Monday, February 28, 2011

Radiohead - The King of Limbs

Announced out of the blue and arriving one day ahead of schedule, Radiohead’s newest release The King of Limbs seems like an attempt to sneak up and surprise the music community. For Radiohead, this has become par for the course. Like them or not, this is a band with a penchant for the unexpected, both musically and in terms of their reclusive image. The initial novelty of the pick-your-price scheme introduced with In Rainbows has long since worn off, and wisely, no such attention grab has been made here. As a result, the music-listening collective and I are forced to dig in to the music directly rather than distract ourselves with notions of industry-changing gimmicks, effective as they might be.

So, after a week or so of repeated listens, I can’t help but feel a bit confused by this album. Generally speaking, Radiohead seems to have momentarily abandoned the charged instrumentals of In Rainbows for a more electronically-focused approach, similar to the one they used for Kid A. The album’s opener, “Bloom,” feels constricted by Phil Selway’s trademark choppy rhythms, which are as proficient as ever but seem toothless under weak synthesizers and wandering vocals. The cluttered percussion samples of the first two tracks are as close as this album will get to the sound of In Rainbows, but “Bloom” feels like more of a downgrade than an evolution from the previous album’s opener, “15 Steps.” It’s not long, though, before the band switches gears, dropping the mash of rhythms for the more laid-back roll of “Little By Little.” This one is the most seamless blend of Radiohead’s sonic capabilities, mixing electronic percussion under organic melodies in the best hook the album has to offer.

If three tracks in feels like an early peak, that’s because it is. It would be a mistake to skip the rest of the album, but one can’t help but feel like everything tapers off a bit from here. “Lotus Flower,” the literal centerpiece of the album, is Thom Yorke’s best moment on the record. His falsetto is focused and precise here, an improvement over the textural vocals that pervade a good portion of the album. The song is close enough to the top of the slope that it is memorable enough to stand out from the rest of the music here. The pulsing piano chords of “Codex” are sonically gorgeous but lacking in direction or motivation. Beyond that, the album just kind of shuts itself down, running out its brief 38-minutes with two more tracks of pretty music that don’t really add anything substantial to the structure of the record. “Give Up the Ghost” is too subdued and fuzzy for its own good, and “Separator,” though an effective closer for this particular album, just sounds like something we’ve heard before.

And that’s the real problem with The King of Limbs. It is the rare album that will likely be enjoyed more by non-fans than by Radiohead devotees. On its own merits, it is perfectly listenable, and frequently enjoyable. It can be texturally and instrumentally beautiful at times, but there is little here that feels grand or musically daring. There is no tension and no anxiety. It too often sounds like an album put out by an excellent band that sat down and said, “Hey, we haven’t done anything in a while. Want to put out a record?” Radiohead’s characteristic music prowess is certainly here, and for many listeners, that will be more than enough. It’s just hard to see the band’s fans accepting this as an integral part of Radiohead’s catalogue. You just have to decide how it works for you.

1 comment:

  1. Good review. I couldn't agree with you more. Something about this album just didn't hit me as hard as the rest of their albums.