Before forcing myself to allow a week for Radiohead‘s latest album to settle in, I predicted that after reverse-engineering the eight tracks and running down the conspiracy corridors (is this just one part of three on the ‘full’ album? etc.) I’d be a voice among the choir singing the praises of a band who’s always managed to stay a step ahead of the trend and push the stylistic envelope with a challenging body of work that’s ultimately rewarding.
The King of Limbs is both these things, but the isolationism and indulgent divergence that makes Radiohead special is, this time around, exactly that which prevents it from the full flight of accessibility – or a proper sense of completion.
The album’s name is a reference to an ancient tree in Wiltshire’s Savernake Forest, roughly three miles from where the band laid down tracks for In Rainbows. The investigative speculation has already begun as to whether the songs are about the tree itself, or if there’s some deeper conceptual connection to the 1000 year-old oak to be found. One doesn’t need a decoder ring, however, to determine that Radiohead, along with longtime producer Nigel Godrich, have let off the gas of statement innovation and settled into an exploration of small, evolutionary flourishes of nuance.
Without a hook or pronounced guitar riff throughout the brief eight track collection, there’s a cognitive dissonance to the musical architecture of most of the songs. The percussive minimalism is a fascinating approach, particularly given drummer Phil Selway’s formidable beat designs over the years. Singular, basic drum patterns through most songs cement a sensation of electronic undercurrents on the album, a significant player in the resulting feeling that The King of Limbs is the soundtrack to a futuristic Ambien dance party.
The digital blipstream & clumsy snare-flurry loop of opener "Bloom" is lucent hallucination music, Thom Yorke’s dreamscape vocals dissolving into a whir of echoes and strings. No chorus, no riff, no ultimate payoff, no apologies. Guitars don’t noticeably appear until the long-brewing studio debut of "Morning Mr. Magpie" (a very different version of the track was debuted in a 2002 webcast), a gently frantic rhythm framing Yorke.
"You’ve got some nerve coming here," Thom seethes on repeat, before one descending guitar note at 1:08 drops a psychic anchor, a pebble thrown into the sonic stream with just enough force to shift the current ever so slightly. The chorus is equally understated, the song’s riff and pace unchanged over rising spaceship synths that give way to a sense of deep-space floatation, punctuated by Thom’s gasps for breath. "You know you should, but you don’t," he croons upon return, condemnation in tight sonic spaces.
There’s a comfortable confidence here, a familiar spirit with a totally disregard for commercial accessibility. The passive listener, anticipating the anchor tracks that serve as access points to most Radiohead albums ("Packt Like Sardines," "National Anthem," "2+2=5," etc.), will find dissonant alienation in the fact that there is no naked sensuality as on "House of Cards," no buoyant uplifting of "Bodysnatchers".
There is, however, no shortage of the band’s longstanding propensity for seductive exoticism, as evidenced in "Little By Little". On this delicate haunt at high speeds, Tarantino meets Radiohead on a drive down Highway 66. Much has been made of Jonny Greenwood’s explorations into soundscape compositions and orchestral arrangements, but in contrast with Yorke’s often-repeated "tunes are dead, rhythm is everything" ideal, the guitarist finds himself a color man more than a driver of the sound.
The unsettling nature of Feral pushes the limits of the listener’s threshold for avant-garde soundscape indulgence. Sparse guitar/synth waves and drums like an army of mechanical grasshoppers set the tone before Thom echoes in, then out, a wordless loop of sounds that rises and falls like a digital tide. The cerebellum massage of the bass & beat outro won’t do much to save the track’s repeat value, which is nonexistent if not to serve the greater mood of the album.
Following the highwater mark of gorgeous falsetto-creep "Lotus Flower," the album’s two most subdued tracks run in succession: the mournful piano dirge of "Codex" (Latin for "tree trunk," for you conspiracists) featuring such sparse poetic isolationism as "Sleight of hand / Jump off the edge / Into a clear lake / No one around," a fitting lead-in to "Give Up The Ghost". Chirping birds introduce a ghostly swirl of processed vocal backdrops and sad softstep acoustic strums, a soundtrack to the end of the world, faint spirits gently begging "Don’t hurt me".
"Separator" is a quietly optimistic conclusion, rays of bright assurance & smooth soulfulness breaking through the clouds of the previous two tracks. Call it a post-dubstep ambient soul-trance handclap revolution, call it a forced hand of evolutionary musical pretense, call it a waste of time or the greatest musical event of our lives. Whatever your opinion, it will be hotly contested, as Radiohead have just released their most polarizing album since the tectonic realignment of Kid A.
The naked humanity of In Rainbows has largely disappeared back down the rabbit hole, replaced with an abstract vulnerability that doesn’t warn of imminent doom in a wave of techno-paranoia like their turn of the century work, or dig into the heart like a beautiful alien tick as their last album did. Instead, it conveys a postmodern sobriety and allows the band a way to begin anew without forcing new frontiers.
"If you think this is over, then you’re wrong," Yorke taunts as the album concludes, a proud keeper of secrets dancing in the sunshine. Whatever he means, whatever the indication, there always seems to be more to the picture just outside our grasp. If nothing else, Radiohead have become masters of nuance, and we can’t help but remain fascinated.
CraveOnline Rating: 7 out of 10