Friday, February 25, 2011

Album Review: Radiohead - "The King of Limbs"

Everybody has their own personal favorite Radiohead. Some fans prefer  the band's early guitar-based efforts on The Bends and OK Computer, others prefer the cold sterility of Kid A and Amnesiac, still others like the relative warmth of In Rainbows. (As a caveat to this review, I'm a Kid A man, through and through). This diversity speaks to the band's ability to continually push the envelope, but it also means that a substantial portion of their fan base is going to be inevitably disappointed when a new album comes out that doesn't sound exactly like Your Favorite Radiohead Album. 

Such is the case with The King of Limbs, the newest release from the band. After announcing the album's completion at the beginning of last week, Radiohead opened up preorders for a Saturday release, and then ended up putting it out on Friday just because they felt like it. With only a five day warning and an early release, you might think it would be difficult to work up a lot of hype for the album, but somehow the Internet managed to do it anyway. The release - a subtle, subdued, rhythm-heavy album with barely a guitar to be heard - has been met with decidedly mixed reactions.

At a short thirty-seven minutes, The King of Limbs is like a chamber version of Radiohead. Gone are the stomping guitar anthems of the nineties or the sweeping avant-garde epics of the early aughts. Instead, this album finds Radiohead taking the rhythms and sonic textures that permeated their earlier works and making them the centerpiece. Most songs begin as "normal" Radiohead songs - but then they continue in the same patterns, shifting and morphing, but not building. Those of you waiting for the melody to come in are going to be waiting for a while.

Even the vocals are just another layer - "Open your mouth wide" is the first line of the album, and most of the lyrics are stretched, open and wide, out over the pulsating percussion rhythms and bass lines. This is a texture-heavy album, and instead of following the song like a narrative, waiting to see where it goes, perhaps it's better to treat it like a moment frozen in time, a mosaic of sounds to bite into.

This takes some getting used to. The first song, "Bloom," begins with a Steve Reich-esque piano line, before the drums come in. By the end of the track, there's a throbbing bass, Thom Yorke singing over his own garbled backing vocals, even a few muted brass notes here and there - but it's not a traditional song. It's not even an untraditional song in the manner of Kid A or Amnesiac. It's five minutes of sonic layering that ebbs and flows like classical minimalism. 

Once I opened myself to this idea, the album became a lot more enjoyable. These might just be soundscapes, but they're excellent soundscapes, and the rhythm section in particular has never been better. Drummer Phil Selway has always been Radiohead's secret weapon, but on The King of Limbs he really shines, whether in his intricate give-and-take with the guitars on "Morning Mr. Magpie," or the lean electronic textures of "Feral." With the absence of discernable melody on most songs, Radiohead needs a strong rhythmic base to keep this album from being a disaster, and Selway fulfills this role admirably. 

Still, while the rhythms and textures are fun, I do miss the melodies. Too many of the songs feel like they're running in circles, as if the band is performing the same licks over and over again waiting for the singer to finally come in. The ideas are interesting, but Radiohead had taught me on their previous albums that these ideas would serve as the foundation for a complete song. On The King of Limbs, those songs never come. 

There are moments of quiet beauty, especially in the second half - the eerie dissonances of "Lotus Flower" and the sweet pianos of "Codex" are both particularly moving. But even at its short running time, it's almost too long to spend exploring this quiet earthy chill. I found myself missing those songs where Thom Yorke starts screaming his lungs out - thirty-seven minutes of Yorke's falsetto whisper is about ten minutes too much. 

On nearly every one of Radiohead's past albums, there was one track that really stood out to me on the first listen. The Bends had "My Iron Lung," OK Computer had "Paranoid Android," Kid A had "The National Anthem," In Rainbows had "Reckoner." These didn't always end up being my favorite songs, but there was something human and immediate in each of them, that demanded attention from the first note. The King of Limbs is devoid of any such moments of immediacy; the album is so restrained in demeanor and humble in ambition as to appear somewhat slight. 

So, in the end, I can't help but register The King of Limbs as somewhat of a disappointment. It's a solid B+ album, and one that's perfect for listening to after midnight in the foggy, rain-soaked spring. But in it's pursuit of the ephemeral, Radiohead forgot to include the melodies and sonic narratives that provided the real meat of their other albums. It ends up being a collection of backing tracks - beautiful ones, but backing tracks nonetheless. 

But, as I said, that's my own personal Radiohead that I'm looking for. You might have a completely different take.