Five Years Ago: Radiohead Resurface With the Ghostly Surprise Album ‘The King of Limbs’
There’s no shortage of ways in which the world is considerably worse off now than it was five years ago, not least of which is the fact that we haven’t had a new Radiohead album since 2011’s The King of Limbs.
Sure, the band have turned out the odd soundtrack tune amid their solo projects and are set to debut new material at festivals this summer. But it’s been five years since Radiohead dazzled us with a full-length sonic journey. And when you consider the dizzying nature of their last one, it’s hard to be too chary about their need for a break.
Radiohead have always followed an almost pathologically idiosyncratic path – doing exactly what they want, when they want, the way they want it. And while this approach undoubtedly applied to The King of Limbs, it was in effect even before you got around to listening to the actual music. On Valentine’s Day of 2011, the band blew the world a big valentine kiss by way of a casual announcement on their website, declaring the impending release of their new album five days hence.
Plenty willful in itself, the “Oh, guess what!” quality of the announcement was a sharp blow to the complacency of music biz convention. But then, seemingly just to mess with people’s minds a wee bit further, they went ahead and unexpectedly dropped the album just four days later instead. Blazing a trail for others to follow in more ways than one, King of Limbs (along with its predecessor, 2007’s In Rainbows) helped set the standard for the “surprise” album release, a route that’s been subsequently taken by everybody from D’Angelo to David Bowie.
Oh yeah, and there are some songs on this record, too. In the wake of the relatively straightforward gestation process of In Rainbows, Radiohead decided (perhaps unsurprisingly) to switch things up for their next go-round. In composing the material, the band relied as much on digital editing and sampling techniques as much as anything else, and the result was a recording full of ghosts: the ghosts of organic instruments, the ghosts of past takes transmuted into something stranger and the spirits of linear intent hovering hauntingly, just outside the frame of Radiohead’s little movie for the mind.
Despite the sonic stretches it traverses, King of Limbs is surprisingly concise, clocking in at only about 37 minutes. It begins by pushing you straight into the deep end with “Bloom,” driven by cyclical, slightly off-kilter rhythms somewhere between breakbeats and bebop. String sounds and trippy, dubby effects provide plenty of atmosphere for a sort of organic version of drum-and-bass that could be a distant descendant of pioneering ‘60s electronic rock outfit the Silver Apples.
“Morning Mr. Magpie” is fueled by muted, staccato guitar syncopations, and Thom Yorke sounds surprisingly warm when inquiring, “Good morning Mr. Magpie. How are we today?” The temptation is to equate the aforementioned bird with the band’s predisposition towards being stylistic magpies, but that theory gets tossed out the window when Yorke later complains that the creature in question “took my melody.” Back to the drawing board.
With his ragged falsetto haunting “Little By Little,” Yorke comes off like some sort of threadbare spook gliding over a sinister-sounding chord progression and anxiously tick-tocking beat. Meanwhile, “Feral” is full of skittering polyrhythms spattered by furtive dabs of vocal and instrumental tones. The boys are fully embracing the cut-and-paste process here, to the point where the voice is merely another instrument rather than a tool for delivering lyrical content. The album’s most avant-garde cut, it offers no conventional chord progression or melody, operating instead as more of a musique concrete piece.
“Lotus Flower,” with its dub-in-outer-space rhythms, isn’t as disorienting as its predecessor, but it’s no closer to melodic/harmonic convention. It's perhaps best known for the music video in which Yorke dances and gyrates spastically on a stage by himself, spawning countless parodies and memes.
“Codex,” by contrast, is almost strikingly organic-sounding with its piano-and-vocal-based balladry, presented in a spare, even austere arrangement. And “Give Up the Ghost,” with its acoustic guitar setting, picks up where “Codex” left off, albeit enlivened by layers of heavily processed vocals. Think of it as ambient folk for the chill-out room of a space shuttle.
Of course, you know full well that Radiohead aren't about to do anything as clichéd as end with a big flourish. Instead, they do the opposite on King of Limbs’ closing cut, “Separator,” which bears a sort of deconstructed funky-drummer groove cunningly contrasted by a lambent vocal line. Before he’s through, Yorke eventually even hits upon what might actually be described as a “hook.” But ultimately, the track, and in fact, the majority of the album itself, feels like it lives in that warm, deliciously unmoored space somewhere between dreamland and the waking world.
Then the album ends, and you’re forced to return to a realm that’s still waiting for another Radiohead record.