What a week, eh? First, there was the surprise Monday-morning announcement that we would be getting a new Radiohead album, the long-awaited followup to 2007’s In Rainbows. Not only that, but the album would be out digitally on Saturday, a mere five days after its announcement. Then, on Friday morning, we all woke up with the new album in our laps, a day earlier than expected. If that wasn’t surprising enough, we had to suddenly accept the fact that we were only getting a sparse eight songs, less than forty minutes of new material. Although early reactions were mixed, they could be discounted fairly easily; any fan could tell you that no Radiohead album can be properly absorbed after only a couple of listens. Hell, I wasn’t all that crazy about In Rainbows the first time I heard it — now it’s one of my favorite albums of the decade. Point being, no matter how short the album may be, it was unfair for people to write it off within hours of its release. It will probably take months for the album to claim a “general consensus,” and even then, like any post-Kid A Radiohead effort, it will still be divisive.
The King of Limbs seems like a sister album to In Rainbows, much in the same way that Amnesiac was a sort of mellower companion piece to Kid A. There isn’t any enormous sort of sonic revolution going on here that marks this as a new chapter in the band’s evolution. Instead, it feels like a continuation and expansion of the In Rainbows sound, with the same reliance on skittering drums and computerized tweaks. This being Radiohead, it’s no surprise that there aren’t any speaker-busting singles or super-accessible, newbie-friendly jams. That being said, the entire album is trademark Radiohead in terms of its sheer beauty. Frontman Thom Yorke, with his inimitable falsetto, has rarely sounded this soothing and, dare I say it, inspiring. Even if this is by no means an upbeat, cheerful album (that’s not really “their thing”), Yorke seems to be occupying better headspace than he’s usually known for… part of the time, anyway. On loopy, off-tempo opener “Bloom,” Yorke begins with the words “open your mouth wide/ a universal sigh/ and while the ocean blooms/ it’s what keeps me alive,” suggesting a grand majesty in the world – somewhat of a rarety for a Radiohead song. On lurching, thudding “Lotus Flower,” hand claps and warbly synths join Yorke’s wails of “I’ll set you free” and “listen to your heart,” words that sound surprisingly pure and credible coming out of his mouth.
“Codex” rides atop slow, delicate piano chords to deliver some of the most lonely and beautiful words Yorke has put to record in awhile: “sleight of hand/ jump off the end/ into a clear lake/ no one around/ just dragonflies/ fantasize/ no one gets hurt/ you’ve done nothing wrong”. This is the kind of emotional ballad that Radiohead pull off better than almost anyone else, and Yorke is able to wring more feeling out of each word than any other songwriter alive right now. He proves again and again that less is more. As always, his ability to craft strong imagery out very little is extremely impressive.
Alienation and longing continue to be the emotions at the core of many of these songs. “Morning Mr Magpie” and “Little by Little” boast catchy, quick instrumentation and draw on the kind of dark subject matter Radiohead listeners have become accustomed to. On the former, Yorke moans over plucky bass and heavily-strummed guitar “you know you should/ but you don’t/ you’ve got some nerve/ coming here,” and turns “Good morning/ Mr Magpie/ How are you today?” into an ominous accusation by song’s end. On the latter, there’s a shuffling, clattering beat that sounds familiar (something circa Hail to the Theif) with Yorke wailing “Little by little by hook or by crook/ I’m such a tease and you’re such a flirt/ once you’ve been hurt/ you’ve been around enough”. This might be the closest thing the album has to a love song, and it finds Yorke at his darkest, most pessimistic. “Feral” is an eerie, stuttering instrumental set to Yorke’s wordless moans, and manages to suggest plenty of negative emotions without need of words. And on “Give up the Ghost,” the album’s would-be folk ballad, Yorke turns a good Robin Pecknold impression into a somberly haunted affair. Thus, despite some relative bright spots here and there, there’s no doubt that the band hasn’t grown out of loneliness and sorrow.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to separate the clout of the Radiohead name from the album itself. The band that created OK Computer and Kid A will, for better or worse, forever be tied to the legacy of those albums and their future work will be judged on the basis of their earlier greatness. Which is unfair to an album like this, one that is short and none too flashy, and yet is a highly accomplished piece of work in its own right. I agree with those who have called it more of a “transition record”. No, it doesn’t break new ground in the same way some of their other albums did. No, it’s not the new magnum opus many hoped it would be. But, like almost every Radiohead album that has come before it, it grows on you. And with each consecutive listen, it becomes more and more apparent that these aren’t a bunch of throwaway tracks that will soon be lost amidst the greater Radiohead canon. This a tight, carefully crafted album without any fluff, and with a whole lot of depth, both in terms of intrumentation and lyricism. It sees the band expanding and growing in small steps rather than leaps or bounds. And yes, I think it probably heralds something bigger and more game-changing to come, but that’s not the point. The King of Limbs works on its own terms as an intricate, impressive album worthy of any listener’s time and money. The last three tracks may be the most beautiful string of songs the band has put together to date. They’re a good reminder of why, beneath all the hype and expectation, Radiohead remains an absolutely vital band first and foremost for one reason: their music.
Four and a half stars.