Review Summary: Don't blow your mind with why.
Radiohead: a band that truly needs no introduction. People who bide their time listening to top-40 know the name, despite the fact that they’ve never had a true hit. For a band that has seemed to set off a mini-musical revolution every time they have released an album since 1997, The King of Limbs
was a decidedly uneventful release. Radiohead, masters of self-promotion, whether they would care to admit it or not, clearly knew what they were doing this time around. Like the relative lack of hoopla surrounding it’s announcement and subsequent quick release, The King of Limbs
has a decided absence of grandiosity. That cannot really be said about anything else in the Radiohead canon. After the politically charged hodgepodge that was Hail To The Thief
, Radiohead ventured back into more accessible territory with In Rainbows
. The album was largely devoid of drum machines and featured the return of a guitar-driven attack, albeit in a much more relaxed and jazzy context than the classic rock-esque OK Computer
. The King of Limbs
breaks some new ground, but also finds Radiohead delving back into their discography a bit.
Opener “Bloom” begins with a looping piano line, which is joined by a stuttering keyboard, and subsequently a looped drum pattern from Phil Selway. However, unlike the computerized drum loops that opened say, “15 Step”, these loops actually come from a real drum kit. The King of Limbs
does an interesting thing that differentiates itself from prior Radiohead releases: the band has combined the looping and stuttering effect of computer programming with organic instruments. Samples pop in and out of the songs constantly, whether they are drum loops, horns, vocals, keyboards, etc. This ends up creating a densely layered collage of sounds that lends a great sense of beauty and atmosphere to the music. “Give Up The Ghost” employs a vocal sample of Yorke singing “don’t hurt me
” for the majority of the song’s five minute run time, along with a mellow acoustic guitar and a decidedly Phil Lesh-like bass line. What results is one of the band’s finest, most emotionally evocative songs, quite a feat considering they have made a career out of such things. “Codex” is a somewhat conventional piano ballad that smacks of “Pyramid Song”, but other than that, this album is its own beast.
Another aspect of the sound on The King of Limbs
is a sense of groove never before felt on a Radiohead record. The beats never really let up, propelling the songs along at a smooth, almost head-bobbing pace. Upon the first listen, I found my head nodding back and forth as if listening to a beat from DJ Premier or the like. “Feral” even resembles a dubstep song, what with the unintelligible chopped and processed vocal lines, woofer-worthy bass, and spastic beats.
Guitars are present on The King of Limbs
, but not omnipresent. Unlike In Rainbows
, they take more of a background role this time out, appearing in five of the album’s eight songs, but never dominating the soundscapes in which they appear. Those hoping for a classic Jonny Greenwood solo in the vein of “There, There” will be sorely disappointed, but some tasty riffs and arpeggios are found in “Morning Mr. Magpie”, the Can-influenced “Little By Little” and the gorgeous latter half of “Separator” where Greenwood sounds positively like the acoustic side of Neil Young. For the first time on a Radiohead record, Colin might actually be the more prominent member of the brothers Greenwood, at least in terms of guitar work. His bass lines are an integral part of many of the songs, providing the glue for the rest of the instruments to fade in and out as they please. His style of playing is unlike any of his prior work, as his bass lines recall those of Bitches Brew
-era free jazz more than anything.
Thom Yorke is in fine form as always, his esoteric ruminations stretching far and away over the songs’ sonic palette. The signature sneer returns on “Morning Mr. Magpie”, but he relies on his silky smooth falsetto for the vast majority of the album, appropriate given the record’s subdued nature. “Lotus Flower” is one of his all-time finest moments as a singer, as his high notes in the chorus single-handedly launch the song to titillating heights. On The King of Limbs
, Yorke’s words are not quite as impenetrable as on say, Kid A
. In fact, his lyrics are probably most reminiscent of his work on In Rainbows
. While there is nothing quite as straightforward as “House of Cards”, “Little By Little’s” refrain of “I’m such a tease, and you’re such a flirt
” does not leave all that much to the imagination. This is not to say that Thom has gone completely soft though, as he still gives us some trademark one-liners such as “Morning Mr. Magpie’s” “You know you should, but you don’t
”. Yorke still has the ability to make such a seemingly simple line sound like the deepest, most sinister thing on the planet.
While some might dismiss the wall-of-sound approach and the relentless drum loops as “repetitive” or “sterile”, the music is anything but those misnomers. The songs stay fresh despite aspects that might be considered repetitious in the hands of a lesser band, and that is a testament to the genius of Radiohead. Just as much so as any of their records, The King of Limbs
demands multiple listens to truly sink in, and rewards one’s patience with the unlocking of various sounds and nuances with each listen. If I had to think of one phrase to describe the music on The King of Limbs
, it would be “deceivingly simple”. What appears to be fairly discreet music on the surface eventually reveals itself to be just as complex as their prior masterworks, just in a different, subtler way than we have grown accustomed to.
If I could muster a complaint about The King of Limbs
, it would be the album’s pedestrian length. Although a thirty-eight minute run time is not exactly EP-territory, those who have come to expect hour-long journeys in the vein of OK Computer
and Kid A
will be disappointed. This is not destined to be the album of a generation as those two were. However, the quality control on the record is extremely tight, and it is at it’s best when listened to as a whole. The album’s first five tracks set the bar with a distinct sense of reserved groove, before we are whisked into more ethereal territory with the final three. “Separator” is a superb closer, walking the line between the first half’s sense of rhythm, and the latter’s sense of beauty. It also notoriously spawned the legion of fanboys to believe that there was a second part of The King of Limbs
yet to be released, with its mystical refrain of “If you think this is over, then you’re wrong
The tracks are sequenced immaculately, and this results in an album that is easily digestible, enjoyable, and at times, simply beautiful. While this record has not received the level of critical acclaim that it’s predecessor did, it is a fine addition to the Radiohead catalogue. There is no overarching concept to latch onto, and the sense of mystery is not that of an Amnesiac
. However, the comparative lack of furor surrounding the release, and within the music itself, might end up being its calling card. Like a cool stream on a hot summer day, it glides along, refreshing and consistent, but never overpowering or overbearing.