Radiohead, The King of Limbs
By wes jakacki
March 1, 2011
Though many have tried, no singer has been able to recreate the magical and unearthly sounds of Thom Yorke. In late 2009, Radiohead’s inimitable front man embarked on his first tour in support of The Eraser, his debut solo album he released more than three years earlier. While The Eraser was primarily generated by Yorke and his laptop, on the tour, the band Atoms for Peace (are they a band?) brought the album to life brilliantly in the form of a traditional five-piece band playing the album completely organically, blurring the line between what is played and what is programmed.
The King of Limbs, the British quintet’s eighth album and first since Yorke’s Atoms for Peace hiatus, is very much in the vein of what Yorke & co. performed: a meticulous record that similarly intertwines the real and the synthetic masterfully, even if the album is more singular and underwhelming than other Radiohead efforts.
The first half of King of Limbs has been highly informed by the ever-growing British dubstep scene (i.e. Burial, James Blake), which Yorke has been unabashed in his affinity for. Opener “Bloom” is a ramped-up jazz track that wonderfully weaves a rhythm between drummer Phil Selway’s splashy drum play with the glitchy drum machine loop underneath Yorke’s droning voice. “Morning Mr. Magpie” maintains the frenetic pace, and additionally displays the advanced play of guitarists Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood, who rip and roar through the track but still exhibit true precision and subtlety. Like any Radiohead album, King of Limbs is best heard through your best pair of earphones, as several close, clear listens pay dividends as you discover all the meticulous touches and layers the album has to offer.
First single “Lotus Flower” gets by on its muffled repeating electronic rhythm and melody, which nicely underlines Yorke’s clean falsetto. Though much of King of Limbs is cohesive and calculated, the aptly titled “Feral” is full-out dubstep with its samba-esque rhythm and morphed vocals, making it the wildest, most full-blooded track on King of Limbs.
While King of Limbs has a consistent but unnerving feel, the two ballads (“Codex,” “Give Up the Ghost”) act as a dreamlike escape from the rest of the record. “Codex” sounds like a close relative to classic Radiohead ballads “Pyramid Song” and “Sail to the Moon” with its pulsing piano and accenting horns, though it doesn’t quite live up to those two.
“Give Up the Ghost,” a song that Thom Yorke actually debuted on his tour with Atoms for Peace, is one of the most vulnerable yet life-affirming Radiohead songs to date. On “Give Up the Ghost,” Yorke’s words “Don’t hurt me” linger as the looping mantra to this otherworldly song about letting go of past hurts and being renewed in the arms of someone you love.
However, not everything on King of Limbs is the usual brilliant Radiohead. The wringing “Little By Little” creates that sense of anxiety that only Radiohead can create, but doesn’t plant itself in the brain quite like other Radiohead songs. Album closer “Separator” invokes the Talking Heads with its playful percussion and airy vocals and eventually reaches its satisfying peak, but much of the song wades in a strange lull.
Standing at just eight songs with many revisiting already traveled Radiohead territory, King of Limbs leaves something to be desired. With the release of King of Limbs coming only a four days after its sudden announcement on Dead Air Space (Radiohead’s website) and the unpredictable band’s knack for whipping out songs when they do actually hit the studio, don’t be surprised if Radiohead’s 2011 isn’t quite finished.