Saturday, February 26, 2011

The King of Limbs by Radiohead (2011)

Whatever you make of it, Radiohead has not compromised, “filled” or dumbed down with The King of Limbs, their eighth album in some twenty years. Announced on the 14th of February, 2011 more or less out of the blue for universal internet release on the 19th, it was finally delivered one day prematurely. Presumably the band was giddy with excitement and saw little point in withholding it from their fans and the rabid press attention that was almost inevitable at this point.

First impressions, and the gut reactions spewed all over the internet (including reputable news sites not otherwise distracted by the domino fall of North African dictatorships) can probably best be classified as “underwhelming”. Accustomed as Radiohead’s fanbase has become to vaguely conceptual albums of ten or eleven songs, the eight track, 37 minutes leave the listener a bit short-changed. The artwork feels a bit infantile as well, when compared to OK Computer’s (1997) scenes of civilisational decay and Esperanto. Was this the acoustic and organic Radiohead album that had been rumoured for so long?

From the first few tracks, we are back in the land of Idioteque. Unimpressively abstract rhythmic pieces, seemingly freeform lyrics and a skittish nervousness underpin the first half of the album. Listeners were blessed with freedom from expectations; in contrast to the In Rainbows (2007) experience, the tracks were not thoroughly road-tested (and therefore widely bootlegged) in the previous years. Even the album’s announcement was unburdened by a tracklist, letting the download speak for itself completely. For the first time in years, a musical surprise was on hand for the fans.

Other immediate impressions can be filed under The Eraser (2006). Thom Yorke’s tastes and directions seem undiluted, and his brief touring as the Atoms For Peace has spilled over into his day job. Songs played under this banner would end up on King, and older, unreleased Radiohead tracks were performed as Atoms songs.

View Larger Map

The album’s release was preceded by an hour by a botched attempt to debut the video to track five, Lotus Flower on Tokyo’s Hachiko Square (near the famous Shibuya crossing). Avid watchers would have to make do with an HD YouTube video instead. Perhaps this snafu prompted the early release? By itself, and as the first taster of the album, Lotus Flower seems sensual, if slightly under-structured. Rarely has Yorke sung as funkily and delicately at the same time. In the context of the album though, the song blooms as the metaphorical Lotus itself.

Indeed, botanic imagery is present all over the album: the limbs of the tree, the “Bloom” of the opening track, the Codex, or trunk of the fifth track: nature is present and accounted for, somewhat of a first for the decidedly urban(e) Radiohead.

Lotus Flower marks a distinct break in the album: the warmth that was introduced in In Rainbows is back. Codex is a piano piece: a less hooky Pyramid Song with hints of You And Whose Army and All I Need. Give Up The Ghost has overtones of Bon Iver in its anti-production. Thom Yorke has played it solo in largely the same arrangement thanks to some technical wizardry that allowed him to lay down loops on the fly and build on his own performance.

All in all, the songs seem less melodic, less characterful relations of earlier Radiohead songs. Colder than In Rainbows, less instantly grabbing than Kid A. Combined with its length, and the absence of the few songs that were played at the tail end of the In Rainbows tours one could almost be forgiven for being underwhelmed. Would these tracks pass the muster for previous albums? They feel like B-sides, and Hail to the Thief B-sides at that (are you listening, dust-gathering copy of Com Lag (2004)?). That was the only Radiohead album that could be tarred with the “overly long” brush, so imagine what the B-sides were like!

The first and so far only publicity shot the band released for The King of Limbs

But then The King of Limbs’ charms begin to work. Its length and uncompromising nature encourages further listening. On the right stereo, or headphones the album shows its depth. The intricacies of the rhythmic elements (is that Phil Selway or Thom Yorke’s MacBook?), the echoes, the tiny, almost missed flourishes of guitar that are lost deep in the dub-step like mix: the richness is mostly sonic rather than lyrical or instrumental. Colin Greenwood’s bass duties are understated, but extremely groovy without every taking centre stage. This is particularly apparent on Separator, as the basslines loosely swirl along the locked snare pattern.

The repetitious nature of many of the songs lull the listener, making smaller details or shifts in chords and instrumentation all the more noticeable. The absence of conventional verse/chorus/verse structures gives the songs the opportunity to germinate (it is perhaps unavoidable that this review should contain a few gardening terms) at their own pace.

The King of Limbs presents a challenge, a statement. Far from being a Kid A-like change of course, it just is. Eight tracks, live instrumentation used sparingly, and over much too soon. The band has shunned publicity in the first week since its release, prompting mass hysteria about further pieces, or limbs to this sonic tree. The batch of unreleased songs and some two year-old statements about a desire for unorthodox methods of distribution seem to be the primary catalyst for this speculation. A second “half” a la Amnesiac (2001) would surely be welcome. But as it stands, we have an artistic triumph on our hands. The band is as enigmatic and uncompromising as ever, dictating its own terms. Dull it is not.