First Look: Radiohead – ‘The King of Limbs’

In 2001, a year when albums leaked one song at a time and I had to walk uphill in the snow both ways to get to school, Radiohead released the album Amnesiac. Coming just months after the paradigm-shifting Kid A and stemming from the same sessions, it was roundly seen as Kid A‘s weird (but pretty cute!) kid sister. The full-lengths, as we forget so easily, only tell part of the story: to fill out the Amnesiac b-sides, the band went back to the studio for the first time since the lengthy, strained recording efforts that produced both albums and tracked a handful of new songs. The b-sides, free of the crushing artistic and commercial pressures that have weighed on the band like Atlas since “Creep,” resulted in some of Radiohead’s strangest, most beautiful material: “Fog,” my favorite Radiohead song, a track as murky and lovely as the subject of its title; “Cuttooth,” a piano-driven freight train that’s lyrics were later borrowed for especially paranoiac Hail to the Thief track “Myxomatosis”; “Worrywort,” a synthesizer ballad Vangelis would’ve loved that dealt with the exhausting nature of creation; and so on.

All this seemed to leave the world wide open, but 2003’s Hail to the Thief had different ambitions, and many of the directions explored on Amnesiac and its surrounding tracks seemed suddenly closed off. It’s important here to remember 1997’s OK Computer, a guitar album as vivid and ambitious as any guitar album has ever been: it is cathartic and invigorating like few recordings of any sort before or since. (Not that it matters much, but were it not for Bob Dylan, it would’ve won the Grammy for Album of the Year, too.) Radiohead has spent its four albums (five, counting Thom Yorke’s solo set The Eraser) since trying to see how far the band can go with limited resources: absent guitars, neutered solos, warped vocals, drum machines, anything to avoid the pleasure-center mainlining that had been their previous specialty. Its recent catalog contains plenty of fireworks and blown speakers, of course, but from a listener’s perspective, at times, the pursuit of restraint has seemed like an exercise in frustration: see the drum machine that enters at the end of In Rainbows‘ “Videotape,” only to peter out aimlessly rather than drive the song to a conclusion, or the solo-that-isn’t that closes HTTT‘s “Go To Sleep.” The band’s relationship with electronics has played into this: the complex, thematic marriage of drum machines and percussionist Phil Selway on Kid A and even HTTT highlights such as “Sit Down Stand Up” also led to Yorke’s brittle, too-minimal Eraser, an album that still often sounds like it’s waiting for some beat-maker to come finish it up.

As Radiohead nerds — and, in the ultimate High Fidelity seal of approval, there are very likely more Radiohead nerds than exist for any other modern band — know, Yorke found those beat-makers and took The Eraser on tour in 2009 and 2010 with a band dubbed Atoms for Peace. At any given time, two, often three of the band’s members would be handling percussion; Flea, shirtless and stroking his bass like a Paul Rudd wet dream, needed no assistance. The inherent vitality of live performance helped fill them out, but even bootlegs reveal songs reaching their full potential: claustrophobic skeletons emboldened with coursing blood and thickened muscle. Perhaps Yorke realized that he could do his less with more.

Judging by the early response — which is to say, in pre-2011 terms, the only response — to The King of Limbs, Radiohead’s long-awaited and wonderful new album, this may be a realization that more than a few of the nerds and casual listeners alike have yet to have had for themselves. It is an album intent on small victories, entirely devoid of the soaring anthems and bold strokes that the group has intermittently graced slobbering “Paranoid Android” devotees with in the last decade. While the band has been rightfully noted for its experimentation in sonic realms over the years, the quietly anti-pop TKOL is its most avant-garde album yet structurally: even Kid A, after all, had choruses. After decades of steak and aged spirits, Radiohead have given us an utterly remarkable salad.

And yet, its lack of bold flavors doesn’t make it less worth savoring. While essentially Radiohead’s entire catalog lends itself to what Nitsuh Abebe correctly dubbed “serious listening” in an essay on the band’s uniquely respected pop cultural position, missing the studio subtleties does little to mar the visceral enjoyment of songs such as “Street Spirit” or “Let Down” or “The National Anthem.” The King of Limbs, on the other hand, requires careful attention for its considerable substance. It is their most intimate, internal album; at 36 minutes, it is their most purposefully focused since Kid A. The thick webs of percussion that joyfully fill these songs nod to Atoms for Peace as well as Yorke’s recent collaboration with Flying Lotus, the leading light of L.A.’s beat-oriented Low End Theory scene, not to mention the U.K.’s parallel dubstep movement, but in fairness, these styles aren’t territory Radiohead hasn’t already explored in some form or another. It’s likely more accurate to say that the current movements reinvigorated the band, which has spent its last two albums seeming to waver between placating fans calling for red meat and tip-toeing back into potentially less satisfying, more subtle experimentation. The most novel element of In Rainbows, the band’s previous studio effort, was its headline-making pay-what-you-want release strategy; otherwise, it was a record of surprisingly unfrilled guitar pop that distanced itself from being too satisfying — God forbid! — with thick walls of reverb. (Nerds, myself included, weaned on the grittier live versions will probably never forgive the band for this.)

Where The King of Limbs excels is finding, finally, how to fulfill the band’s long-held minimalist aspirations without producing songs that feel flawed or half-finished. There are exactly two songs on The King of Limbs with choruses, and really only one, “Lotus Flower,” that could be considered a proper “song.” Instead, these are narratives, architectural works constructed layer by layer, moment to moment. It begins with “Bloom,” a song of quietly conflicting tempos turned gentle by Colin Greenwood’s nudging bass; his playing evokes the more relaxed “Worrywort,” but the song drives toward a more dynamic finish, blossoming into a Vangelis synth-horn rosebud at the 3-minute mark in lieu of ascending to a chorus. TKOL, like Kid A and Amnesiac before it, is a remarkably bright, clear piece of engineering, with Yorke’s vocals floating lower in the mix than usual but thankfully not nearly as unfathomably deep as the band’s last album. Instead, he buries himself: his vocals, which usually paint their melodies in clouds and stadiums, are the most understated of his career. There are other new tricks: “Feral” offers the somersaulting vocals of modern software and that increasingly rare thing, an actual volume shift used as an instrument unto itself. “Give Up the Ghost,” a song Yorke has taken to playing with a looper live, mirrors its performance incarnation, with his vocal loops sounded like pre-taped segments rather than studio additions.

It’s a clever move for the studio-centric band (and longtime producer Nigel Godrich, who we can consider partially responsible for all of this review’s aforementioned sonic successes and missed opportunities), especially when the melody peaks and the studio politely makes itself known, the song decaying into static like William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. “Give Up the Ghost” is the album’s loveliest song, but its beauty requires a microscope. It and “Codex,” a piano ballad as simple and forgiving as a mother’s hug, are a brief break from the electronic, beat-oriented bent that otherwise drives the album, though the songs never feel as freezer-chilled as Kid A.

No, in many ways, too many to miss, TKOL parallels the warmer Amnesiac. “Little By Little,” a John Lennon nightmare of backwards guitars and trembling percussion, recalls the rust-bucket drumming and melodic moves of “Packt like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box.” The twitchy, unintelligible “Feral” plays like a dubstep sequel to “Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors.” “Codex” opens with a sort of gasp as the album shifts abruptly out of electro-mode, while a similar deep breath opens “You and Whose Army.” And so on. On each track, the band prunes the expected signposts — verses and choruses, chordal dynamics — rather than hacking away at its sonic jungles, leaving songs that shine like tiny diamonds.

As one of the world’s most beloved and successful bands on record and on stage, it’s hard to imagine public pressure playing a role in Radiohead’s art, but the quintet is, after all, only human. If Kid A was the response to the crucible of following up OK Computer, Amnesiac and its scattershot b-sides were a sigh of relief. TKOL feels the same way; it sounds not so much like a response (or a fuck-you) to expectations as it does a like band setting goals, achieving them, and contentedly moving along. It’s not that the band had much to prove commercially with In Rainbows, but perhaps they felt like they did; The King of Limbs, eschewing a business-model publicity stunt and arriving with little in the way of an In Rainbows-style live preview, arrives with total confidence — with music to match. It’s easy to see why some, perhaps many, will be disappointed by this record, but it is nevertheless a profoundly rewarding piece of art by a band whose brush strokes — broad or delicate as they may happen to be — remain among pop music’s most fascinating.

Radiohead – “Morning Mr. Magpie” (live acoustic): mp3

(The King of Limbs is out now; all Radiohead posts)