Album Review: Radiohead – The King Of Limbs

I’d like you to watch this. Even go to YouTube if you have to.

Beavis and Butt-head might be are a pair of grunting idiots, but in a way, I kind of agree with them about Radiohead. Kid A was phenomenal, but OK Computer and The Bends were both commendable in their own right. And yeah, In Rainbows was pretty solid, but Hail to the Thief was spotty at best, and Amnesiac never made an impression. For me at least, Radiohead’s better when “Yes, yes, rooooooooooock, yeahyeahyeahyeah!” is applicable (ignoring Pablo Honey).

That said, I preordered The King of Limbs the day it was announced, and downloaded it after breakfast. And 37 minutes later as “Separator” came to a close, I felt on edge; at first The King of Limbs felt, well, limp.

This album truly is a grower. Part of that might be that Radiohead’s previous album, In Rainbows, was their most accessible work to date, and The King of Limbs feels more insular than Kid A. On the first few listens, it’s difficult to really discern any changes between any of the first three songs. Each one begins with a skittering beat, looped synths, and there’s a lot of Amnesiac pulling through, or Thom Yorke’s solo album The Eraser. It’s all very electronic.

“Bloom” was a perfect choice for an opener. The scattered piano chords, ambient noise, and most of all that perpetually falling beat make for an arresting, calmly urgent song. “Bloom” also has a nice swell to it a little over midway though; strings and synths come in and the song goes from ok to gorgeous before gracefully ending.  “Morning Mr Magpie” takes a time out around the two-minute mark to become a quiet jam session before coming full circle to a close.

“Little By Little” passes by without much incident, and the nearly instrumental “Feral” benefits from the downright tribal drumbeat (and being mostly instrumental). Next is “Lotus Flower”, you know, the one with the video of Thom Yorke dancing (and it is hilarious) is probably the most fully formed song on TKOL. The bass line is outright catchy, there’s variation to the drums, and that vocal melody is excellent.

From there out, we get some real variation in the album’s last three songs. “Codex” is as haunting as any Radiohead ballad, and is placed perfectly after giddy “Lotus Flower”. “Give Up the Ghost” focuses on layered vocals and folksie acoustic guitar, and the combination is hypnotic. Closer “Separator” is a delightful mix of the rest of the album; good beats and a few tasteful loops, but it’s also a kinetic song on its own.

If the track-by-track seemed hasty, that’s because The King Of Limbs is best taken as a whole. If I had to pin down the focus of the record, it would be on atmosphere; most of these songs serve as excellent background music. And it’s a well-textured album, too; everything is truly in its right place. Also, and this is different from Radiohead, it’s also fairly upbeat (as best seen on “Separator”).

That said, this album’s a little empty. As “Separator” ends, I can’t help but ask “Is this it?” I’m not the only one; apparently there’s a fan conspiracy theory that what we have is only half the album and the rest will follow soon (this is probably wishful, albeit credible, thinking). The King of Limbs really has to grow on you, too. I’ve given in about a dozen straight listens with two or three more on shuffle (more than my usual), and it wasn’t until Round 7 or so that I really picked out what I liked.

But almost immediately I could tell what I didn’t like. The relative brevity of the album and lack of variety dulled some of my enthusiasm, and only a few of the songs really go anywhere past their initial setup. It’s also incredibly underwhelming emotionally. I could reference older songs, but even 21st century Radiohead had emotional bite; “All I Need” and “Harry Patch (In Memory Of)” are examples of that, and there’s none here. The inaccessibility seems to have turned a lot of people off, too; I know I only opened up to it because I made myself listen to it a few more times.

But still, what it does it does well, 3/5 stars.

About bgibs122

I enjoy music and music culture; I hope you do, too.
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