really done before - every other album has at least two or three songs that were included primarily to grab the attention of the listener first-time, and this album doesn't have any like that. Even the running time - a brisk 37 minutes or so, not one of them wasted - doesn't tally with the attention this album will garner in the coming months. For an album that's a real event, it can't be co-incidence that it sounds about as much like an important album as Airbag / How Am I Driving?
and the bonus disc from In Rainbows
. No, The King of Limbs
is not a world-beating album, and it was never meant to be; it's an album about Radiohead trying to iron out their own creases and fix their own flaws, and judged on those terms, it's another success.
One final thought - this was meant to be released tomorrow, and the final song - named "Separated" - repeats the refrain 'if you think this is over, you're wrong'. Could there be more to come?