Thursday, February 24, 2011

Review: The King of Limbs by Radiohead

The King of Limbs
XL/TBD Records
Release Date: February 18, 2011 (digital) / March 28, 2011 (CD/vinyl) / May 9, 2011 ("newspaper" edition)

If all you know about Radiohead is their 19-year-old (!) debut single “Creep”, then you quite simply do not know Radiohead. Radiohead have cemented themselves as one of the most consistently impressive bands around, dating all the way back to their sophomore release, 1995’s The Bends. Every single album since has been stellar, reinventing, refining and expanding their sound on every effort to make for a revolutionary and enthralling experience. This includes OK Computer (1997), one of the ‘90s best albums, and Kid A (2000), which is what many consider one of the best albums of the ‘00s. That’s one hell of a track record.

Their last LP, 2007’s In Rainbows, took the world by surprise (literally), by announcing its release a mere ten days beforehand and charging fans whatever they thought the album was worth to them. The pay-what-you-want tip cup payment method slightly overshadowed the album’s actual content at first, but soon enough, it became clear that they had done it again and released another fantastic album worthy of the Radiohead canon.

Four years later and here we go again: A four day head’s up followed by the worldwide, independent release of their eighth record, The King of Limbs. Although they did away with the optional payment, the impossible hype still surrounds the always-dazzling English quintet to deliver yet again.

So…did they?

Well, it’s not that easy to tell…yet. The album was released by the band Friday, February 18, so as of this writing, it has been out for under a week. Even with repeated listens since then, the longer-term impact of the record is still unclear. Still, it is a collection of songs like any other album and, greater implications aside, it can be analyzed as such.

The King of Limbs is easily Radiohead’s shortest LP to date, clocking in at a lean 37 minutes and a mere eight tracks long. The overall sound of the album seems thoughtfully restrained, as it never fully erupts or swells at any given point. Instead, there is the sense of instrumental precision, making every note worthwhile and noticeable. Of note, Phil Selway’s light and often times off-timing percussion is present on many of the album’s tracks. However, on most of these songs, it is Thom Yorke’s patented falsetto that stands out, working as an instrument in and of itself, entrancing the listener with whatever cryptic lyrics he sings.

Speaking of which, the album’s potential meaning is still murky. The album title may be a reference to a 1,000-year-old oak tree near where the band recorded In Rainbows. This unconfirmed fact, coupled with the numerous allusions to nature and the softer “feel” of the album, may imply contemplation about a return to simpler, natural roots. The eerie, propulsive instrumental track “Feral” plays out like its title suggests, like a once-domesticated animal escaping its confines to become wild and free again. Lead single and standout “Lotus Flower” finds a nice middle ground between solemnity and bombast, abiding to a more-normal structure and sound, encapsulating the listener with its effortless, chill-out vibe and Yorke’s standout vocals. In fact, many of the tracks tend to have the general sensibility of Radiohead’s previous slower, ballad-type songs, but each with different nuances. “Morning Mr. Magpie” gradually becomes foreboding and uncertain, whereas “Give Up The Ghost” is a fragile, haunting number with little more than an acoustic guitar strum and Yorke’s singing backed with a repeated falsetto of “Don’t hurt me”.

Simply put, it is easy to see how the album could be considered a disappointment or at least polarizing among longtime fans, especially when they are used to the band’s propensity for innovation. Even then, The King of Limbs is a great album. Like many great albums (and most of Radiohead’s previous works), it is not immediate. It is a sneaky record (partially due to the length), one that can be listened to ten times without notice. However, they will not be wasted listens: Each spin will have something new uncovered, as the relaxing, chilled-out subtleties of the album surround. Admittedly, it may still be one of Radiohead’s weakest albums, but considering their past, that very well makes it one of the year’s best. Many have considered The King of Limbs as a transitional album, somewhat like Amnesiac before it, bridging two fantastic, complete albums. In other words, don’t chalk this up as the downfall of one of rock’s elite. One of the last lines of the closer “Separator” is “If you think this is over / Then you’re wrong.” Let’s hope so.

Rating: 4/5