No-one wants to be responsible for the follow-up to a six-strong run of consistently great records, and yet this is where Radiohead find themselves, releasing their next LP in a string of success that dates back so far that Thom Yorke (the wise, present day incarnation) could be father to himself (the unbecoming, blonde hair extensions incarnation). Suffice to say, that would be pretty weird.
Let’s start with the basics. The King of Limbs has, well, remarkably few limbs; this is pretty much as stylistically bound as Radiohead have ever dared be. The tracks, in the first half of this record especially, all bleed into one another. It’s not that they lack distinction per se, just that they share many of the same fundamentals. The first is rhythm: the beats are choppy, thick and fast, and are almost comprehensively unnaturally sourced (poor old Phil Selway). The whole affair is also decidedly unmelodic for Radiohead, especially by the most recent standards of In Rainbows. Don’t be mistaken, there are melodies and hooks to grab onto, but they tend to lie deep within the mire, and rarely show any intent for serious progression – they play second in command to the album’s most essential quality, texture. It’s terrifically dense and tricky. Sounds shift in ways that you can’t quite put your finger on, sonic space is crunched and distorted at will, and stereo sound is used to its widest potential. This textural dance is made possible only by the irrepressible presence of Colin Greenwood on bass, who doesn’t so much provide a stable foundation for the record as relentlessly propel it forward.
Primarily due to this emphasis on texture, the closest relation in the band’s catalogue is probably Amnesiac.* This is good news for some (Amnesiac is a disjointed, enigmatic, Frankenstein’s monster of a record) and bad for others (it’s also debatably Radiohead’s least popular LP). Looking further afield, The King of Limbs has Warp Records written all over it, and bears the various IDM/dubstep crossover footprints typical of the artists we’ve seen the band champion again and again, and of which Flying Lotus and Burial are noteworthy examples.
The appropriately titled ‘Bloom’ opens the record and continues the fine tradition of a band seemingly incapable of stuttering at the starting pistol. It rumbles into action with a fluttering piano sample, percussive twitches jutting across the landscape, eventually opening up into an almost slack-jawed, lazy bassline and Thom Yorke’s otherworldly, hypnotic purr. It’s very reminiscent of Four Tet, but it also has a decidedly Björkian edge. ‘Morning Mr Magpie’, which dates all the way back to 2002, unfortunately falls a little flat in comparison, but sits well enough in the groove of the record and is more than worth it for the menacing and contemptuous refrain, “good morning, Mr Magpie, how are we today” and its fitting conclusion, “they’ve stolen all my magic, took my melody” (we can begin to understand why this track chose this moment to re-emerge from Radiohead folklore).
‘Little By Little’ is a curious number with a distinctive clockwork rhythm and an ominous climbing guitar line. It’s veritably teeming with detail. It’s followed by ‘Feral’, probably the most testing song here but also one of the most exciting. Thom Yorke’s voice courses through it, but in oblique, sudden bursts, as if he were playing call and response with the convulsing, scattered beat. He matches the percussion every step of the way; a subtle inflection here, a processed, Burialesque gasp for air there. It’s deadly brilliant stuff. Taking the tempo down a notch whilst turning up the temperature, ‘Lotus Flower’ is a delightful and somewhat sexy shimmer through the flickering of synthetic flames and a steady, shuddering bassline. It bears a passing resemblance to Clinic at their most horizontal, and is probably the first genuinely “accessible” moment to be had.
Next up is ‘Codex’, which rather extraordinarily channels the wistful melancholy of Oasis (yes, such a thing does exist) through the lens of ‘Pyramid Song’ (no, really) – the result is a track that aches and soars with a certain majesty, an intimate and worthy comedown after a claustrophobic first side. But after so successfully negotiating a change of pace, it’s in the next track that Radiohead lose their way. ‘Give Up The Ghost’ is the type of song that requires extensive melodic development, on a record that strictly forbids it, and as such, it jars terribly here. There will be a small subsection of fans who vehemently maintain that it’s one of the few good tracks on The King of Limbs, but stick it in the midst of In Rainbows (the record, after all, in which it’s aesthetic belongs) and even they would probably recognise how thinly it spreads; it’s the dull sister track of ‘House of Cards’, which was nondescript enough in the first place and definitely doesn’t need to be reborn elsewhere in an altogether more stunted form. I quite enjoyed watching Thom Yorke perfect the embarrassing middle-aged man in the video for ‘Lotus Flower’. It’s best for all concerned that his music doesn’t go down the same avenue – or at least, let’s keep it to the B-sides, where ‘Giving Up The Ghost’ would be a pleasant surprise rather than a regrettable turn for the worst.
The misstep is righted by the charming ‘Separator’, which as far as closing tracks go is very much understated but undeniably excellent. It’s the most melodic song on the record but it’s never forced, embracing the large open spaces that were so intensely suffocated up until ‘Codex’. Bizarrely, in a comparison that will probably result in me opening my door tomorrow morning to thousands of middle-class Radiohead fans each replete with their own brown satchel bag and pitchfork, it really reminds me of Parachutes-era Coldplay. It’s an odd conclusion to a record like this, but you know what? It works, like day materialising from a long, cold night..
Radiohead have long been experts in the field of doing whatever they damn well please, and The King of Limbs is as good an example of that as any. There will be those who doubtless object to the contents, but by now, hopefully we can all agree that this band have earned enough of our respect to allow them that liberty. They are the same fantastic thing, the Radiohead that surprise and amaze, and the Radiohead that so doggedly frustrate – if this record isn’t for you, you should be glad they’re still capable of both after so many years. It deserves to be well loved. It’s a living, breathing, wholly organic record, abundantly complex and tenaciously committed to its blueprint. It will never be their most popular release, but when it comes to Radiohead, that’s not necessarily such a bad thing. “If you think this is over then you’re wrong” they flirt coquettishly in ‘Seperator’, and for once it looks like this band plan to wrong foot us for many more years yet to come. Here’s to that future, and here’s to The King of Limbs – a really old tree, apparently, but also a staggering, endearingly dextrous record.
* Incidentally, Amnesiac was bought for me by my Grandmother, which is somewhat irrelevant to this review, but to this day remains so utterly incomprehensible to me that it deserves sharing.
Shaun Russell is a writer, musician and curator of wearethreadbare.com.