Review Summary: Radiohead has never had trouble drumming up excitement for their music; whether or not the music is as exciting as the anticipation is less of a sure thing.
Somehow a band that's been putting out records with obscure hooks and bleak minimalist electronics for a majority of their career has become arguably the biggest band in the world.
You'd have to go back all the way to 1992 to find the band's only minor radio hit, the Britpop/grunge anthem "Creep", which only peaked at 37 on the Billboard Hot 100. Pop in a CD of their later work on a road trip and any Top 40 junkie will likely be bored to tears. Heck, even seasoned indie-rock fans find their post-OK Computer material hard to digest.
What makes Radiohead's music work is the brand they've made for themselves. Starting with Kid A in 2000 (or arguably OK Computer in 1997), they began to put out work that demands to be on constant repeat in order to fully digest as opposed to the relatively poppy/fun material of fellow icons of the era like Pulp, Blur, and Oasis.
We go into each new album knowing that we won't be taken with it right away. Even after you think you have a handle on what to expect, a new album still won't quite settle right away. Expecting the unexpected has never felt so frustrating. They've established that the time you put in (along with an open mind) will result in a wonderful payoff, maybe a dozen or more listens later. Casual music fans certainly have the right to scoff.
On February 18th, 2011, the King of Limbs was released digitally through the band's website after only being announced a few days earlier. Everyone got a hold of this beast at the same time. This was helpful in that it gave both consumers and cultural taste-makers the ability to form their own opinion of the music (even if reviews did start to pop up as early as the afternoon of the day of release, a credibility destroyer if I ever saw one). Since the band in question has time and time again proven that knee-jerk reactions to their music don't fly, the desire to be heard first still plagues all forms of written media.
Kid A was a retreat from guitar-based rock into ambient electronica. Amnesiac was a bit more of the same (both albums were recorded during the same sessions), although with marginally more use of organic instrumentation. Hail to the Thief split the difference, rocking out and bleep-blooping with equal fervor. In Rainbows almost completely did away with the electronics, although never quite rocks (the exception being Bodysnatchers), being cohesive, mellow, and putting an emphasis on melody that they hadn't done since The Bends.
Part of the anticipation for the album was on what style the music would be, and right away it's apparent that the electronica bug has indeed not left Radiohead. Giving this record your full attention is a task all by itself. The songs that aren't ballads have percussion so tightly wound that it's enough to induce anxiety. The drum loops are repetitive in a way that's not hypnotic, but feel just plain old same-y. Thom Yorke's vocals aren't manipulated here so much besides the occasional reverb, although on Feral his falsetto is treated to pixelated distortion and used more as an instrument instead of something to put lyrics too.
The back half of the album is mostly ballads, and it's here that the warmth of In Rainbows comes out again. Codex and Give Up the Ghost, supplemented by piano and acoustic guitar strumming respectively, each achieve a dreamlike quality that's both comforting and a relief that the monotonous loops are given a rest for at least a few minutes.
There are two tracks on this record that really stand out, Lotus Flower and closer Separator. Both have choruses and drums that don't just feel like they're being used as metronomes. The bassline is featured prominently in Lotus Flower, giving the song a much needed hook and a nice counter to the chorus melody. Separator offers another never-changing drum loop, however a very infectious one that actually does succeed in being hypnotic. The vocal melody is another In Rainbows-esque touch, and the lyrics ("If you think this is over/then you're wrong") led many to believe there may have been a King of Limbs Part 2.
While this album warmed up to me faster than Kid A was able to, it feels slight. The King of the Limbs feels like a collection of demos or b-sides, mostly because they rely on loops to such a ridiculous degree.
The hardest part about trying to review this record is that it's so difficult to tell when a song is actually working for me and when I just want the song to work for me. Originally I was all set to write that the album has at least 5-6 great songs. After I thought about it a bit more, I had to shrink that number a bit after I realized that a lot of what I marked down only sounded like great songs.
At this point, Radiohead can only be compared to themselves. They ran the whole gamut of experimental electronica and rock, and right now the pendulum has swung back towards the electronic side of things, something they've done so much better. Either this record is so far ahead of its time that it's not even registering, or the great Radiohead has made a bum record, something that they're allowed to do. Either way, their catalog and preceding reputation has bought this thing another few months of heavy rotation. Here's hoping it's worth it.