THE KING OF LIMBS
Posted 02/23/2011 by cal
Yeah, I'm one of those annoying Radiohead obsessives. If the band ever puts out music I don't like, I'll be sure to let you know. In the mean time, I've just spent several days listening to The King Of Limbs, and I'll probably keep doing that for quite a while, but I think I'm done writing about it for now...
The scattershot glitchy percussion that opens “Bloom” sounds like Phil Selway kept jamming out the end of “Videotape” (from 2007’s In Rainbows) this whole time. Slowly, it resolves itself into a groove, with the help of a piano-y synth throb. Colin Greenwood's bass almost allows it to become smooth a few times, but like much of Radiohead’s best work, it’s a groove you have to reach for. Ultimately, Greenwood gets in the last word, teasing you again with what he could’ve been doing that whole time. A dischorus of angels/demons. Harrowing, brassy synths blaring and fading. Most bands would’ve just thrown in a guitar solo. It’s more an oppressive beginning than an exciting one. In Radioheadland, everything is in its right place again.
Thom Yorke’s voice is more forward on “Morning Mr Magpie”, a track that seemed destined for obscurity after Thom played it on acoustic guitar during a 2002 webcast. It has since matured into something that sounds malevolently playful. You can’t trust Yorke’s intentions in this or any other song here. A great grinding staccato riff on one guitar, a counterpoint on another, and Colin joins in with another of his ever-more-creative basslines. It’s almost like they’re a rock band or something. Then they start getting crazy with the loops. The vocals cut through the instrumental climax, but just barely, as if things are flying in front of Thom’s face. It’s disorienting, but endearing, an evil impulse that makes you smile.
Jonny Greenwood gets to play around with some of his patented patterned plucking à la “In Limbo” or “Knives Out” on “Little By Little”, another quirky little pathway for your brain to chase around looking for the essence of it. Thom’s vocals on this one seem forced; it’s a rare weak effort on his part. You can almost ignore him. It’s the percussion, again, that cements this song as something outside genre, something you couldn't mistake for anything other than Radiohead. Washes of electronic noise, beats that get so dense you can’t make out what’s organic and what’s manufactured. And of course, the pervading undefined, unsettling emotion that provides the soul. This was somewhat lacking on In Rainbows; the impact of those songs was blatant. I can describe this music, but as to how it makes me feel…
“Feral” is cruel; it only suggests an actual song, devoid of structure, defiantly untamed. It could have been plucked from a session of studio experimentation or pieced together atop the relentless beat. If they would have stretched it out a bit longer, maybe people wouldn't have bitched about how short the album is, but too bad: it's a three-minute event and that's it. Most importantly for those of us who are more excited for a tour than we were for the actual album, though, this sounds like a jam.
We've passed through several walls of sound now, and “Feral” is the final bulwark. “Lotus Flower” is where the wall begins to crumble, revealing a band that doesn’t need to hide behind walls. It’s the most specifically Kid A-style track, floating in cold keyboards and a stark, skeletal beat. We were all blown away by “The National Anthem” and “Idioteque”, and now we take this aspect of Radiohead for granted. We are but puppets, and Colin, the puppet master. Inside our heads, Radiohead is a pop band, and this is a pop song.
Complete deconstruction arrives with “Codex”. It seems to exist purely to fly in the face of the idea that everything has already been done. Perhaps now it has. This is the final minimalist piano dirge that will ever be written. The most chilling thing about it is the way the lyrics are ostensibly comforting (“No one gets hurt/You’ve done nothing wrong”); the terrible weight of the music and Thom's languid delivery suggest otherwise.
“Don’t hurt me”, a muffled Thom cries throughout “Give Up The Ghost”. He sounds like he’s holding back either tears or laughter, reinforcing the overpowering warm/creepy delirium. His foreground vocals are his strongest on the album, amazingly clear and melodic. It's a mellow guitar ballad like "Nude" at first, but Radiohead is a merchant of trickery. You hear the beginning of the song and you think it’s going to be one kind of song, and then it’s only at the end of the song that you realize that wasn’t the kind of song you thought it was going to be at all, but actually now that you think about it, it kind of is.
I’m going to go out on a…limb here, and suggest that this album strikes me as a narrative about a relationship going or gone bad due to some traumatic event. How exactly might that relate to the woodsy/floral imagery permeating the album? You got me. But if there’s a glimmer of hope (um...peeking through the branches), it’s “Separator”. The song is a breath of fresh air. It’s propulsive, it’s bright, and it saves the album from being a torrential bummer, until you realize that it’s just a dream. Once again, Radiohead pulled the rug out from under you. But isn’t that what you were hoping for all along?
3/5/2011 2:26 PM
Aha, I love "Twisted Words" but I agree it wouldn't have fit. I think the KID A comparisons are overblown, though. That album was minimalist; this one is dense and busy, and a lot more overtly guitar-based, even if it's not conventional guitar music.
I had the exact same impression regarding the drumming/percussion. I think "Magpie" is my current fave too but like with all Radiohead albums that will probably change several times. Overall I think this album blows away IN RAINBOWS.