Radiohead’s new album proves again that they can be intelligent without being pretentious
Radiohead makes albums, not singles. This sounds pretentious because it is pretentious, but not because their music is pretentious. Rather, Radiohead is a band that inspires more pretentiousness in its fans than perhaps any other band I know.
This may or may not be linked to the fact that they are making some of the best music in the world. Either way, it can be hard to distinguish the sometimes-precious hype surrounding Radiohead and the music that they make.
Their best songs are utterly sincere and honest. Admittedly, it can be difficult to appreciate their particular form of candor: it’s wrapped up in tricky syncopation, electronic bleeps and burps, and jagged, atonal melodies that, at first listen, do not lend themselves to recollection.
Perhaps the most obvious example of the difficulty of their music is through the voice of their lead singer, Thom Yorke. His fragile, shaking falsetto practically encourages skepticism and/or laughter. Mostly, however, it invites discomfort. The lead singer of a sort-of-rock band isn’t supposed to sound so vulnerable.
All of this is old news for most Radiohead fans. If you’ve heard every album since 2000’s Kid A, or 1997’s OK Computer or even if you just started getting into them after 2007’s In Rainbows, you know that the things that make Radiohead so challenging and distant at first listen (or second listen, or third listen) are the very same things that made you fall in love with them.
This isn’t hyperbole. There are very few casual Radiohead fans – most of the people who listen to them are self-described die-hards, which is remarkable given how large of a fanbase they have.
They are only one of a handful of bands whose music creeps up on the listener, growing richer and more complete with every fresh listen, until you find yourself tapping out the rhythm of their 2007 song “15 Step” on your stomach in the shower (I’m speaking figuratively, of course).
This is all to say that, on first listen, their new album The King of Limbs is just fine. At thirty-seven minutes and only eight tracks, this is their shortest album yet – and it feels like it.
From the strong opening track “Bloom” –which carries a huge sound and is, for my money, one of Yorke’s best vocal performances – to the tranquil closer, “Seperator,” the album paradoxically takes its time while going by in a blur.
To be sure, there are specific highlights that make this fan really want to revisit the album again. The piano ballad “Codex” has hints of earlier Radiohead piano numbers like “Videotape,” “Pyramid Song” and “Reckoner” while adding something new and achingly heartfelt to the mix. Also worth noticing is “Lotus Flower,” which, at roughly the mid-point of the album, is a very strong centerpiece (be sure to check out the music video for it too. Thom Yorke unveils his dance moves, which, if you’ve never seen Radiohead in concert, are about as crazy/awesome/weird as you would imagine).
This album also stands out in that it is unusually percussive. Drummer Ed Selway runs the show on tracks like “Morning Mr. Magpie” and “Little By Little”. He’s an underrated drummer and he does some incredible work on this record that, if I knew any drumming lingo, I could relate to you.
There’s an odd dynamic between Selway’s syncopation and Yorke’s languid vocals, and much of the excitement of the album comes from the two of them playing off of each other in strange new ways.
Guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien play much, much smaller roles on The King of Limbs than they have on previous Radiohead albums. This gives the album a meditative and slow pace that can sometimes feel flat.
I'm writing this review on Friday, February 18th (the day that the album was released) so honestly, it is going to be a while before I really have something to say about The King of Limbs.
I like that Radiohead announced this album a mere five days before its release, and that before Friday, nobody knew how many tracks it had, or the names of the tracks, or (before five days ago) even the name of the album.
I like that their albums require patience and quiet and real engagement. Most of the music made today doesn’t require any sort of mental effort. Some of it is amazing, but most of it is crappy, or merely OK. There’s also a growing contingent of new music that is self-consciously difficult and smug in its obscurity. That kind of music dares you to not like it, if only to prove a point.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that though Radiohead’s music requires a certain kind of effort to understand or appreciate or love, it is no more esoteric than it is thoughtless. It seeks to find something original and strange in the middle, somewhere in between the experimental and the genre, the progressive and the timeless.
Their music can be bizarre and sometimes uncomfortable, but I cannot think of a band that is more capable of brilliance. Sit by yourself or with friends in a room, and listen to it. Give The King of Limbs a few chances before you write it off or declare your love for it, and I will too.