Revisited: Radiohead – The King of Limbs

If the painfully vague reports are to be believed, we haven’t long before Radiohead deliver their next album sometime this year. Given their track record, anticipating its arrival would be heavily redundant if they stick to the marketing ploy of announcing its release a few days, or in the case of The King of Limbs, a mere few hours before. What separates, or may separate the next instalment is that unlike the transition between 2003’s Hail to the Thief and 2007’s In Rainbows, the band’s latest effort has wiped the slate marginally cleaner, considering the number of times the formula has been burned and rekindled.

Whereas In Rainbows saw the band heavily refine and embolden their core duality of merging the electronic with the organic to produce a stellar record that rivalled both OK Computer and the neo-apocalyptic Kid A, their last effort fell upon welcoming ears but has largely been played down as too minimal and abstract, or as the NME described ‘a thin return after too long a wait’. A hasty dismissal indeed.
Over last 20 years, followers of Thom et al have been pretty spoiled both emotionally and artistically, and as a result anything the band releases below the Olympic bar that has been set will naturally be a little unsatisfactory. Though it is by no means their best work, lacking the lyrical gravitas of Computer and the graceful cohesion of Rainbows, the album remains curiously under-appreciated four years on.

‘Bloom’ takes a confident step into the wilderness with an already unfamiliar element – hasty piano looping in a ghostly and schizoid meander, suffocating under glitches and clattering drums which seem to topple down the stairs trying to find a digestible rhythm. This continues for around 30 seconds until Colin’s slinky bass-line makes its naturally elusive appearance, providing the missing link to contain the entropy. Then, out of the shadows rises Thom’s voice, which after an initial solemnity climbs to an extraordinary height, not in its pitch but its energy. As for the chaos, it never seems to let up, even as angelic horns and chirping birds approach. Instead, they simply elevate this glorious pandemonium to the ethereal as Thom declares, with suitable reverb, “I’m moving out of orbit”.

Under scrutiny, already there are parallels to be drawn with In Rainbows. Track 2, ‘Morning Mr. Magpie’ rivals ‘Bodysnatchers’ in its tight visceral menace, albeit pared with near uncomfortable restraint, unlike the latter that slips into a sultry, looser groove near the end. Both tracks also seem to burst forth from the dwindling reverb of their predecessor. ‘Magpie’ adheres to the album’s established pattern, creating muddied rhythms for you to twist your way around to unearth the groove, which proves all the more rewarding once found. Thom’s voice takes the helm, burning ferociously within the first two verses before sinking to a more muted depth. Track 3 ‘Little by Little’ demands a couple of listens, but you eventually embrace the wildness of its ramshackle, caterpillar-like core, like vines wrapping themselves around you. Once you’ve been caught by it, the rickety percussion infects your muscles with a slow and weighty funk and you remember this is Radiohead – they’re never going to give you the easy option.

“Good day for a stroll in the woods, fellas…”

Throughout Side 1 of the album, the rhythm section is, without an inkling of surprise from the listener here, on understated but nonetheless superb form. The incisive layers of percussion confirm both Phil Selway’s unwavering talent and versatility, a beast of precision ready to adapt and mutate. Not to mention the elder Greenwood’s catlike bass lines that dart and slide one minute and pulsate sinisterly the next. All in all, this makes for an incredibly solid first side, albeit with a somewhat muggy and at times slightly overbearing production. Feral is no means a bad track, but it is a track rather than a song if that makes sense. It furthers the use of Thom’s voice as simply another instrument to be manipulated and sampled and establishes the album’s sonic persona even more. Perhaps this is its downfall. While consistent with the rest of the album, peppered with nifty samples and layering of textures, by and large, this is done artfully, never distracting you from the rhythm. Simply put, ‘Feral’ marks the sole occasion where the band fail to let their new formula feel organic. Maybe that was the intention but at the end of the day who the *** knows what these guys are thinking? I mean, they named the album after a tree…

Thom Yorke has never been partial to the explicit discussion of his lyrics and this stance is ever-present in the King of Limbs. The major distinction one can make for King of Limbs, however, is that the lyrics are in many ways alien to the bluer themes of every album that has come before it, maybe with the exception of In Rainbows which brewed more downbeat romance. There is no reference to the modern age on TKOL, carrying on from the personal tone of its predecessor. One can make an educated guess for the reason for ‘The Daily Mail’ not making the final cut – TKOL prefers to be apolitical and instead dabbles in more abstract ideas, maybe even – dare I say it – spiritual.

“Slowly we unfurl, as lotus flowers”

Forgive me, as I may be treading into the pseudo-intellectual waters. Many have already interpreted the Buddhist allusions in ‘Lotus Flower’ and ‘Bloom’, the latter dealing in themes of rebirth. Ocean imagery is a penchant of Thom’s, recalling the abyss of ‘Weird Fishes’ that seemed to represent depression or crippling uncertainty. In ‘Bloom’, the ocean serves as a metaphor for rebirth. Likewise, the lotus in Buddhism is a symbol of fortune, ‘rising and blooming above the murk of suffering to achieve self-awareness and enlightenment’. This seems too far the bat for the same band that peddled the scathing sarcastic mantra of “God loves his children, yeah…” on ‘Paranoid Android’, but these allusions are opaque enough to avoid giving the game away and perhaps remain purely metaphorical. On the surface, it seems sensible to remain dubious, since both could just be winking meta statements on the band’s creative direction.

Not to downplay the great songs already described, the best tracks have clearly been savoured for Side 2 of the album. We begin with the subterranean buzz of ‘Lotus Flower’, evolving into a muted, but nonetheless incessant groove. Aided by succinct hand claps and eerie loops bubbling up from the relentless drumbeat, forget ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’; this is Radiohead at their most danceable.

Next up is ‘Codex’, the first in the album’s golden triptych. By the time I chose to give the album a second chance, I found myself dozing off on the bus. I was already familiar with ‘Lotus Flower’, considering it the exception among a self-indulgent bad lot. So imagine the wonderment – Thom’s angelic voice emerging quickly out of the shadows only to be abruptly clipped, briefly distracting you before the piano announces itself. We may as well start calling it ‘Pyramid Song II’ as it deals with the same water imagery and message of purifying oneself through a cathartic plumbing of the depths. Only instead of a river’s ruthless flow, the speaker jumps off the edge “into a clear lake”. This particular lake is unmatched in its serenity, haunted by a warbling piano muffled beneath the atmosphere, rooted at the seabed. The vocals tremble with a yearning for new beginnings, marking a return for Radiohead’s familiar raw emotion, only with a touch more certainty. The flugelhorn from Bloom returns from the silence and begins the ascension before the indecisive chords refrain and sink gently back down to earth. The speaker’s fate is left ambiguous, and all that remains is innocuous birdsong as we segue into the penultimate track.

‘Give Up The Ghost’ is a humble acoustic ballad founded on a couple of sustained chords and a falsetto loop. Delicate but profound, the chords are sparse but played with graceful restraint. This was another track I initially found somewhat bland and perplexing, but eventually its pleasantness was too hard to resist. Radiohead are no strangers to an acoustic ballad, i.e. ‘Bulletproof…’ from The Bends, which couldn’t help from flowering into blissful arpeggios. Thom is stripped pretty bare here, begging the question of what is this ‘ghost’? A failed relationship, or maybe wider analogy for Thom’s signature cynicism? Or am I reading an unhealthy amount into this fairly downbeat, modest acoustic number? Perhaps. I’m no music historian, just a big fan.

The closer, ‘Separator’, however, could confirm this theory. The first minute or two are modest, refined bass and an addicting drum beat as Thom echoes thoughts of awakening from a “long and vivid dream”, and being free from a kind of burden. Then Ed and Johnny’s guitars step in, after an absence from side 2 from which you thought they may not return. Dreamy and vivacious, they draw the album from its delicate state of melancholy and take it up a slight notch as not to upset its impeccable balance and poise. It does, however, serve as a reminder that there have been no guitar solos and the overall use of the instrument has been disciplined, so by the time the album’s drawing to a close the guitar vies for attention against Thom’s soulful demands to be woken up, the end result being sublime in a sly and wholly unanticipated manner. One can’t resist drawing the dots when the limited release of the album comes with a sheet of blotter paper (Thom in years past expressed an adamant refusal to dabble in psychedelics) as if to suggest that they might have jumped aboard the electric Kool-Aid wagon, and it’s brought them peace of mind.

The King of Limbs sees Radiohead at another crossroads, comfortably experimenting without pushing the boat out too much. But is this such a bad thing? In fact, the band manages to explore their wildness and mutation by incorporating patterns and subtle homages to their previous work, retaining its place in the pantheon and complementing the more adventurous moments. Although this doesn’t damage its unique nature, it prevents it from achieving the standalone status of the other classics. One could draw a comparison to Amnesiac off of the back of Kid A, having the similar structure of electronic rock with dashes of traditional Radiohead (think of the transition between Packt Like Sardines to Pyramid Song), but that still falls short as The King of Limbs ignores the highs of In Rainbows almost entirely and is content doing its own thing, even if it doesn’t know exactly what that is except the notion in itself. This is what separates the album in spirit – its general lack of certainty but not confidence. In an era where rock music is somewhat flagging, Radiohead retain their importance due to the progressive and experimental nature written into their DNA. They’ve changed the game so much you think we’d be tired by now of speculating, but whether the next album will have us jumping into a clear lake, having given up the ghost of the past remains as unclear as ever.

That may be the album’s flaw – think about it too much and it becomes a transitory album, a symbol of flux. By embracing it, we are able to simply wake up from our arrogant expectations and bear witness to musical mastery, maybe not at the top of its game, but in its unbridled brilliance nonetheless. So relax, and let it unfurl and grow on you. Radiohead aren’t going anywhere.

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