Radiohead – The King Of Limbs (2011)

Another Radiohead album, another novel release format.  Announced pretty suddenly, The King Of Limbs marks the Oxford quintet’s eighth album, still helmed by the inestimable Nigel Godrich, and this time, named after a tree, no less.

The album kicks off with ‘Bloom’, which has echoes of Amnesiac‘s ‘Like Spinning Plates’.  Washes of ondes-martenot (I think) seep through a circular, shuffling drum pattern and the almost expected bubbling electronics, which here seems to have replaced Colin Greenwood’s bass guitar completely. Following on directly, ‘Morning Mr Magpie’ has a strong melodic hook – pulsing beats and burbling guitars support a strong vocal from Yorke, with some thinly veiled political thoughts behind the magpie metaphor (‘You stole it all, give it back/good morning Mr Magpie).

From this, though, ‘Little By Little’ emerges – a brilliant tune, one which could easily attain earworm status.  Taking the woozy New Orleans-via-Oxfordshire vibe from Hail To The Thief’s more ‘rock’ moments and nearly swinging with groove, ‘Little By Little’ is a rarity on this album: a proper song. Yorke is a brilliant songwriter, but by pushing himself away from the song since OK Computer, he’s proved it – when he and Radiohead come back to something with a recogniseable structure, and lyrics that almost make sense, he pulls out gems (‘Optimistic’, ‘All I Need’, ‘Sail To The Moon’).  The closest parallel I can draw, sonically, would be to the genius of ‘Life In A Glasshouse’ – without Humphrey Lyttleton. By front-loading the album with quicker, structured songs, the danger is not burn-out, but fizzle-out.

Next comes the jerky edge of ‘Feral’. Song-titling seems to be something of a bete-noir for Radiohead – either completely off the wall, or utterly descriptive – always memorable, if not always understandable.  They don’t sound particularly wild here, more as if an experiment with a sampler went wrong: Yorke’s vocals are cut up and thrown around the place, without there being much of a structure.  With such a slimline album, you’d be forgiven for expecting there not to be any filler, but this doesn’t feel part of a post-millenial sweeping angsty statement, more a twisted flailing attempt to sound edgy.

‘Lotus Flower’, though, is a strong mix of the old and new – musicians and computers – and there’s a dark vibe here that reflects the listening charts on the Radiohead office blog. Plenty of IDM and dubstep nods abound, from the skittering beats to the sub-bass; once again, the use of proper vocals, and probably some focus on nailing a good tune down lead to a really good tune, and one which exposes the album’s main flaw: Radiohead can’t lose.  Whatever they release will be bought by the bucketloads, and this gives them the freedom to experiment: on the one hand, they can find new sounds, new modes of expression and make serious strides forward; on the other hand, they don’t always focus so much on honing these ideas into something listenable.

Ever since ‘Idioteque’, the biggest problem with the out-and-out ‘dance’ tracks is the rarity of a crescendo, or a climax. Simply, as sung on ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’, the beat goes on and on (and on and on and on) – no slow segues a la Kid A, this time, but sudden, jarring jumps.

A good example is ‘Codex’, which sashays in on a bed of brooding pianos and a simple background pulse.  Slowly building through ethereal processed vocals, harking back to the darkest and most impenetrable bits of Kid A, the song takes a left turn when Thom Yorke starts to really sing – now, it’s Radiohead starting to sound a little like Coldplay.Keeping it simple sometimes works wonders, as ‘Videotape’ showed last time out.

The continuing use of birdsong throughout the album was no doubt inspired by the titular tree,  and ‘Give Up The Ghost’ picks the standard back up, in that there’s something the listener can work with.  For the first time on The King Of Limbs, Radiohead sound like a band, like five men turning up to a studio and recording music, instead of Thom Yorke-and-friends, dialling in contributions over email. Along with ‘Codex’ and ‘Bloom’ this could be played live, or at least noticed amid the squall of electronics and noise. Unfortunately, the song goes on far too long, leading out with more cut-up processed noise.

‘Separator’, the final track, is nothing particularly new. There’s a nice melody, but the beats sound tired, the vocals disinterested. The only saving grace is Coling Greenwood’s bass guitar – the man somehow finds a constant source of groove when all around him seem to be treading water. Even the final guitar line, which by now I’m assuming is Ed O’Brien (as Greenwood Jr seems to spend more time doing anything other than playing guitar) fails to lift this beyond the status quo.

It’s a pity, as In Rainbows promised a renaissance for Radiohead, as did ‘These Are My Twisted Words’ and ‘Harry Patch’ – what you have here is an inconsistent EP with too much padding.

6/10 – even treading water complacently, they still are head and shoulders above the competition.

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2 thoughts on “Radiohead – The King Of Limbs (2011)

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