After a couple of weeks struggling to get my computer back to work (after my hard-drive was corrupted for some strange reason), I finally managed to download (legally from their website) the new Radiohead album: the King of Limbs. It is their 8th studio album of new material, and the 8th one I own.
My appreciation of Radiohead’s new album comes with a certain bias. I am an absolute Radiohead fan ever since I decided to buy their acclaimed “OK Computer” in my freshman year of college. It was a happy accident since I had barely heard any of their music. I had just seen a special on tv about the best alternative albums of the 90s and Radiohead featured pretty high on the list. There was something in the snippets of music that they played during the special that caught my attention and I ended up wanting to hear what all the fuzz was about. It was probably around that time in my life when I started appreciating the work of professional critics, and the art section in the NY Times has just started to become a part of my weekly reads.
The album, like most of their precedent work, is at first, second or third listen very elusive. It hardly ever provides a catchy hook or riff, the lyrics are not straightforward and they do not narrate a particular story. Radiohead becomes understandable and profound once you have given their songs a chance to sink in.
Whenever fans and critics alike think Radiohead will once again arrive back at their more traditional rock roots, the band delivers work that could be considered experimental and unfamiliar. The King of Limbs, like Kid A in 2000, is an electronic departure, where guitars almost entirely disappear and the drumming of Phillip Selway comes to the forefront to add some rhythm to an otherwise “beat-less” sound. The album does not excite and it does not thrill in any easily-defined way. The songs talk about deceit, about the desire to escape conformity and being unable to do so. Interestingly, all of the members of the band have two children each, with either long-time girlfriends or wives, which would lead you to think their music might be coming from deep desires to start over or to have taken different routes.
I do feel, however, that the King of Limbs fails more often than any of their previous albums. While Kid A was excitingly difficult and interestingly rich in variety, their latest effort seems more flat, an experiment that works at times but that also fails at others. The strangeness of Kid A lent itself to happy accidents scattered throughout the album such as “Idioteque”, a dancy/techno sound that despite being unequivocally rooted in the aesthetic of Kid A, it was also different enough to the rest of the songs to make it stand out on its own.
There are exactly three incredibly worthy songs in The King of Limbs: Feral, Lotus Flower and Separator.
Feral is bizarre, with a quick drumming and a rather eclectic sound that is never simple to follow. Feral is one of those experiments that work because it sounds different not just to sound different, but with a melodic purpose that is fresh and rich.
Lotus Flower is the catchiest in an album deprived of catchy songs. That is not to say it is anywhere close to what we find in any mainstream pop song, but it is certainly a much-welcomed relief to an album without any other relief.
Lastly, but certainly not least, is Separator, the true jewel of the album. The song has stunningly haunting vocals, gorgeous lyrics and a far simpler melody that features the only guitars in the surprisingly short 37-minute long album. Everything about the song seems to promise a return of Radiohead to more traditionally great rock records like The Bends or OK Computer. The guitars appear distant but accessible, the vocals remind us of a more approachable Yorke, and of a time when Radiohead could do different without trying so hard.
To enjoy the video for Lotus Flower follow this link: