As The Guardian music editor Tim Jonze phrased so perfectly, “Radiohead don’t make music designed for a hurried listen. A couple more plays down the line and the opinions you read here may be subject to change.” It’s true; I started this article three times, each time with a different take on Radiohead’s newest album, “The King of Limbs.” The album was released a day earlier than the band had announced, creating a frenzy of patched together reviews and blog posts in its wake. After listening to it about five times, though, I think I have finally come to a conclusion.
This is the eighth album release by band with an almost cultish following and a sound that is highly prone to criticism and controversy. As such, “The King of Limbs” is in an extremely vulnerable spot where it has the potential to be shot down due to the disappointment of overtly loyal fans, the unabashed criticism of hateful reviewers and the reigning titans that are some of Radiohead’s previous albums. “The King of Limbs” prevails, however, and though I don’t consider it among the band’s greatest albums, it isn’t by any means a fall from the podium on which they’ve auspiciously and meticulously raised themselves over the course of the past 26 years.
Right off the bat, however, the album’s biggest pitfall is — where the album’s biggest pitfall is its track listing. “The King of Limbs” opens with “Bloom,” which I see as the worst song of the short album’s only eight tracks, and closes with “Separator,” the most enjoyable number. Why they would choose to organize the album in a manner not at all conducive to enticing listeners, I can’t say.
“Bloom” is definitely the weakest link, as it has some of the unsettling noise and mismatched, slightly off-beat instrumentals for which Radiohead has grown so famous (or infamous, as some may see it), but this time it isn’t at all commendable or original, primarily because they’ve done it before, and they’ve done it better.
[grooveshark id="23398464" align="left"]Another reason “Bloom” falls behind the rest of the tracks in quality is because of the ambiguous tone it sets, making it hard to have any emotional attachment to the song or to fathom what kind of mood you would be in when choosing to listen to it. The song starts off with what seems like an innocent piano solo that makes you think perhaps Radiohead is using their newest release to show that they have decided to scrap their usual antics and turn in a raw, acoustic direction.
But that inclination is short lived, as something akin to frenetic and slightly nervous lounge music gets pumped in. This is all layered over lead singer Thom Yorke’s mournful, drawn out mumble, however, making it altogether unclear if this song should evoke pensiveness, restlessness, tiredness or none of the above.
[grooveshark id=”23398486″ align=”left”]“The King of Limbs” quickly redeems itself, as it moves onto its second best track, “Morning Mr Magpie,” which is introduced by an upbeat and steady bass line that is a welcome relief from the ambiguity of “Bloom.”
Here, Radiohead does what they do best, which is take elements that any band would utilize — mellow vocals and an array of instruments — but combine them in a unique way that causes you to hear the song and know that no one but Radiohead would have made the song this way. “Morning Mr Magpie” succeeds in the way that Yorke’s voice sort of nonchalantly wafts through the instrumentals — sometimes keeping time with them, sometimes keeping its own time — creating a rough, but not at all unpleasant effect.
[grooveshark id="23398488" align="left"]The following two songs, “Little By Little” and “Feral” essentially do nothing for the album, or Radiohead in general. They lack the loveable bizarreness that usually attracts people to Radiohead, and I’m not sure what merit the band saw in these tracks.
[grooveshark id=”23398490″ align=”left”] Due to the strange ordering of the songs — starting off weak, growing strong for one song and then sinking back into two more dismal offerings —you end up halfway through the album with only one relic of happiness, which doesn’t bode well for the second half. If I weren’t an avid Radiohead fan, anxious to hear the entirety of their new album, I probably would have stopped listening at “Feral.”Luckily for you, and for Radiohead, I am an avid fan, so I kept listening, and it’s a good thing too because the second half of “The King of Limbs” is the stronger half.
The reason for this effect is that the four songs act cohesively with one another, almost to the point of sounding like one extremely long track — they don’t perfectly run into each other, but the flow from one to the next is natural, and the moods among them remain consistent. In my experience listening to Radiohead albums, the last word I would ever use to describe the experience would be “cohesive” — “different,” maybe, but never cohesive. This serves as the only departure or new “style” present in the band’s eighth album, but it’s too subtle to be able to award Radiohead any accolades for definitively changing anything about their sound in this album.
[grooveshark id=”23398491″ align=”left”]In the end, the album leaves you with the sweet melody that is “Separator,” which is perhaps why they put this song last — your final impression of the album is a great one. Though “The King of Limbs” has been released in the dead of winter, this song feels like summer to me. Yorke’s voice is breezy and shapeless as usual, but it is also accompanied by steady, uplifting percussion and, about halfway through the song, a jaunty guitar line that dances its way through and completely gives the listener this sense of undeniable ease.
Though “The King of Limbs” doesn’t exactly do justice to the excited buzz that surrounded its unexpectedly early release after months of cryptic information, there’s no major disappointment in this album.
Ultimately, I think the real question is whether we should even be expecting Radiohead to come up with anything new at this point — they created a sound that no one else was making at the time of their inception, and one that few bands have ever come close to mastering even now. Maybe it’s enough that they’ve managed to maintain this persona for over two decades, all while steadily gaining the loyalty of new fans.
Sklar is a member of the class of 2014.