Radiohead: “The King of Limbs”

Even when their world has seemed to be at its darkest, Radiohead has always sounded like they had just a little bit of fight left in them. “I might be wrong,” Thom Yorke sang, ten years ago now, “but I thought I saw a light coming on.” Even “No Surprises,” their resigned consideration of a carbon monoxide handshake, was followed just two songs later with an admonition to “slow down”—as though maybe, just maybe, there’s still something we can do to escape an apocalypse of our own making.

But I think the fight may finally have left them, or else gone into deep hibernation. They’ve recorded a new eight-song album called The King of Limbs that feels, truthfully, like a slow curl into the fetal position. It’s a journey from clatter to contemplation, from anxiety to serenity. Consider the blare of horns that breaks through the noise of album opener “Bloom”—it’s just barely able to make its presence known amidst all the din. It reprises on the album’s second half, in a song called “Codex,” and here it’s clearer, more heroic even—but also quieter, more resigned.

I’m crazy about the eight-song length; all Radiohead albums seem purposeful, but this one is really stripped to the essentials. The medium is the message. Thom Yorke fights against the anxious rhythms and the furious tumult of the opening songs like he’s kicking against the empty sound and fury of modernity itself—though even here he seems a little tired, perhaps; why else would he begin his lyrics with a “universal sigh”?  By the time the first half comes to a close, with a song called “Feral,” he’s basically lost the ability to form words; the song isn’t quite instrumental, but it does seem to be essentially wordless.

The back section of the record skips the fighting altogether; it’s basically a last round of stretching before the hibernation. “Codex” is a pastoral piano ballad that extends to some nameless lover an invitation to escape—to dive into cool waters where there’s no one around. It’s probably the closest to invoking Astral Weeks mysticism Thom Yorke has ever come. After that: The acoustic quietude and Neil Young harmonics of a song called “Give Up the Ghost,” where Yorke’s voice seems like it’s slowly being blown away until only a whisper remains.

What I hear in these songs, though, isn’t an admission of defeat so much as a plea for some much-needed serenity—some quiet time for the soul. Or to put it another way, the rest sought in these songs isn’t the rest of the terminally bored, but of the weary fighter—and the implication is that it’s a rest that brings renewal. How else does one explain the album’s closing lines, already contentious among Radiohead fans? “If you really think it’s over, you’re wrong,” sings Yorke, not with defiance so much as a real peace about going away for a while. One gets the impression that he’s storing up his strength for a new assault on the darkness—that eventually he’ll be back to save the universe.

But if that’s the spiritual truth of King of Limbs—and I do feel like I’m on solid ground here, but, to once again invoke the band’s own words, I might be wrong—the musical reality is at once parallel and perhaps just a bit less fulfilling. Certainly, this isn’t a working holiday for Radiohead—the level of craft is too great for this to be taken as any kind of dip in quality—but it does represent something of a vacation from the constant push toward innovation that seemed to propel everything this band was doing ten years ago. The Radiohead that’s always looking to the future is nowhere to be found here; instead, they’re either surveying the present realities of British pop music (“Feral” is really just pure dubstep; I expect a James Blake remix any day now) or their own collective past (the Neil Young sound of “Give Up the Ghost,” the vintage Radiohead piano drama of “Codex”).

And all that’s fine with me, really it is, because frankly, I just don’t have as much interest in bands that seem like they’re being willfully difficult, at the cost of true enjoyment of their music. And it seems, at first, like this is the very path Yorke and Co. are going down with the knotty complexities and off-beat rhythms of “Bloom,” but the song’s unfolding is nothing if not logical (and true to its name), and the rest of the album follows suit: It’s intricate but not unmusical, and it carries the listener along rather than pushing the listener away. It’s a true journey in a way that even recent Radiohead albums haven’t always been.

I’m also pleased that the band is continuing to develop a sound that’s warm, romantic, tactile—dare I say sexy? Those qualities continue to make In Rainbows the most-played Radiohead album at my house, and King of Limbs sounds to me like a natural progression. But that doesn’t mean it’s as successful on those terms. Whatever you do, take the promotional video that accompanied the album—of Thom Yorke dancing his awkward white ass off to “Lotus Flower”—as something of a meta-irony; there’s little on this record that possesses that kind of physicality, and it is certainly not Radiohead’s dance album. In fact, some of their attempts at making it so result in their flattest music to date: “Good Morning Mr. Magpie” approximates the guitar tones of African blues and the rhythms of funk, but the mix is so one-dimensional that the song never achieves any kind of real groove, momentum, or seduction.

“Little by Little,” which follows, is much more successful, and honestly is my favorite thing here. The hooks on this one are insidious, but when they kick in they don’t let up; there’s something of a quality of jazz to it, but it comes alive just like a pop song. I like “Codex” well enough, too, though frankly, as watery piano ballads go, there’s little to set it apart from a song like “Videotape,” save for pure personal preference. The closing number, “Separator,” flows like a tranquil river, but it, too, reveals itself to be subtly hook-laden.

Still, Radiohead too often find themselves on the wrong side of the line that divides the intellectual funk of “Mr. Magpie” from the snappy rhythms that collide across “Little by Little”—with even the blustery rhythmic complexity of “Bloom” appealing to the brain even as it fails to convey any sort of physical punch, and the beauty of “Give Up the Ghost” seeming, somehow, intangible. Past Radiohead albums have always balanced music-geek intellectualism atop rock and roll scaffolding; In Rainbows began with the nervous-tic R&B of “15 Step,” still one of my favorites, and even Kid A infused its ethereal moodiness with vestiges of something the listener could hold on to—the apocalyptic dancefloor mayhem of “Idiotheque,” for example.

There is no mayhem on King of Limbs, however, nor is there anything even resembling rock and roll; they’ve never before ditched the idiom quite so fully, and in so doing they’ve made what is essentially a chill-out record of exquisite mood music, the kind that lingers in the mind due to the sheer expressiveness of it, but never really sinks its hooks in on a deeper level. It is a technically flawless record, but one in which the joy of making music is replaced by an almost burdensome sense of craftsmanship, the desire to make something Deep and Important. I truly do applaud them for their continued growth, make no mistake of that—but I must say that I hope they’re telling the truth when they say it isn’t over.

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2 responses to “Radiohead: “The King of Limbs””

  1. Rob Byrne says :

    I think what is missing here is that Radiohead see and hear beauty where others do not. Regardless of their current musical direction, the thread that binds is finding beauty in darkness…always hauntingly beautiful. They remain true to that.

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