Radiohead Review: All Hail the King of Limbs

With all the news about the royal wedding and the Prince of England filling the airwaves, there hasn’t been much notice or fanfare for something that recently happened in England that is of greater importance: Radiohead have brought out a new album titled The King of Limbs.

With Radiohead, you never know when their next album is going to hit the shelves.  They’re about as industrious as Thomas Pynchon, who waits years between publishing books–but like Pynchon, when they do release something, it’s good enough to hold your attention until the next creation.  Their last album–phenomenal by the way–In Rainbows was released in October 2007 online, and The King of Limbs was released online in February of this year.  Waiting more than two years for an album is basically the norm with Radiohead.

Was it worth the wait?

In a word: yes.

The 20th century philosopher Theodor Adorno, in one of his essays analyzing the mass-production of arts and entertainment, pointed out that arts meant for mass consumption are made with a “predigested” quality, meaning they are prefabricated to resemble something the public already likes.  This makes it easier on consumers.  Radiohead’s album King of Limbs is one of the few albums to be released this year that doesn’t have an overt “predigested” quality (arguably all albums fall into Adorno’s description, but King of Limbs less so).  It has the sort of rawness and freshness that’s similar to what I experienced when I first listened to M.I.A.’s Kala, or Deerhoof’s Friend Opportunity.

Radiohead, ever since OK Computer in 1997, have for the most part shunned any pop sensibilities (except for a few missteps, such as letting their music appear in the Twilight movies).  This is no exception.  In fact, this is further from pop than even their bleak fantasia In Rainbows.  Where Kid A and In Rainbows showed an influence of Brian Eno in their sparse soundscapes, King of Limbs, on several songs, seems to combine Philip Glass with Samba music and militaristic drumming.

It’s produced by longtime colloborator Nigel Godrich.  This guy’s one of the best in the business.  Check out his work with Radiohead–OK Computer to the present.  Check out his album with Beck called The Information.  He even made an album with Paul McCartney, with mixed results (to hear the best of their union, listen to the Macca songs Jenny Wren and Vanity Fair).  His style is to pay just as much attention to tones as he does to chord progressions.  Also, he’s known for including sections with string quartet accompaniment.

As I said before, since this is a largely not a predigested album, it will take you a while to get into.  All Radiohead albums are like this.  Even if you like the band, you’ll have to listen to their albums a few times before you can really like them.  My first impression upon hearing the first track The Universal Sigh was “What is this?”  And upon finishing the album, “What was that?”  I’ve listened to the album now 20 or 30 times, cleaning the kitchen, driving, working out, and even while just playing video games, and I can say that it’s definitely grown on me.

Here’s the first single released from the album.  The video’s just Thom Yorke dancing for five minutes, so if that’s not your thing, just listen to the song.  Long time Radiohead fans will notice how it sounds similar to Idiotheque.  I would say with this one they tempered the nightmarishness of Idiotheque with a sort of older-and-wiser maturity.

The main drawback of the album is that it’s just 8 songs long, and so far Radiohead have not released any bootleg songs from the same sessions, as they did with In Rainbows and Kid A’s offshoot Amnesiac.  Also, for fans of Radiohead’s loud and thrashy stuff (like Optimistic, Body Snatchers, and Paranoid Android) don’t expect anything like that here.  King of Limbs is for the most part a somber, mellow album.  Sooner or later, I would like it if they set aside their experimentations and just released a loud, crazy, rock album (c’mon, their lead guitarist Johnny Greenwood is awesome, so let him play to his heart’s content already).  No matter what, I’ll wait and wait and wait as long as I have to for their albums.

click here to check out my ebook on Amazon!

If you like Radiohead’s album The King of Limbs, check out Nine Types of Light by TV on The Radio


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