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The King of Limbs by Radiohead

February 18, 2011

The day In Rainbows was announced is still fresh in my head. It was the first Radiohead album I actually had to wait for, having become their biggest fan (well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration; but I was definitely in the top 50) just two years after the release of Hail to the Thief. I still remember making my daily visit to their website, making my discovery, and then beating Pitchfork, the AV Club, and Stereogum to the punch in being the first to tell my friends that Radiohead had a new album out. My life was Radiohead. Hell, if I focus real hard I can probably recite the tracklists of every single album and EP, minus a little fuzziness on Iron Lung and Amnesiac. To be honest though, not a lot of that music grew up with me; the one album that has consistently stayed with me has been In Rainbows, for its even-headed, human, and often sensual portrayals of the world instead of these broad, overarching, harshly paranoid statements that, while very well written and beautifully sung, did not connect to anything real for me anymore. The King of Limbs is a different beast entirely, but like most of Radiohead’s oeuvre, is uncannily familiar. However, this latest recombination of the band’s various talents reminds ever so slightly of things they haven’t visited in a long time, perhaps since the beginning of their career: trip-hop and britpop.

The album opens with “Bloom” almost sounding like an overture, with Thom Yorke giving an initial monologue, then goes into the next track like a newscast with the beeping, telegraph guitars of “Morning Mr Magpie”. It’s attention getting, but by far the band’s least bombastic opening. This subtlety is a good indicator for the rest of the album, lacking any real rockers. However, this does not mean a lack of momentum: Phil Selway’s schizophrenic drumming on the following track, “Little by Little” is an excellent example of how the band keeps up the pace. The whole album is surprisingly short at eight songs, but it doesn’t feel it at all. In a way, it’s a counterpoint to Sharon Van Etten’s seven song album Epic, which, while amazing, still felt like an EP. The King of Limbs feels very, very full while still being efficient. It helps that those songs take up a little less than 40 minutes, the length of most ten song albums. It turns out that that Van Etten also works for another comparison: the new amount of soul in Thom Yorke’s voice. This struck me hard on the new “single”, “Lotus Flowers”. I immediately had to listen to some Portishead to compare and contrast. That sort of soulfulness combined with the dark analog/electronic mix leads the album to a slinky place indeed; a sort of dangerous sexy that you want to take home but are afraid might kill you in your bed. Maybe I was a tad hasty in saying that Radiohead were done with paranoid ravings, but had in fact inserted that same feeling into the music.

The second half of The King of Limbs is taken up with the sort of balladry I thought Radiohead had abandoned with The Bends. “Codex”, while sounding like it was recorded in a bathysphere with a variety of post-production pad sounds, has in it the same core elements of, say, “High and Dry”. The first acoustic guitar to appear on the record is in this second half, backing the druggy, Verve-like “Give Up the Ghost”. The closer, “Separator” is more bent toward electronics, but still has that spark of an older style of song. In fact, the entire last half sounds like it could have come out of the more tripped-out, spacier side of the mid-90’s. It’s this mix of straight ahead songwriting and left-of-center music that gives The King it’s slightly strange, slightly familiar feel. This album, in a way, is more of a comeback than In Rainbows, which I am certain will always get more critical praise than this effort. It’s more of a comeback in the vein of The Verve’s Forth and Portishead’s Third (See what I did there? Hmm? Compared this to them for a payoff later? Ehhh?) where a well liked band does what they do best while tweaking the formula enough to keep it interesting. I only hope this album is not unfairly forgotten.

To be honest, I am not quite sure what to think about The King of Limbs. I have tried to be objective and exact, but I am not the Radiohead fan I once was, and this doesn’t mean as much to me as In Rainbows did. However, if it shows anything, it is this: Radiohead is still learning, still growing up, and their albums are meant to evolve with their fans. If they had made Ok, Computer over and over I would not have been as big a fan. I am fairly sure that Radiohead has already released their magnum opus several times over, something that, if not a miracle, is almost unheard of. That they are still making relevant music is almost a bigger shock. So what if it doesn’t have a song as sexy as “House of Cards”? I am still going to listen the hell out of it.

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