The water’s clear and innocent: Radiohead – The King of Limbs

We’ve been listening to it for over a month, but today is the day that The King of Limbs finally drops at record stores everywhere. As odd as it seems I still don’t know where I stand with it. Radiohead has been one of my favourite bands since the late 90’s and every album since Kid A has been amazing after the first listen, until now. The King of Limbs is the most complex album Radiohead has released, with two distinct halves, one showcasing sonic experiments, the other an evolution of their traditional sound.

Remember some of the more difficult recordings Radiohead has recorded over the years: ‘Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors’, ‘The Gloaming’ and ‘Kinetic’, well the first half of KoL kind of plays like a collection of those. There is a lot going on in these songs which makes the songs seem trapped and confined on most conventional sound systems. Even with the opportunity to listen on a good sound system the first four songs are difficult and unlike anything Radiohead has done before. It should be noted that Radiohead have been listening to a lot of electronic music lately, specifically dubstep, and some fans are even calling Side A dubstep Radiohead.

‘Bloom’ opens the record with a haunting piano riff, a few seconds later an electronic pulse is added, followed by a drum beat reminiscent of early drum and bass. The track chugs along, but there is a distinct rhythm behind everything. It’s close enough to dance to, but your body can’t decide what to do. About 3 minutes in the song reveals a film-like soundscape that pops up sporatically throughout the rest of the track. It often feels like the track is trying to break free, or bloom, as the title suggests, but instead it closes back in on itself never revealing its full potential.

‘Morning Mr. Magpie’, dates back to 2002, from a webcast before Hail to the Thief was released. Back then it was an acoustic number, with very similar lyrics. Jump forward 11 years and it has become a percussion based track accented with Jonny Greenwood’s characteristic Radiohead sounding guitar and a tension builder post-punk guitar(?) line. Check out the original webcast version below:

“Little by little by hook or by crook, I’m such a tease and you’re such a flirt”, is the most upbeat lyric from the next track ‘Little by Little’. In a song that is driven again by percussion and guitars the lyrics, in typical Yorke fashion, are incomprehensible at times, but this really is a dark song with some lines straight out of Ok Computer: “Obligations, Complications, Routines and schedules, A job that’s killing you”.

Follow this up with the untamed bass heavy ‘Feral’ and you have a first half of a record that at times is brilliant as much as it is confusing. It’s a tension heavy side, a lot is going on in the songs, but it feels like they are being held together very tightly. These sound like studio crafted songs, but there comes a point where you want them to break free. It will be interesting to see how these translate live, dramatic changes may be needed to make them work.

On to Side B. The second half of the record is hauntingly beautiful and contains 3 songs in a row that I consider some of Radiohead’s best. While the first half feels claustrophobic, the second half feels open and organic. ‘Codex’ and ‘Give up the Ghost’ are the best representation of this as the band sounds like they are playing along the English countryside.  It is quite a dichotomy that really separates the album.

First single ‘Lotus Flower’ still retains the electronic feel of the first half, but it is the closest to a traditional song structure that appears on the album so far. Known in the Radiohead community as a song that was played live on Thom Yorke’s 2009 solo tour, where it was an acoustic number, on KoL it becomes driven by organ and drums. It’s a dance song! Request it at your favourite dance spot. Try out Yorke’s dance moves as shown in the video below.

‘Codex’ and ‘Give Up The Ghost’ sound like Radiohead, one a piano ballad, the other a guitar one. To compare ‘Codex’ to other Radiohead songs, one would jump to ‘Pyramid Song’ or even ‘Sail to the Moon’. There is something about the tone of the piano that just gets to me every time I listen to it. Flourishes of horns and strings appear once in awhile and add some fantastic atmosphere to it. It ends with what sounds like a rewinded tape with bird sounds that leads into the haunting ‘Give Up The Ghost’. This track uses Yorke’s vocals as part of the rhythm repeating, “Don’t haunt me, Don’t hurt me”. Yorke has been a firm believer in using his voice as an instrument since The Eraser and uses the technique here to great effect. And when he sings, “I think I should give up the ghost, in your arms”, I think I’ve just experienced the best part of the album. Did I mention this is my favourite track?

‘Separator’ brings the whole band back together for what sounds like a Radiohead song with everyone contributing. Have we heard that before on this album? Maybe on the first side, but back then there was so much happening it was really hard to tell. This song is to blame for the rumours that there will be a King of Limbs part 2, because of the lyric, “If you think this is over, then you’re wrong”, even if Jonny has said in interviews that this is the whole album. It’s a great song, but it really hasn’t clicked with me yet, but it will, oh yes it will.

I’ve heard and voiced complaints about there only being 8 songs on the album. I think this would be a better album with one more track on side A that would allow some breathing room. I’ve considered another track on side B, but the flow is already perfect, so no need there. And those who need more Radiohead there will be a limited 12″ coming out on Record Store Day, which is April 16th. Sadly this is rumoured to only be available in the UK, and will include two new tracks: ‘Supercollider’ and ‘The Butcher’. We’ll try to get them for you here on Bolsteryourholster to listen to.

One of the great things about The King of Limbs is that it still has room to grow. Time will tell where it lands in Radiohead’s cannon, but for now it seems a bit of a black sheep. Two contrasting sides, one electronic and closed, the other organic and open, make KoL a difficult album to digest on first listen. Give it some time, and let Radiohead take you where they want you to go, because you know you want to join them, sometimes you just have to.

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