Radiohead – The King of Limbs (2011)
by Mike Mineo
The King of Limbs contains some of Radiohead’s most fascinating material to date, even if it lacks the infectious aspects of rock and electronic that their past releases flaunted. Their eighth LP sits more in the realm of Kid A and Amnesiac, consuming atmospheric releases that toyed with piano-laden ballads and choppy electronic experiments. Despite taking unexpected stylistic turns, depth was never question for either album. Amnesiac was the softer and more direct of the two, while the more boisterous Kid A achieved masterpiece status with its unique hybrid of Radiohead’s catchy alt-rock tendencies and variety of electronic fixtures, including slight elements of jazz and ambient music. Its genius can be found in its breathtaking range; densely layered epics like “Everything in Its Right Place” aligned cohesively with initially minimalist efforts like “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, both of which transformed from a hushed swirl of organ-keys and/or accordions into pulsating alt-rock and ardent orchestral flourishes, respectively. Along with OK Computer, it was the best example of Radiohead’s unmatched skills as tactful songwriters and masters of emotional representation. It flowed freely and beautifully without constraint.
Radiohead’s vast base of musical wits seems to expand with each passing release. They have impressed so much and so consistently throughout the years that few listeners are actively seeking another grand stylistic achievement. Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows are not necessarily classified as landmark stylistic achievements, but they are excellent albums that showed off the band’s already-illustrious discography and songwriting talents. It straddled middle-ground between their rhythmic-heavy electro experiments and vast alt-rock anthems, resulting in sometimes dreamy, occasionally chaotic sounds ranging from piano balladry and subdued acoustic folk to frenzied rock and murky dubstep. Though it did not initially seem like it, Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows are not too stylistically distant from one another. Their songs sounded like they could have been recorded at any point since OK Computer, making for a very retrospective feel that resulted in well-deserved acclaim. They were mature, sophisticated releases from a band that clearly learned from success. Neither overly ambitious nor too dumbed-down, they were about as excellent as one would expect.
Such tactful precision leads us to the understandable hype for The King of Limbs, an album that still sounds like Radiohead but with a presentation unlike anything the five-piece have released before. The band is certainly clinging up to aspects of today’s electronica, many of which they helped influence with their late ‘90s/early ‘00s releases. Flying Lotus is the comparison-of-the-moment, and certainly artists like Four Tet, Burial, and even Daedelus are not too far off either. But The King of Limbs is a distinctively Radiohead release at its core, and most comparisons are to artists that practically idolize Radiohead themselves. One of the most noticeable shifts for the band here is the involvement of drummer Phil Selway, long considered underrated and under-utilized. Ironically, his role here is occasionally over-emphasized. His technical precision remains impeccable, but many times his involvement seems too forced. In “Morning Mr Magpie” and “Feral”, his over-active drumming suffocates any melodic range the songs aspire to. His furious tempo and intricacy certainly assets his virtuosity, but the melodic appeal seems to be overlooked. Despite their prevalent technicalities, their dullness and complacency resemble loop-based automation more than intended.
In defense of Selway, this weakness is inherently due to the lack of actual songwriting on “Magpie” and “Feral”, not his drumming ability. Neither song goes anywhere, living off dully inspired repetition and fetishized sonic shifts uncharacteristic of the band. Repetition is acceptable if something bears worth repeating, but Thom Yorke’s lack of range and emotion combined with bland synthesized murmurs and over-emphasized percussion give listeners little worth pursuing or even playing again. The production is polished as usual, but the depth of songwriting on both tracks is surprisingly minimal for a band this capable. Fans of these songs tend to point to the wide variety of subtle sounds on each, best heard through $500 headphones, like the emergence of the fuzzy bass on “Feral” or the budding amp frequencies in “Magpie”. But unless you are an extreme audiophile who values small insignificant intricacies over melody and composition, the appeal of these songs will be underwhelming.
You must be thinking at this point that it is overly compulsive to linger on two weak tracks like this. In most cases that would be true, but here “Magpie” and “Feral” account for one-fourth of the album. This leads us to another popular complaint: 37 minutes is not an acceptable length for an album with the (in)consistency of The King of Limbs. When half the songs on the first side of a release are mediocre or languidly dull, that is certainly an issue. Speculation that the album’s second half is yet to come is little more than wishful thinking but certainly warranted, as it is hard to imagine most fans being satisfied with the amount of substance here. Granted, there are not enough quality tracks here for The King of Limbs to qualify as one of Radiohead’s best, but that is not to say the album lacks substance altogether. “Little by Little”, “Lotus Flower”, “Codex”, and “Separator” are as good as anything on In Rainbows or Hail to the Thief, and “Bloom” works as well as any Radiohead opener with its hectic key arpeggio, soaring horns, and lamenting strings. It combines the subdued orchestral tendencies of Amnesiac with the free-jazz/electronic aspects of Kid A, and in doing that it kicks off The King of Limbs nicely.
Released just a few hours before the album, “Lotus Flower” may be the album’s best. Whereas I found Selway’s drumming on previous efforts to be overly enforced, his involvement here is perfect. The bass line moves with patience akin to the elegant “All I Need”, while the percussion presents a furious yet dynamic nature that adapts to Yorke’s excellent malleability. Around 03:20, when the ominous “Where I End and You Begin”-esque synth creeps in, he raises his pitch with illustrious luster. Yorke is more subdued here than on more anthemic efforts found on The Bends and OK Computer, but his artful method in building up to the explosive drum fill at 03:45, one of my favorite moments on the album, is flawless. His delivery in the verses near spoken-word, and his voice perks up melodically with each successive bridge and chorus. The impact is devastatingly haunting as a result, truly reminding us for the first time on The King of Limbs of Radiohead’s extraordinary ability.
While “Little by Little” is a fun and catchy effort that finds comparisons to both “Paranoid Android” and “Bones” with its heavy bass tones and mellow electric guitars, it is not particularly flashy or invigorating. It is a big breath of fresh air though, especially in between suffocated electronic-heavy efforts “Magpie” and “Feral”, and is a likely nominee to be a single. It is easy to see this one, with Jonny Greenwood’s signature guitar twang and Yorke’s squeaky-clean chorus, performing quite well on the charts. As far as emotional depth goes, it can be found almost exclusively on the second half of The King of Limbs. “Codex” is one of the most beautiful songs in the band’s catalog, cross-breeding the elegance of Amnesiac with the most lush efforts on OK Computer, like “No Surprises” and “Lucky”. Yorke harmonizing with the horns at 02:16 is pure beauty to the ears, serving as a moment that propels the song to great heights. It almost serves as a tease. If Radiohead would release an album full of lush, orchestral beauties like this, I doubt the result would be as polarizing. Particularly, the final bridge where strings and keys make for the most instrumentally powerful moment on the album creates a perfect ending for the tragically gorgeous track. Between this and the closing minute of “All I Need”, there should be no doubts as to Radiohead’s ability to produce beautiful orchestral compositions with a hint of post-classicism.
The last two tracks on The King of Limbs, “Give Up the Ghost” and “Separator”, are the least riskiest on the album. The former is a fairly basic acoustic effort that relies on Yorke’s crisply sonorous vocals more than the melody itself, which trickles slowly through acoustic strums as Yorke repeats “don’t haunt me” as a sort of rhythmic aid. An additional guitar arpeggio and horn can be heard in the background, but both are generally superfluous and overly reflective of the main melody. A jump in range just before the three-minute mark provides hope for variation, but unfortunately the track does not let the momentum carry it into anything resembling a hook. It sounds nice, but again – there is not much there. “Separator”, fortunately, closes the album on an extremely strong note. It would have fit seamlessly on In Rainbows, concluding with a distinctive psychedelic influence that – like “Codex” – teases us. It is hardly surprising that the best songs on The King of Limbs are the most organic. Hopefully it is something Radiohead will carry into the next release, which will hopefully avoid sounding anything like Atoms for Peace, which this album does on half the efforts. The King of Limbs is not a bad release by any means. But alongside the towering giants in Radiohead’s discography, it is among the weakest.