The King of Limbs Discovers New Skin
- Tuesday, April 05, 2011
Album: The King of Limbs
Label: TBD Records
Ever since releasing its gritty Brit-pop/grunge debut Pablo Honey (1993), Radiohead has been in a constant state of creative metamorphosis, shedding one skin as soon as it gets comfortable in order to discover whatever existence could be next.
People loved the darkening, conceptual album-oriented rock of OK Computer (1997) enough to follow the band toward the electronic, ambient, and jazz-influenced sounds heard on Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001). And upon changing so many listeners' tastes, the quintet proceeded to change the music industry by self-releasing the more shapely In Rainbows (2007) as a pay-whatever-you-want digital download.
The envelope is pushed again for this eighth studio project, The King of Limbs, although public reaction to its minimalist, somnambulant vibe is relatively guarded thus far. Clocking in at just 37 minutes and eight tracks, many of them occupied by sampled beats and fragmented lyrics, Radiohead's latest does feel a bit thin upon first listen. But therein lies the challenge fans now likely expect—there's got to be more to this, right?
Indeed, though it's always possible the band is just seeing what it can get away with, it's more likely The King of Limbs is art for art's sake; the soundtrack to a dream that doesn't have to be explained. "Don't blow your mind with why," Thom Yorke sings on the opening "Bloom," where tripped up drums sound like a balloon caught in a ceiling fan, and a constant background whir of blips and chimes makes the whole thing strangely beautiful.
"Morning Mr. Magpie" and "Little by Little" have a more conventional structure—steady rhythms and welcome guitars from an excellent guitar band. The first's characterization and vocal sneer deserve Pink Floyd comparisons while the second has glimmers of past Radiohead glories, particularly "Subterranean Homesick Alien." The electro-instrumental "Feral" gives The King of Limbs a disposable reputation—a song so slight it may have been written and recorded at once. But in a dreamlike state, it works as a fitting preface to the next track, "Lotus Flower," the rubbery first single with a thoughtful pop melody.
"Codex" and "Give Up the Ghost"—both standouts—are sparsely arranged, densely meaningful ballads addressing death with some measure of hope. "Separator" concludes the set on a cryptic upbeat, bringing morning back around as Yorke sings, "It's like I'm falling out of bed from a long and vivid dream."
All told, it's a dream worth having again. Daring music listeners should go out on a limb for The King of Limbs.
*This review first published 4/5/2011
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