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3. Radiohead – ‘The King Of Limbs’ Review

On Valentine’s Day this year, one of the most important and inventive rock bands of the last 15 years decided to announce the existence of their eighth studio album. And that it will be released in 5 days time. Then, just to wreck havoc with fans and the musical press, they released it a day earlier than expected. Go figure…

As sudden as the release of The King Of Limbs (named after what is supposedly a 1000 year-old tree in Wiltshire, England), a tidal wave of opinion flooded the internet, and people were desperately trying to put theirs out before everyone else’s, rushing through a few hurried listens of the short 8-song product and then spurting out what they could glean from them.

Album cover for The King Of Limbs

We should’ve seen it coming. After In Rainbows ingenious marketing scheme, whereby the album was released on the band’s website and fans could pay what they like for it (essentially ‘donating’ to the band, if they chose to pay), TKOL’s release format adds to the sheer unpredictability of a band that chooses to do what it wants, and doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Every output of theirs is always a dense affair, so I thought I’d be reasonable and weigh in with my opinion of it after I let it sink in for a few weeks.

TKOL is their shortest album to date, briskly ebbing and flowing through its 37 minutes like a dream. Continuing their experimental expedition into electronic territory that started with 2000’s ground-breaking Kid A, the album prickles and hums with little bleeps and bloops, ethereal background vocals, imposing, fuzzy bass and clockwork, yet uncommonly-timed drumming. Anyone holding out for a return to the alternative guitar-rock anthems that defined Radiohead in the 90’s will probably be disappointed. Guitars are very downplayed, and the sonic influences seem to be more from underground electronica artists than anything else. Many good bands don’t want to remain static, but rather mature and move on. It’s exciting to see Radiohead wanting to pursue this route, despite my love for their earlier works like The Bends and OK Computer.

It'll be interesting to see how these new tracks will be pulled off live

The album starts off with ‘Bloom’, a real ‘grower’ in the true sense of the term – an atmospheric, woozy, ambient jumble of looping ideas: an intentionally lop-sided, clattering rhythm, a repeated piano pattern, an evocative, warbling bass lick, and all the while Thom’s vocals float above it all like a swirling cloud. Incredibly weird, but it definitely lures one in with its cryptic lyrics, such as ‘Open your mouth wide/The universal sigh/And while the ocean blooms/It’s what keeps me alive’.

‘Morning Mr Magpie’ is a taut, claustrophobic and tense track that chugs along intently with a sort of African groove. Sinister and almost funky, the guitars link up how they do in ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’ (from their previous album), but in a very different mood. A panic seems to be setting in with the beat, and it leaves the listener feeling very unsettled, especially when an accusatory Thom wails ‘You’ve got some nerve coming here/You stole it all/Give it back’.

Continuing from where ‘Magpie’ left off, ‘Little By Little’ tumbles out the speakers with a toy box of rising and falling basslines, jazzy drumming and surprisingly tender vocals, with rare seductive lyrics for a Radiohead song, such as ‘I’m such a tease and you’re such a flirt’. The confusion climaxes mid-album with ‘Feral’ – a near-totally instrumental, abstract, cacophonous shuffle, which combines many of the elements of the previous three tracks. It has a very difficult, throbbing melody to follow, and a song for which first-time Radiohead listeners (and many others too) will be left wondering ‘Huh?’

This is definitely an album of two halves, as the second one is profoundly different in tone and in mood to the first – more nature than machine, more beautiful and serene. The first single ‘Lotus Flower’ is one of the album’s standouts, not just for its wacky black-and-white music video of Thom’s spastic dance moves, but for harnessing the best elements of the album’s sonic architecture into a cohesive whole. The bass silkily propels forward with an addictive backbeat, one more suited to a late night post-clubbing comedown, and the ethereal, falsetto vocals unfurl outwards just like the lotus flower. Added to this awesome groove are the occasional handclaps and spacey effects: a sexy aural cocktail indeed.

Stills taken from Radiohead's music video for 'Lotus Flower'

TKOL has some underlying Buddhist themes of the cycle of life, death and rebirth, along with many metaphors involving nature (jellyfish, flowers, magpies, lakes, dragonflies, etc). This is a very interesting progression from the overarching themes of Radiohead’s work, which have mostly been about the conflict between man and machine, humanity and technology. Here it seems that the natural world is the focal motif.

‘Codex’ is one excellent example of the thematic change, and this piano-based ballad should be hailed as one of Radiohead’s masterpieces, in the vein of ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’ or ‘Nude’. The murky piano sounds as if it’s being recorded underwater, like the chords are forming part of a requiem. A harmonic string orchestra and horn section enter about midway through, adding to the bliss, and once again, Thom’s vocals are sweet and melodic. The lyrics echo the first track’s imagery of jumping into a clear lake, with only nature around him.

It's time to bring out the piano...

The sounds of twittering birds and possibly a day in the countryside segues ‘Codex’ with ‘Give Up The Ghost’: TKOL’s most emotionally-vulnerable, organic track. Framed by a lone acoustic guitar, a soft, spiraling lead guitar by Jonny, and a chorus of background vocals (alternating their chants between ‘don’t haunt me’ and ‘don’t hurt me’), this song has an immersive, rustic feel to it; territory that Radiohead have never really ventured into before. We are now a long way away from the album’s opening, jittery tracks.

This chapter in Radiohead history closes with ‘Separator’ – my personal favourite from TKOL, and one where the band dynamic is at its strongest, most vibrant self. A crisp drumbeat by Paul Selway, a lush introduction of delicate, shimmering guitars from halfway in, and a smooth bass throughout make up this intriguing number. Some conspiracy theorists say that it alludes to a possible second set of songs to be released in the near future. The offending lyric (‘If you think that this is over/Then you’re wrong’), the conjunctional nature of its title, and the album’s sudden ending on a supposed happy note might be good evidence for that theory, but I doubt the band would intend on doing that. Each album of theirs is a complete package that needs to be unwrapped slowly to appreciate its intricacies. And the dreamy ‘Separator’ bookends their current progression from In Rainbows to now near-perfectly. Its final notes and heavenly background chorus will be echoing in your ears long after you’re done listening.

Stylistically, this album feels like a long lost twin of Amnesiac (2001’s misunderstood electronic smorgasbord), just like In Rainbows seemed spiritually connected with OK Computer (both combining experimentalism and crowd-pleasing ideals), it’s not going to completely revolutionize the industry as previous outputs of theirs have, but this soulful snapshot will just solidify their position as a band of an esteemed quality, able to morph into whatever they feel like and still fascinate listeners and critics.

Radiohead have gone for the bold and avant-garde, and get the gold again.

Tracklisting:

  1. Bloom
  2. Morning Mr Magpie
  3. Little By Little
  4. Feral
  5. Lotus Flower
  6. Codex
  7. Give Up The Ghost
  8. Separator

Release dates: 18 February 2011 (digital), 28 March 2011 (physical)

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