CD Review: Radiohead “The King of Limbs”

Little by Little: A lesson in experimentation and expectation.

Radiohead stay true to never giving their fans what they might expect and as such, it’s best not to have any expectations or make any predictions. At first listen, The King Of Limbs sounds like Thom Yorke’s solo album The Eraser, or a watered down version of Radiohead. The release lacks the diversity of some of their previous albums. For example, the full spectrum of sounds on In Rainbows, an album so well received it isn’t surprising the reaction to the follow-up has included some disappointment.

The third track, “Little by Little,” sums up the album for me thus far  – it crept up on me, as some would argue many of Radiohead’s best albums have had a tendency to. This release is subtle and sneaky, much like its release was. Initially rather simple sounding, with a notably minimalist approach, The King of Limbs managed to grow on the faster song inclined listener I happen to be.

Radiohead’s sound always remains their own, working with signature traits acquired and developed over time, (the end of “Separator” sounds Ok-Computer-esque, while “Bloom” is reminiscent of the first tracks off In Rainbows and Hail to the Thief) each release from the band also always reflects a subtle change, through melding sounds and approaches of the past to different degrees while pushing slightly in new directions.

A musician I know referred to this as not so much an album as a looser entity. A collection of songs that at its best perhaps hopes to make a statement about process and what it means to play with elements, pointing to how all acts of creativity are experiments. There is a sense these songs are transient, a reminder of how each album is a part of any band’s larger history. Basically, this release is not nearly as epic, final or lengthy as Radiohead’s previous work, and anyone hoping it is, is likely to feel thwarted. But can we blame the band? Who has been lucky enough to earn a rare kind of freedom – being able to put out whatever they want to, however they want to with little to nothing to lose?

Small sounds flicker, rustle and beep beneath a shuffle of broken beats, giving the album a simultaneous sense of flux and constancy. As a fan of faster-paced more guitar-driven songs, I do think this album would benefit from some more payoff, elements building and culminating in more powerful, affective moments (as in the band’s past releases). Instead, intentionally it seems, there are few exceptionally moving peaks.

Often anticlimactic, these songs seem to hover on the horizon. Merging elements of jazz, off-beat experimental and ambient electronic music, the bulk of the album relies on low throbbing bass lines, unconventional time signatures and loop-like guitar parts, the organic elements so tight they feel nearly synthetic, mechanic.

The irregular beat created not only by the rhythm section, but the guitar itself, creates an overall jittery feel and is prominent in most songs, including the fervent “Morning Magpie” and the pushing and pulling, Gloaming-esque “Feral”.

“Little by Little” sounds like typical Radiohead, sliding guitar sounds, Yorke crooning like a cat. Like many of the songs on the album, the song relies on pared down bass and guitar, while the metallic rhythmic elements create momentum.

The first single “Lotus Flower” is one of the most conventional songs on the album. Somewhat catchy, but never advancing far beyond its starting point, it sets the pace for what to expect on the The King of Limbs. Yorke’s erratic dancing to such an uneventful song is a good indication that anything extraordinary is not to be found in this collection of songs. Contrary to Yorke’s dance moves, the music isn’t spazzy – it’s smooth and soft occasional organ inflects the song with a transcendent, spiritual feel.

“Bloom” has an infectious beat and a flutter of piano that reaches toward previously noteworthy Radiohead moments. The track sounds like Bjork, punctuated by occasional horns. The elements that initially seems to bump up against each other, start to bump along with each other.

“Codex” is a melancholy, yet somewhat romantic sounding piano ballad, featuring Yorke’s hazy vocals singing like an old soul, while “Separator” is one of the album’s more ‘upbeat’ songs, containing one of the most pleasant climaxes on the album, overlapping vocals echo over a backdrop of playful, lighter guitar parts.

This is certainly not Radiohead’s most solid or noteworthy release, and it’s not a drastic change in terms of their sound. Yet the album remains difficult to pin down and different than other new music out there right now. While The Rock and Roll Report is devoted to bands neglected by the mainstream media, Radiohead are one of the few bands that are worthy of the attention and praise they receive. Some people that disagree with this may just be a bit jealous of this group of intelligent, talented musicians that have managed to generate music worth our interest and time for almost two decades.

Rating: 7.5 / 10