Radiohead - The King Of Limbs
Release Date: Feb 18th 2011/Mar 28th 2011
Label: Self-released/TBD Physical
A few years ago, my father wrote me a short story for my birthday. He’s not a writer and it was not what I asked for or expected. At the time, I couldn’t imagine how important the gift would become as the years passed. Looking back, I can’t even remember what I asked for that year. Radiohead’s The King of Limbs is the same sort of gift. The weight of expectation can blind us of how important something can become. When The King of Limbs became downloadable I made a promise to myself to hold off writing this review until I felt comfortable with the record. With each spin, the album became more of what it was and less of what I wanted it to be. Context is a killer and every record deserves to stand alone, judged on its own merits. Given a fair opportunity, The King of Limbs doesn’t just reveal itself as a welcomed member of the Radiohead discography – it flashes moments of Radiohead’s most impressive work to date.
The album opens with the tracks “Bloom” and “Morning Mr. Magpie” and immediately sets the tone for a new form of exploration concerning Radiohead’s sound. “Bloom” is heavy on looping, which creates the effect that even though the listener has pressed play (dropped the needle), the song hasn’t progressed past the first presented thought (it’s skipping). Just when the looping earns this emotional response, Thom Yorke’s voice glides in and takes the song forward. The result is a very interesting tug of war between feelings of progressing and those of remaining stuck. Ultimately, progress wins out, as Yorke’s voice floats louder and louder and new sounds gently introduce themselves. This point is emphasized in the last moments of the song, where repetition seems to win out, only to have a bass fiddle around for the last breath of the track, finally breaking up the loop.
“Morning Mr. Magpie” and “Little by Little” are much more comfortable tracks concerning the familiar Radiohead sound. While the presence of the loop still exists, these two tracks are not far departures from the band’s previous album, In Rainbows (compare “Morning Mr. Magpie” to “15 Step”) or the older Amnesiac (“Little by Little” to “Knives Out”). Then the album turns to “Feral,” a three-minute instrumental track with occasional vocal samples thrown in. If I had to pick a weak track on the album, it would be “Feral,” but concerning the movement and overall feel of the record, it works. On first listen (when opinions unfortunately start taking shape) one can’t help but be emotionally confused by the first four tracks. Radiohead gives the listener something new, something familiar, and a track that feels like filler. All the while, the music is being stacked against all previous attachments to the band’s two decades worth of songs. Radiohead is putting its own twist on the Kuleshov Effect. The band is changing the approach to their familiar sound by mixing in new elements and allowing the listeners’ expectations and desires to determine how it’s perceived.
If you can mentally sustain the twists and turns the first four tracks deliver, on the other side waits one of the best three track runs in Radiohead history. “Lotus Flower” is a delightfully odd track with its sonic assault of heavy looped drums and shifting noises acting as a backdrop to Yorke’s playfulness with his vocal responsibilities. Yorke is in complete control, and the ease with which he delivers emotions reminds the listener of why Radiohead has lasted while other bands have faltered and disappeared.
After “Lotus Flower” wraps up its slightly upbeat tune, time stops and “Codex” exists. I will start by saying that “Codex” is one of my favorite Radiohead songs in their discography. Good songs can paint an image of the world the music is trying to create. Great songs can make the listener feel as though they are living in that world. Every time I listen to “Codex” I feel myself at the edge of a cliff, overlooking a lake, nobody around, I jump in, cold water hits, nobody around, stillness, a giant lake, a little speck that’s me, a giant lake, nobody around. I can’t possibly know how you feel when listening to “Codex,” but every time I hear it, the song transports me to a place that only exists because of Radiohead. There are very few tracks in my life that accomplish this transportation, and when it happens I consider the song/album bigger than music itself.
The marvelous three-track run wraps up with “Give Up the Ghost,” which plays like a deconstructed and understated gospel song. There is an eerie call and response that creates the titular Ghost. The vocal call and response doubles and then triples as the song develops, creating a rich soundscape where the vocals and melodies meld as one to create a total feel rather than a collection of individual sounds. “Lotus Flower,” “Codex,” and “Give Up The Ghost” all feel attached to the environment, and ultimately come across as much more natural than the first four tracks, tracks that, by contrast, aim to achieve a level of irritation or confusion. Without the irritation of the first four tracks, the earthy and emotional tones of the next three tracks wouldn’t carry the same emotional impact that they do with the aid of the juxtaposition found in the track ordering.
One of the unfair criticisms of The King of Limbs is its length, clocking in at thirty-seven minutes. I’ve played this record all the way through countless times, and haven’t once felt short-changed. The first four tracks move fast, but then tracks five through seven refuse to abide by their listed time, as if time itself has no anchor in the second half of the album. I imagine this effect is even more powerful on a turntable, where the only indication of time is the needle spinning to the middle. If you don’t stare at the record player, I guarantee the album’s length will feel natural and complete.
The album closes with “Separator,” which Radiohead conspiracy theorist believe separates The King of Limbs from a second album to be released later this year. My take is that “Separator” acts as the divide between the first four tracks of sonic confusion against expectation and the natural, more environment-based tracks five through seven. “Separator” incorporates components from both sections of the album and slaps them on the same track to battle against each other. The track contains familiar pieces of every track that comes before it on the album. It feels like a marriage of sounds, a conclusion, and a great end to the record.
This is just my personal take. Radiohead’s music has lent itself to hundreds of theories and various explorations of meaning. Radiohead’s power as a band has always been in pushing the listener’s experience past the ears and deep into the mind. You can’t just listen to a Radiohead record – you have to work, find personal meaning, and then allow that meaning to define your relationship with each of their albums. I opened my mind and The King of Limbs found a cozy spot next to my other favorite Radiohead records. Mention The King of Limbs, and I picture the “Codex” lake. Every detail is crisp. Paul Gauguin is credited for one of my favorite quotes: “I shut my eyes in order to see.” On The King of Limbs, Radiohead allows me to see life in music, eyes opened or closed. It might not have been the gift I expected, but The King of Limbs has become the gift I would never trade.