Review Summary: Radiohead goes, pardon the pun, out on a limb with their newest release.
After In Rainbows
, I was eagerly anticipating more of the "new" Radiohead; the electronic vibe of Kid A
finally coming to terms with the soulful rock of The Bends
and OK Computer
. The fact that The King of Limbs
is lacking much of the latter might make it seem like I view it as a failure. Far from it, I've come to realize that Radiohead's ability to constantly change their sound is what makes each of their albums sound fresh and new each time they're heard.
Without getting too much into the back story of this album (because we've heard it enough already, haven't we?), Radiohead acted like Radiohead. They released their new album using unconventional marketing techniques (one-week's-notice and all) after a 4 year absence. What a surprise. But if we focus too much on the way they released the album and not on what was released (something I feel still plagues In Rainbows
, Radiohead's greatest effort since OK Computer
), we miss out. Radiohead's newest album is brilliantly flawed, a beautiful release, albeit one that leaves you wondering where the "oh sh**" factor has gone.
From the beginning of this album, one thing is immediately evident: the percussion. Welcome back, Mr. Selway. Not since the anthemic pounding of OK Computer
have the drums sounded so prominent. Don't get get me wrong, the rhythmic focus (and at times the minimalism) of Kid A
is still pronounced, but the frantic drumming on "Bloom" (the opener) is the highlight of the track and during my first listen I was immediately reminded of DJ Shadow. Later, on the last track, "Separator", the drums take on a guitar-riff like quality. Definitely a joy to hear more live drums on a Radiohead album.
Going back to "Bloom", Yorke gives one of his finest vocal performances to date. In classic Yorke fashion, he utilizes his powerful falsetto to convey a mood while obscuring the meaning of his lyrics. This mood-versus-meaning is simultaneously the best and worst aspect of the album. What makes OK Computer
so identifiable is the lyrical content. It paints a vivid picture of a consumer-driven, overstimulated-yet-anesthetized world. The King of Limbs
, on the other hand, focuses on the music. "Codex", the album's standout track, evokes several of Radiohead's most gorgeous-sounding ballads, such as "Exit Music (For a Film)", "How to Disappear Completely", and "Harry Patch (In Memory Of)". "Give Up the Ghost" (the track immediately after "Codex"), with its cries of "don't hurt me
" and a subtle acoustic guitar part, is also in this vein. But the lack of lyrical substance is most prevalent on the album's weaker tracks. In "Feral", Thom Yorke finally accomplishes his Kid A
-era goal of using his voice as an instrument. Only it doesn't quite work. The track recalls "These Are My Twisted Words", minus whatever energy was on that track that made it work as a single. "Little by Little", despite its catchy groove, can't help sounding slightly sarcastic with "I'm such a tease and you're such a flirt
One last thing, did Jonny Greenwood quit the band? A vital component is missing in the absence of Greenwood's guitar wizardry. Kid A
has more guitar than this, and even then, Kid A
has enough substance lyrically and musically that the lack of six-stringed virtuosity is forgiven. But on The King of Limbs
, it seems Greenwood has become perfectly content as programmer-extraordinaire.
The King of Limbs
is a very good album. Its intended effect was achieved. But as a massive Radiohead fan I can say that I know what constitutes a very good Radiohead album. This isn't one of them. Don't get me wrong, Radiohead isn't losing steam with this new release, so much as they are cooling down from the giant jolt of attention that they received from recording the Grammy-winning, hour-plus-long (including the extremely underrated second disc) In Rainbows
. Radiohead never ceases to amaze, and confuse, and divide their fanbase, and will always be relevant to popular music, but not always in the way we expect them to be. I applaud them for their latest album, but I can't help but wish the applause was more warranted.