Smile Politely

Review: Radiohead’s The King of Limbs

Cover ArtI am not a music critic, and I know nothing about music other than what I like. Take this entirely biased review of Radiohead’s new album, The King of Limbs, for what it is.

I am a fan of Radiohead, and I have been since the day I first heard “Creep” in 1993. I know that some don’t care for Radiohead, saying they are too morose and depressing, and that’s fine by me. For those of us who are morose and depressing, it makes our lives look like roses and rainbows. We’ve got history, Radiohead and me. From my college days to graduate school, from a tumultuous short-lived relationship with a girl named Stormi (ah, the irony) to my wonderful wife I’ve been with now for 10 years, it’s an 18-year relationship that predates all of that.

For those of you who might not have heard, Radiohead announced on Valentine’s Day that it would release a new album online on Saturday, Feb. 19th, just five days later. In fact, they released it a day early (2/18). It’s been a long three and a quarter years since we last had a full album-length Radiohead release. We’ve had snippets from them here and there with “These are My Twisted Words,” and solo releases by lead man Thom Yorke (“Hearing Damage,” “Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses,” or “The Present Tense“), drummer Phil Selway’s Familial and Johnny Greenwood’s classical music, including the soundtrack to movie There Will Be Blood. Heck, the diehards even had a cover album by various artists called Round the Bends, which featured acts like Alphabet Backwards singing “Sulk.”

With TKOL, gone is the “pay what it’s worth” approach Radiohead used for In Rainbows. This time, they went with a direct download at Two options were available: an mp3 for $9.00 or a higher quality WAV file for $14.00. You could also pre-order the newspaper album with two 10″ vinyl records and a CD, with a delivery due date in May.

Jeff Brandt at Exile on Main Street says this about availability locally:

Exile will certainly carry TKOL when it is finally released on CD and LP in March. We carried In Rainbows when they basically did the same thing a few years back, and still sold a number of copies despite the digital download being around for a month or two beforehand. The CD/LP release date, as far as I’ve heard, is March 29th. Unlike the major labels, they have found a way to control the release of their music in all formats, in addition to showing that you can release things quickly to the public, so I can’t fault them for that.

Some diehard fans may have heard some songs on TKOL before. “Give Up the Ghost,” for example, was posted online in 2010, and Yorke played “Lotus Flower” live way back in 2009. I wonder if this is the danger of the digital age we live in; with bands testing new material, videos going viral in the groupie circles, “new” material is old the moment it is released. That being said, it’s good to hear the final product. This album is typical Radiohead, which meant I hated it the first two times I heard it, then I was rewarded on turn number three, when it all became clearer, if not entirely clear. The album is a short 37:29, which, as you’ll see later, might suggest a part two is in the offing.

Brandt says:

I have listened to the album a lot in the last week, as I sprung for the limited edition version they were offering through their website. It’s sad I won’t be able to carry that version in Exile, but I’m still a pretty big fan of theirs so I wanted the bells and whistles of the limited one. I think it is a good album, but I’m not sure if I would put it amongst their best, and it seems like a comfy step sideways for both the band and the fans. It’s certainly not breaking any new ground for them, but no one has to do that with every single album if you ask me.

Rumor is rampant online that this is only part one of a broader work. For a fuller report of that speculation, look at this guy’s blog. He’s put a lot of thought into this, and it’s really kind of scary.

Brandt’s thoughts on a second album are more tempered:

I’ve heard that too. I think the limited edition version is two 10″ records, so that implies there might be more music included, or just wasted space on the vinyl. There has been a trend to split up the release of an album into pieces going on for a while now in the record industry. I’m not a big fan of it, but it is a symptom of declining physical media sales and it can help create more buzz for artists when done right. If this is the case with this with TKOL, I’ll be interested to see if they charge more for the rest of the album, or if they’ll give it away for free to the people who thought they paid for the whole album.

TKOL is short, in my opinion, but Brandt thinks differently: “Thirty-eight minutes is long enough to be a full-length album if you ask me, and I know The Ramones would agree. The idea that an album has to be 55 to 75 minutes is a product of the age of CDs. Album length has always pretty much been dictated by the limitations of the format of the day if that makes sense,” he said.

The King of Limbs

The key to “Bloom” is its use of electronic drums, ridiculously complex to my untrained ears. I can’t wait to hear this live. The eastern influence in Thom’s voice is apparent.

“Morning Mr Magpie”
Subtle guitars open “Morning Mr Magpie,” and they’re there throughout. Johnny Greenwood’s use of sound strikes me here. It’s not guitar, it’s everything else. The song ends with birds, though they’re clearly digitally cycled through the use of other sounds.

“Little by Little”
Where “Morning Mr Magpie” is subtle guitars, you’re slapped in the face with too many complex sounds at the start of “Little by Little.” It’s off-putting. Yet, it’s undeniably sexy, like “15 Steps” from In Rainbows.

“Feral” is just that — wild, untamed, and raw. It starts with a light snare drum that becomes more complicated. Digital voices come in, almost sounding like the rhythmic hum from Contact, the movie, when aliens send a message to Earth in a Nazi-era recording. The song is instrumental.

“Lotus Flower”
A deep bass sound opens “Lotus Flower.” This single is intimately danceable in a Radiohead sense of the word. Movement without form.

“Codex” is TKOL‘s “Videotape,” “How to Disappear Completely,” “Fog,” or “True Love Waits.” It’s slow, piano filled, and dark. This will be the breath of life we diehards have been waiting for three+ years to hear.

“Give Up the Ghost”
We’ve heard “Give up the Ghost” before, yet in its finished form, it does justice to the experimentation of those earlier versions.

Upbeat, “Separator” opens lightly, and strikes me as too light for an end. I hope the speculation is right, that there is more to come.

TKOL seems nuanced to my ear and amazingly complicated. It’s best listened to with headphones plugged in, the volume cranked up loud, the lights turn off, and the world rejected. That happens to be how Radioheads like it.

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