In Brief: Hardcore Radiohead fans will make excuses six ways from Sunday, but I’m sorry… this is good stuff, just not enough of it.
“None of us want to go into that creative hoo-ha of a long-play record again. Not straight off. I mean, it’s just become a real drag. It worked with In Rainbows because we had a real fixed idea about where we were going. But we’ve all said that we can’t possibly dive into that again. It’ll kill us.”
–Thom Yorke, 2009
I’ve decided that Radiohead is to music what LOST is to television. Though they work through different mediums, both inspire massive mindscrews and drive fans to pay very close attention to seemingly minute details in order to make some sense of the larger picture. Both are known for intentionally misdirecting fans with red herrings about their future direction. And both have the sort of fandom that is rabid enough to insist that they know what they’re doing and there’s a rhyme and a reason to everything, even when casual listeners/viewers on the sidelines are saying “Well, this is interesting enough, but they kind of fell short here.” Go on, try to say something like that to a person who remained a huge fan of LOST through to the end. Enjoy the hours’ worth of arguing that will probably ensue. Now imply something similar to a Radiohead fan when the subject of their latest album, The King of Limbs, comes up in conversation. Radiohead’s far from being the only band that inspires more Kool-Aid drinking on the part of its fans than the actual creators behind it ever did themselves, but they’re my favorite example an act where woe seems to come to whoever dares speak against its quality.
Personally, I’ve liked Radiohead for a while, though it didn’t come easy at first. I’ve listened to all of their albums, and enjoyed the majority of them, most notably OK Computer and Kid A. But it wasn’t until the sudden, independent release of In Rainbows that I happened upon an album I could like pretty much right away. It’s not my favorite of their works, but it goes down easiest and finds a band regarded (however unfairly) for being difficult heading in a more relaxed, groove-based direction. It was pretty lean as albums from post-modern rock monoliths go, at only 10 tracks, but some would say that was a conscious trimming of the fat after Hail to the Thief. it was juicy enough to be worth the four-year wait that preceded it. But after that, the band seemed to slip into this period where new material came to them only sporadically, where individual projects seemed to divide their attention more and more, and as evidenced by the quote above, they just were not feeling this whole “full-length album” thing. Enter The King of Limbs, the culmination of a 3 1/2-year wait for a new collection of eight Radiohead songs that honestly, isn’t really an album at all. It’s more of a glorified EP.
I know I’ll come under fire for implying that Radiohead has somehow fallen short on this release, and let me make myself clear – what new music they provided is generally of high quality. General consensus seems to be that the band stepped back from trying to completely bust out of our previous notions of what genre they were, and simply set about recording interesting pieces of work within the boundaries of what they’d already explored. In this case, that means drawing on the experiments with dance loops and detached electronic sounds that characterized Kid A and parts of Amnesiac, merged with their rediscovery of the more organic side of Radiohead as heard on In Rainbows. Drums and bass come hot and heavy on many of these tracks, but there’s also space left for a few open, airy ballads. And none of this is a bad move. I just think there isn’t enough of it. And that’s where I tend to get the biggest amount of push-back from the most reverent of the Radiohead faithful.
I can’t help it. I came of age in an era where 10 tracks seemed like a reasonable minimum for a good rock album, which isn’t to say that quality albums didn’t exist with fewer – it just put pressure on those songs to be more long and involved, with enough distinct segments to feel like there were extra songs hidden in the cracks (think prog rock), or else the band was banking on their brief collection of new tunes to be all killer, no filler. It’s been pointed out to me that many of the greats from the era of classic rock turned in albums with eight tracks or even less, none of them needing to be particularly epic in their length, and with an LP format that allowed room for more even if it wasn’t always used. To be fair, the 80 minutes of space that modern CDs allow can lead to bloating as some contemporary acts strive to fill the space provided. But I’m only comparing Radiohead to Radiohead here. OK Computer proved that they could record 12 quality songs (OK, 11 and one really interesting interlude) and not waste any space on lesser material, and Kid A, while it had a few songs that veered into territory I didn’t care for, felt like each of its 10 tracks was unique and complete, but with all of it flowing together in such a way as to provide a complete picture of a horrifyingly weird world. Adding something extra wouldn’t necessarily kill that vision, but it didn’t seem like anything was missing. The King of Limbs may average on the slightly longish side, at roughly 4:30 per track with a total of 38 minutes of play time. And certain segments of it hint at a larger arc. But this is a band who has categorically denied making concept albums, so I have to ask: What was so important about these eight songs that they had to be presented as an entity unto themselves, with nothing else that these guys came up with in the intervening years being deemed worthy of inclusion. (I know there’s other material floating around – some lucky fans will get their hands on two bonus songs in limited edition vinyl format on Record Store Day, April 16. Let’s just say that if those are meant to complete the album in some way, I’ll be mighty peeved.)
I want to believe that The King of Limbs is either a deliberate statement against the conventionally longer nature of rock albums nowadays, powerful enough to stand on its own without the need to be filled out any further, or else that it’s simply the first “branch” in a longer string of releases that won’t require another three-year wait. Otherwise, if this is all that they have to give on the regular edition of their latest “album”, I have to ask what was the point of releasing it when they did. Has it just become that difficult for them to flesh out good song ideas together? They went through that during the Kid A sessions, but came out stronger for it. I know there wasn’t a label breathing down their necks, expecting something new to sell this year. They could have waited as long as they wanted to provide a more “complete” picture. Are they just messing with our expectations to see what kind of temper tantrums we throw? It wouldn’t be the first time.
Nevertheless, I need to emphasize that I do enjoy a good bit of what’s here. Some tracks are vintage Radiohead, others are surprising, perhaps not in the mind-blowing way that some of Radiohead’s past experiments were, but certainly in a way that reminds me I haven’t heard all angles of this band’s personality yet. One or two roadblocks aside, it’s an enjoyable listen, and the material that they offered does reward more deeply devoted attention. I’d even say it’s worth what you’ll pay for it, since the album is being sold for less than full-length albums typically are. So I’ll do my best to put aside my quibbles as I take a walk through a set of songs that probably averages out to four-star quality – the only reason I’m sticking with three is due to the absence of a quantity of material that during any other period in their career, they could have provided, and it would have been of strong quality.
I think of a lot of callbacks to different points in Radiohead history when I hear this opening track – the teeny-tiny beats of the rhythm track remind me of Kid A‘s title track, Colin Greenwood‘s fluid bass line reminds me of some of the spots where he got to strut his stuff on In Rainbows, and the clattering syncopation of the drums, seemingly at odds with the song’s time signature, gives it a disorienting feeling much like “In Limbo” – only way more interesting and less irritating. Thom Yorke‘s solo work on The Eraser serves as a source of inspiration as well, taking advantage of his full band to create the kind of mystifying loop that continues to build on itself that might have been left to computerized processes were he all by himself. While it can sound like a cluttered mess to the uninitiated, I’ve actually found it to be one of Radiohead’s most beautiful and euphoric tracks, as Thom’s lyrics paint abstract images of wide open oceans, and seemingly the entire universe breathing a sigh of relief. By the time they bring in a horn section near the end of the track, I’m convinced that this is brilliance. Nothing else on Limbs even comes close.
2. Morning Mr Magpie
Want the old paranoid Radiohead back? Here they are! Over another stuttering beat and bass line (admittedly a little easier for the ears to follow this time out), Thom makes no attempt to hide his annoyance as he rails against some sort of thief who has “stolen all the magic”. While this plays out a bit repetitively, I enjoy the interesting use of Thom’s vocals in the bridge, breaking it down into little whispery snippets and looping it back, making it sound like he’s some sort of hyperventilating robot. I wouldn’t put it up there with classic Radiohead, necessarily – it needs a slight bit more fleshing out to really give it some teeth. But it’s an enjoyably moody piece all the same.
3. Little By Little
This one might be the densest track so far in terms of rhythm, which I would normally like because I’m into that sort of thing, but any instrument with strings on this track seems completely occupied with weak noodling around in place of any riffs, soloing, or otherwise terribly creative use of the instrument. (This includes Thom, Colin, and dual guitarists Ed O’Brien and Johnny Greenwood, the latter of which I’m not hearing much of on this album in general) Take my mild annoyance with “Reckoner” not really going anywhere, couple it with stronger annoyance at the rhythm’s weird habit of evading the listener’s attempts to find the start or end of the loop (meaning that if you were a drummer, you wouldn’t know where to come in on “1”), and then throw on another layer of vague irritation brought on by Thom’s weary whimpering in place of full-on singing, and that’s pretty much this track. I get that they’re probably trying to sound sneaky, maybe even a bit skeevy, as Thom sings “Little by little, by hook or by crook/I’m such a tease and you’re such a flirt”. But despite all of the disoriented din, this never really congeals into anything particularly exciting.
The band’s been hinting at wanting to screw with your mind for the last three tracks, but this is probably where they do it most effectively. Another skittering rhythm takes off running, and right off, I like this more than “Little By Little”. Colin’s got another great bass line, even though it’s really only two notes – it’s all fuzzed up to give it the ambiance of a dance track, and since everything’s happening so fast and furious, it’s easy enough to get swept away. But then come the vocals. If you could call them that. I mean, they were definitely sounds that came out of Thom’s mouth at some point, but they’ve been sonically manipulated into little bursts of metallic noise that make the listener expect words where they’re aren’t any. Theoretically, this would be a pretty cool sound effect to build a track around, but have you ever been in a crowded room with someone looking right at you and trying to talk to you, and you see their lips moving, but despite asking them to repeat themselves several times, you still can’t make it out? Yeah, this is kinda like that. I can step back from my initial confusion and label this an “instrumental” (though it’s quite hilarious to watch what happens when people try to interpret the “lyrics”), but on that level, it still fails by harping on the same repeated sound snippets one too many times. Again, this is an exercise in starting off with interesting ingredients, but ultimately, not really taking them anywhere. That might even be acceptable if this were just a brief interlude on an album packed with monolithic songs, but as one of only eight tracks, there’s too much weight riding on this one for it to not have any deeper substance than that.
5. Lotus Flower
You’ve quite possibly heard this one even if you’re not a Radiohead fan. That’s because there was a very short window of time during which this song went from nobody having heard it, to being the source material for a runaway YouTube meme, thanks to a possibly self-mocking music video released in advance of the album, featuring nothing but Thom Yorke doing his patented spazz dance. (My vote for funniest knockoff: Watching Thom dance to “Single Ladies” while Beyoncé reciprocates via the art of digital magic, dancing to the minimal, snaky groove of this song. If Radiohead still lived in a world where they cared about radio singles, this would be an obvious vote – it ain’t a rock song by a long shot, but it might just qualify as a pop song. Even a catchy one. The beat and the handclaps certainly make it the cheeriest thing Radiohead’s done since, well, ever. And while it’s more light and relaxed than you’d imagine if you were watching Thom bust moves with the sound off, it’s also got a good bit of lift to its melody, making kinder, gentler use of Thom’s voice than we’ve heard in a while. Perhaps these guys just don’t want to be typecast. This may not be a huge artistic leap forward for Radiohead, but maybe that expectation’s a bit unfair – it’s a thoroughly enjoyable song that has grown on me considerably from my initial ambivalent reaction. Its lyrics can be read as positive – the opening of yourself to freely give and relinquish control to someone who loves you – or, for the more jaded fans, you can read it with the usual tint of paranoia that colors this band’s songs. It works either way.
One thing Radiohead excels at, that perhaps I’ve never given them enough credit for, is creating remarkably spooky atmospheres with a stark minimum of ingredients. All it takes sometimes is a little sonic tweaking and the right gut-wrenching melody, and something so simple as a slow, methodical sequence of piano chords can totally give you the willies. That’s what happens for me here, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. Thom’s piano seems dampened, as if the notes themselves had somehow been hollowed out, robbed of their percussive punch, and it gives the song a murky feeling, as if you’re encased in a viscous liquid. I see it as just as beautiful as it is scary, if you can believe that. What few words are present are sung slowly and evenly by Thom, but he holds the notes with a real sense of longing in his voice, and honestly, I can’t find anything creepy about the actual words. They’re just a simple invitation to jump into a tranquil lake: “Jump off the end/The water’s clear and innocent.” Some probably won’t find anything eerie about this at all – just a pure, chilled-out soundtrack to an afternoon of relaxation. But there’s something about the damp texture of it that makes me wonder if it’s digging at some sort of repressed memory. (Clearly I have some issues to work out.)
7. Give Up the Ghost
While I’ve noted that The King of Limbs as a whole doesn’t feel like such an inseparable set of songs that they absolutely had to be presented in this exact package, the chirping birds and insects that link “Codex” to this song tell me that they are intended to be taken as related thoughts. That’s fine with me, as the two songs combined form the most peaceful ten minutes in Radiohead history, and that’s neither something that I expected from the group, or that I expected that I would like as much as I turned out to. Radiohead’s gone fully acoustic here, as strange as that may sound – alright, I realize they did that on “Faust Arp”, but here, I can genuinely imagine Thom and Johnny sitting on stools at some coffeehouse, one gently thumping the body of his guitar for rhythm while the other picks out a delightfully understated melody. Shoot, this is practically the Radiohead equivalent of Extreme‘s “More Than Words”. Of course, it wouldn’t be Radiohead without some sort of fiddling around with the sound – Thom’s voice has a wispy, immaterial quality to it, similar to the ghostly wail he used in “House of Cards”, but it’s a lot more effective here due to the bare-bones backdrop. He provides his own backing vocal, looping through a mantra over and over: “Don’t worry, don’t worry”. Or maybe it’s “Don’t hurry” or “Don’t haunt me”. Interpretations vary. As peaceful as this is, he’s crooning “I’ve been told to give up the ghost” at one point, which of course means to die, so that made me figure they were going for intentional soundtrack dissonance until I realized that it doesn’t have to be some subversive message about suicide. It could simply be the expression of a willingness to let go of someone (or something) that is in their final days – a wish for a peaceful passing. It’s quite interesting that this intentionally unplugged soundscape is washed over with skipping electronic sounds reminiscent of “Like Spinning Plates” at the end, as if the person taking their final breath is rewinding through the mental images of his entire life.
How have I not mentioned Phil Selway by now? His drums are one of the most important instruments on The King of Limbs, but maybe I just have trouble telling the difference between what he played and what he helped the guys set up drum loops for. Either way, he’s helped to turn out a lot of interesting rhythms for this short disc, and what he gives us on the closing number is no exception, actually turning out to be one of Radiohead’s most happy-go-lucky rhythms. (Could it be that I’ve described the vast majority of this album as something other than a downer? That’s weird for Radiohead.) At times it almost feels a little too perky to take seriously after the meditative bliss of the last two tracks. But it’s far from being insipid or anything. Just more of an easygoing, getting your day started sort of rhythm. It fits the lyrics, which apparently are Thom’s way of telling us that it was *waves hand* ALL JUST A DREAM. He’s woken up from that sad/lovely vision that he can’t quite get a hold of again, and he closes out the album by repeatedly pining “Wake me up, wake me up.” Colin’s bass booms in the background while Ed and Johnny contribute rather airy guitar parts. I don’t want to upset the delicate balance of this song, but man, if this is your climax, it feels like it should have some more gravitas to it. Unless…
Okay, so here’s the crazy fan theory. You’ve probably heard this one already. But I’m thinking that there could be more. A key line in “Separator” (an odd thing to title your album’s closing track, and sonically, the sort of thing that feels more like an intermission than a closing thought) is “If you think this is over, then you’re wrong.” I’d love to be wrong in thinking this was over. I’d love for this to only be half of the story, or even more intriguingly, the first installment out of several volumes. And I realize that this is probably wishful thinking, a desperate attempt to explain something that others see no need to explain and can take at face value – that Radiohead deliberately put out a shorter album and charged us less for it. But man, this just feels incomplete, like a TV show pulled from the schedule halfway through its first season, just as it was starting to get good. If it turns out that there is more, I’ll be happy to come back and re-evaluate. Otherwise, The King of Limbs will probably continue to stand out in my mind as the start of something good that was intentionally left unfinished.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Morning Mr Magpie $1
Little By Little $.50
Lotus Flower $1.50
Give Up the Ghost $1.50
Thom Yorke: Lead vocals, guitar, piano
Jonny Greenwood: Guitar, keyboards, piano
Ed O’Brien: Guitar, background vocals
Colin Greenwood: Bass
Phil Selway: Drums, percussion
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.