The familiar and the strange playing together as friends: Radiohead – The King of Limbs

by 5:4

As an occasion, Valentine’s Day is polarising enough, split between they who regard it with importance, and those for whom it’s little more than an overhyped, vacuous sham. But that polarisation was exacerbated further on this particular Valentine’s Day, bringing as it did Radiohead‘s announcement that their eighth album, The King of Limbs, would be forthcoming just a few days later. It’s surprising that so many music sites and blogs have been so precipitate in their quest to get out the earliest possible review (The Telegraph‘s Neil McCormick, as usual, being the most egregious; his track-by-track “review”, written on the day of release, was pointless, cliché-ridden doggerel)—Radiohead have demonstrated more times than most that their output takes no little time to speak, and even longer to be heard. In October last year, when i wrote my 10-year retrospective of Kid A, i couldn’t help feeling it had taken much of that decade to make sufficiently meaningful inroads to the material; from that perspective, to be responding to The King of Limbs barely more than a fortnight after its release seems absurdly premature. But the dust has finally begun to settle, and now one can at least start to try to make sense of those first impressions.

From the get go, opening track Bloom is all paradox, the nervous, relentlessly shuffling drum riffs suggesting freedom while the hypnotic, soft electronics blip back and forth statically, holding everything in check. It’s a riveting texture, stable enough to allow Thom Yorke to rise and rise. And a delirious ascent it is; even in this opening song, Yorke launches straight into deep lyricism, restrained at first, but after the surprisingly rich middle episode his vocals really unfurl: “I’m moving out of orbit / Turning in somersaults”. This is exquisite music-making, a ravishing opener that sets the bar very high for the half hour of music to follow. A similar stasis pervades “Morning Mr Magpie”, locked in another groove (redolent of The Stone Roses), but one now growling with aggressive discontent: “You’ve got some nerve coming here / You stole it all — give it back”. The song also features an extensive middle episode, peppered with snatched breaths, but this time the second verse seems more subdued than the first, the sarcasm of the closing chorus almost muted: “Good morning, Mr Magpie / How are we today? / Now you’ve stolen all the magic / Took my melody”. Through this, the song has been audibly withering, at the last dissolving into bland bands of digital blah. Anyone for whom the structures, lyrics and timbres of Radiohead’s music have been, respectively, far too obtuse, abstruse and alienating through the last few years should, by now, be breathing a sigh of relief. For these are unquestionably songs, their ternary structures clear, with lyrics almost prosaic in their directness, and the reassuringly close presence of both drums and guitars. Did someone say rock was dead?

However, despite its title, the complexity gets rudely ramped up in “Little By Little”, its central beats now more mechanistically sustained, gentle traces of electronic effects at the periphery. Even something so simple as the downbeat is difficult to put faith in, thanks to the rhythmically meandering quality of Yorke’s delivery in the verses, and the lyrics—despite earnest attempts to capture them—hover just below the threshold of certainty. One thing holds true, though, and that’s the sense of equilibrium, the music once again appearing to oscillate about a fixed central point; only at (for want of a better term) the middle 8, does the song branch carefully outward, “Obligations / Complications / Routines and schedules / A job that kills you”. It’s the beginnings of a movement away from the solidity of the opening numbers, and the largely instrumental fourth track, “Feral”, continues that, fragments of words decorating a fabric caught up in its own frantic necessity, in which electronics ultimately rule the roost.

“Lotus Flowers” places melody firmly back at centre stage, Yorke pitched in a high and not always comfortable falsetto, occasionally bringing Prince to mind. Yet again, the song is built essentially upon a single chord, maintained in a moody, brooding, even slightly surly way, occasionally parting to allow in moments that are, in every sense, lighter. If the textures here are a little less attention-grabbing than earlier (and that’s only true after the first minute), it’s due to them being an unashamed accompaniment. The chorus is another lyrical high-point; what it lacks in oomph (due to the altitude of the notes), it more than makes up for in eloquence, Yorke proving again that the ‘drawl’ that characterises his vocal style is nonetheless under impeccable control. The opening of “Codex”, doleful piano chords crudely reflected back through assorted filters, is almost a red herring for the simplicity of what follows, perhaps Radiohead’s most straightforward and beautiful song in years. It returns to the three-part structure of the opening songs, the central episode ushering in a lovely brass contingent that remains for the final verse. An extended coda brings an abrupt shift both in terms of harmony and timbre, strings surrounding the ongoing piano chords in a network of nervous trills that soon become rich and warm. The song appears to finish, but for thirty seconds more a recording of birdsong tries to climb out of its digital artefacts and speak.

“Give Up the Ghost” is the album’s most acoustic song (replete with guitar hand-tapping), and also its simplest, idling languorously within a small spray of chords. There’s passion here, granted, but for the most part (and for once) the words speak more powerfully than the music; as such, there’s just a bit too much detachment for the song to gel as it should (the repeated refrain “Don’t hurt me” is strangely benign), and the best one can do is enjoy it on a slightly superficial level, which is still better than most. The closing track, “Separator” is a master stroke; for no small time, it presents itself a stripped-down, sparse number dominated by another hectic drum concoction, underlaid with more static harmonic offerings. Thom Yorke’s winding melody suggests more, as does the acrobatic bassline that follows him, but it’s not until halfway through (“I fell open / I laid under”) that the song begins to blossom: wisps of guitar emerge (later on highly suggestive of Vini Reilly), the harmonies and indeed the whole soundstage expands, and the song fills out into the most deliciously delicate denouement one could wish for. Despite being gently melancholic, things are kept light, avoiding anything remotely fin de siecle; this is music for the end of a long, late evening, warm, whoozy and even a bit blissed out.

Radiohead’s fanbase often seems sharply divided into those who laud the group’s avant garde leanings and experimental side, and those who decry the move away from more obvious, unambiguous song-writing. This may just be the album, finally, to unite them; Radiohead have moved beyond raw experimentation to a more mature place where the familiar and the strange can play together as friends, friends that have far more in common than either of them may have once thought.

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Thanks for an excellent review, it's given me a strong sense of the music before hearing a note. I've never connected properly with the group, but wonder whether this might be the album that finally opens my cloth ears to their endeavour.

Whilst writing, I'm so sorry not to have responded to your last email, I've been pretty useless recently at correspondence. One day we will meet up – are you going to either the Raster Noton evening at the Roundhouse or the Ryoji Ikeda at the Barbican?

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