What an age we live in. On Valentine’s Day, Radiohead announced they would be digitally releasing a new album five days later. Four days later, they released the bugger early. A pleasant surprise and a timely reminder of just how the game is changing in the music industry.
But, the music is all, and so this review is centring on the actual tunes, not the earth-shattering ramifications of the whys and wherefores of the release of the album. However it gets into your ears, Radiohead have given us another album, their eighth: The King of Limbs.
The significance of Radiohead’s last album In Rainbows musically is that it’s the Radiohead album for people who don’t like Radiohead: those turned off by the obtuse and difficult (though masterful) Kid A, or the paranoid frenzy of OK Computer could find solace in the warm, enchanting, and downright pretty In Rainbows. The band had reinvented themselves yet again, and once again critics and the paying public had responded positively.
In spirit and aesthetic, The King of Limbs is closest to its immediate predecessor, 2007’s undeniable masterpiece In Rainbows (and the quietly-released adjunct, the underrated collection In Rainbows Pt. II). “Little By Little” is musically in the same vein and lyrical ballpark as “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” and “Codex” brings to mind “Last Flowers” from In Rainbows Pt II.
So, 2011 finds Radiohead not ripping up the rulebook, but instead refining and reorganising their sound. The King of Limbs is easily the most subtle and understated Radiohead album to date, and on the first couple of listens it can feel as though the album doesn’t go to many places or take many chances; there are no real booty-shakers like “Bodysnatchers,” no stand-out anthems like “Paranoid Android” or “Just,” no moments of startling beauty like “Pyramid Song.”
However, perseverance will reap rewards. Any great album reveals itself by degees, and The King of Limbs is no exception. Conceptually, the album’s lyrics deal with a number of themes: obsession (such as the seductive playfulness of the call on “Morning Mr. Magpie” that “You’re such a tease, I’m such a flirt”); indulgence (“All I want is the moon upon a stick”), and hints of a dark undertone of imprisonment, observation, and subjugation – the chilling refrain of “How are we today?” calls to mind the inhuman Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, ironically on “Morning Mr. Magpie,” a Radiohead song also named after a bird.
Musically, the album is an understated marvel. Though it feels on the first listen like a largely electronic and processed affair, guitars actually work as the fulcrum of pretty much the entire record: Johnny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien weave their guitar lines around the edges and through the centres of songs, binding the sound together without dominating it at all. Dave Navarro, take note.
As a whole, the album’s music is the aural equivalent of a Stanley Kubrick film: there’s nothing there that isn’t adding to the whole, and there are no redundant elements. It’s a beautifully-restrained record that needs repeat listens with a bloody good pair of headphones to fully appreciate. As always, credit has to go Nigel Godrich, uber-producer and craftsman of the Radiohead experience. Once again, he’s taken Radiohead’s music and helped to push it to another level.
If you’re not a Radiohead fan, or you actively dislike them, In Rainbows is the record with which to induct yourselves into the Oxford five-piece. If, like me, you were champing at the bit to get your grubby mitts on another slice of fabulousness from one of the world’s greatest artists, then don’t delay in downloading the record from their website for a paltry $9. Sit down, turn your phone off, get those massive headphones of yours on, strap yourself in, and let it wash over you a few times. Radiohead’s evolution from album to album – like the great David Bowie – shows no sign of slowing. Like Thom himself says on album closer “Separator,” “If you think this is over then you’re wrong.”