Album review: Radiohead – "The King of Limbs"

We can always count on Radiohead to change the game from album to album. Because of this I feel that their latest album, “The King of Limbs”, deserves something beyond the usual track by track review. Everything that Radiohead does, musical or otherwise, is subject to an extraordinary level of scrutiny such that few, if any, other musical acts in existence today have to contend with. Not many would know how to cope, let alone be able to utilize all of that scrutiny and turn be able to turn it into something productive. This is one of the reasons why Radiohead is the most important bands active today. The public expects an almost inhumanly high standard from the band, who in turn are able to consistently live up to that standard by consistently producing groundbreaking albums that regularly change our ideas of what is new in current music. They are the singular arbiters of pushing the boundaries and raising the bar to a point where no other act can reach. Any attempts at following in their footsteps are hopelessly cast in their shadow.

Despite this the band, in interviews and concerts, don’t seem to think of themselves as so important. They manage to be immensely popular while at the same time retaining artistic credibility. It is a rare thing to have mainstream success while maintaining a high degree of indie acceptance. They constantly sell out the largest venues, yet remain out of the headlines and still manage to appear guarded about their personal lives. To me this points to them as not involved in music for the fame. They are creating intelligent music with artistic integrity. This flies in the face of anyone that thinks you can’t push boundaries, and still have something to say while retaining a sense of relevancy and importance with a large and emphatic audience.

As an audience we are responsible for elevating them to such a place of popularity and even importance. We are the ones that overly scrutinize every musical decision that they make. We are the ones cataloging every song they’ve ever performed live, comparing it to the previous instances of its live appearances and how those versions, in turn, compare to the recorded version. A song may not have been committed to tape until 10 years after it first debuted on stage in Stockholm but we are the ones that can chart its development and have therefore cast it into the realm of importance.

We are also the ones that argue over the validity of each version and whether the version that ended up being recorded, having therefore gained a level of permanence that the bootlegs and live versions lack, is the “definitive” version or not. The audience is responsible for deciding if what an artist is doing is good or bad, or more appropriately, they decide whether or not they are happy with the direction the band is taking and what it means for their cultural musical superiority, dominance and importance. All separate things.

Of course all of these things are done without the consent or approval of the band, who in turn seem perfectly content with going their own way and charting a unique path. Personally, I wonder how much the members of Radiohead use this information to guide their decisions. Do they think about manipulating the way that we are going to think about this album? Do we try to compensate for this by heading them off at the pass, intellectually, by taking into account that they think they know what we think and are therefore going to change our thoughts about their actions based on what we think they think we are thinking?

Radiohead - "The King of Limbs"
Radiohead - "The King of Limbs"

It’s all ridiculously convoluted, and you can see where the role of artist and audience member is challenged in this instance. It’s complex and perhaps you would think that it isn’t happening, but it is. Right now. The scrutiny, the over-thinking, the critical analysis, all of it is a testament to the importance of this band that we are even bothering to wrap ourselves up in this kind of process.

That process is my whole premise. Listening to a new Radiohead album has transcended the traditional listening experience to a point of a self-critical paranoia inducing obsession that eventually leads to submission.

With anything so new and different from anything that we have recently been listening to, the initial exposure to “The King of Limbs”, much like that first listen to “Kid A” is a point of aggravation to a certain degree. The mind is overcome with such a new and surprising experience that it doesn’t quite know how to process all of the information. We become overwhelmed.

Do our expectations exceed what we have been given? The answer to this question always seems to be an unconditional “Yes” at this point. We sit and try to pick out the memorable material, which is quite literally impossible at such an early stage as the music is passing through our ears for the first time. We wait for upbeat tunes, interesting contrapuntal textures, complexities in the lyrics that speak to us in coded, metaphoric language about politics (possibly). It’s difficult to find all of these things and explore them all at once, in one go. Frustration and awe are residing in equal parts within us as the end of the album draws near and we are left with choosing between “forget it, it’s a mess” and “I gotta listen to this again, there must be something in there.”

This is where Radiohead truly takes charge as a musical group of cultural importance. We trust that they are doing something that we need some time to understand, we trust in them. We have faith in their integrity that they have done something deserving of multiple listens.

After the release of “In Rainbows” there were discussions in several online forums that tried to unravel a code in binary that people thought existed that the band was hinting at all over the place, and had been for years. I don’t recall anything productive coming from those discussions, which ran parallel to surface arguments that stemmed from their “pay what you want” model that they had developed for the album. This is where most of the focus of the mainstream media was. People reached their own conclusions. Some felt that the physical release of the album was an admission from the band that their experiment had failed. Everyone ignored the main point the whole time was that if you release something officially, ahead of people that are going to just give it away for free anyway, there is some control there.

The real key is that people were talking. People were trying to unravel a supposed mystery, and nobody can conclude that it has been completely uncovered. Because of this we continue searching.

After a few listens one begins to sort things out. A few short motifs are memorized and the picture begins to come into focus. The acoustic guitar in “Give Up the Ghost” that sounds so intimate and subdued. The way in which that song opens up when an electric guitar makes a brief appearance and the vocals are looped and repeated, harmonizing into a swirl of dissipating sound before the bassline becomes the only thing we can hear.

Electronic glitches and other clipped up sounds permeate most of the album. Percussion and vocals are clearly the most prominent aspects of “The King of Limbs”. At first this makes the work difficult to grasp. There doesn’t seem to be enough melody and harmony to grab onto and hum along with. Perhaps this is the point. What ends up happening instead is really great. This alteration of the foundational elements allows the band to explore shifting metric pulses as the generators of the song structure. The songs exist without our participation. We can’t immediately internalize them, or sing along.


Think of the opening section of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”. There is the only melody at the very beginning of the work. The metric pulses seem to be lost in an ethereal state of suspended animation while the melodies are constantly spun out. Despite the unorthodoxy and apparent complexity the melodies have a fairly high level of memorability. That section gives way to a pounding, primal turn that features heavy use of downbowed strings with shifting accents that continually catch the audience off guard. That is where this album exists. In that juxtaposition. Where the rhythmic complexities take prominence and melody and harmony, though still very much there, are subjected to a more secondary role.

Music seems to change as we listen to it. Rather, our perception of the music adjusts as we listen and become more acquainted. We need to compartmentalize as humans. We have a space in our head for only a certain kind of music, so we force this album into that box. We change what we hear to what we want to hear, what we can hear and what we can understand. Soon, after a few dozen listens we are singing along to “Little by Little” while simultaneously wondering if that title is the band’s sly way of letting us know that that is exactly how we are coming into understanding this album.

They are still three steps ahead of us.

As the physical release date for the album approaches the band has announced that they will be publishing a newspaper. It will be free and available in major metropolitan areas. Nobody knew what exactly what was going to be published in the newspaper until yesterday, which is undoubtedly adding to the mystique surrounding the album release. Unfortunately people are also using this to dismiss the release as another piece of evidence that the band has lost its way. Do they really need to innovate everything, from the inside out with every release? What is a “newspaper album” anyway and does Radiohead really need to rush out and be the first band to release one?

There is also curiosity about the albums length, the shortest release by the band to date, as to whether or not there is going to be more to it. Will there be another release hot on its heels like the twins separated at birth that were “Kid A” and “Amnesiac”? The former seen by most as the first major point of departure for the band. The curiosity is no doubt stemming from the same people that were trying to break the binary code of “In Rainbows”.

The album opens with melodic and memorable looped opening that is soon overtaken by overlapping rhythms and disjointed bass. That very opening seems to spring to mind a state of déjà vu. It seems as though this has come from somewhere before. Perhaps it is just a result of listening to the album obsessively trying to get a firm understanding of it. The pulsating loops from the opening are then relegated to background bed track on top of which the remainder of the song is built. It serves as a constant pedal point that the rest of the material is weighed against. Peals of trumpets add a new layer, mimicking and varying the themes of Thom Yorke’s vocals.

“Morning Mr. Magpie” with its palm-muted guitar in driving rhythm with the off kilter hi-hat beating out borrowed metric pulses creates an incredible sense of restraint. Yorke’s voice is clear with a subtly distant shout of the lyrics. The interaction of guitars and bass here is similar to “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” from their “In Rainbows” album.

This seems to be their newly reinvented guitar arrangement style. Less like early Radiohead’s clear division of the standard rhythm guitar vs. lead guitar where Jonny Greenwood would hold back before bursting forth with angular lines with feedback drenched crunches and squeals out of the blue. The lines have once again become blurred.

The video for “Lotus Flower” has already been fed to the wolves at the meme machine of youtube, appealing to yet another level of audience. That audience seems to consist at least partly, if not mostly, of those that don’t even bother trying to listen to, let alone understand the music, instead creating a viral market from the ground up. Some of the results, though few original and none surprising, can be entertaining. It is appropriate that this song is the lead single, being that it is the most “song like” off the album and catchy with Yorke’s bluesy vocals spinning out a few hooks, though those hooks are unlike anything one would normally or previously think of as “catchy”.

After “Lotus Flower” the album seems to reach a breaking point. The feel doesn’t so much change as much as the style. Piano on “Codex” is shrouded in reverb, similar to that of “Pyramid Song” from the “Amnesiac” album. The peals of brass are also present on this track. “Give Up the Ghost” inserts a brightly strummed acoustic guitar into their sonic landscape.

“Seperator” sharply returns us to the style of the beginning of the album with very clean, clear mix and the drums re-entering and up front. The line that truly haunts from this song is “If you think this is over then you’re wrong” which seems to remind us that we think that there may be more to this. There may be a piece of the puzzle that we are missing. It seems that they really are playing with us. This song, like so many others on the album, has a way of really blossoming as it moves forward.

Not only does that song leave us wanting more, in a desperate search for something, but even after several listens we still don’t know what it is exactly that we are looking for. By this point it doesn’t really matter, we have succumbed to the album. We have allowed it to change the way that we think about listening to music, and what we typically expect from an album. This last track ends with a harmony that seems to go somewhere separate from the vocals. Yorke’s voice extends the harmony that is already  rich with intervals that one would typically not find outside of jazz.

“The King of Limbs” charts a path of exploration which is usual for Radiohead, but it seems to want to, at the same time, break off into a new direction within the album itself. Harmony is secondary to rhythm for parts, and then the opposite on the latter half of the album. The songs don’t necessarily feel segmented or choppy, they feel natural and are well written and intricately put together with utmost attention to detail. It’s this fission that develops across the album that helps get us to listen again and again in rapt attention as our minds adjust to Radiohead changing the game again. It meets our expectations by exceeding them, and that is why Radiohead will always have the upper hand.

[audio:|titles=Little By Little] [audio:|titles=Give Up The Ghost]

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