Radiohead, my favorite band, has been something of a process for me: first, the process of discovery (relatively quick- the first notes of 1997’s OK Computer had me at hello); next, the process of collection, as I worked my way through all of the intricacies and excitements of their catalog; finally, the process of waiting. This final step occurred somewhere between the release of In Rainbows in 2007 and last week, as I realized I had heard every Radiohead song of the past 19 years and wondered when I could finally hear more.
When Thom Yorke & Co. gave the music world a Valentine’s Day present by announcing their long-anticipated eighth album, I hit the ceiling. When, on Friday, they gave in to excitement and released the antidote to my unrest in the form of The King of Limbs, I immediately began listening.
Of their previous seven albums, Radiohead has five masterpieces. Three reveal themselves as such instantl, OK Computer, Kid A, In Rainbows. The other two, The Bends and Amnesiac, seem incomparable to these when first heard. However, after devoted listening, they become somewhat of a religious experience. The King of Limbs, which I do believe to be a masterpiece, falls into this second category. While it may be off-putting on first play, a few listens will make you love it. Then it will do what every great Radiohead album does: it will inspire you and add more to your understanding of music with each listen.
After releasing the perfectly constructed and beautifully wrought alt-rock masterpiece of In Rainbows, it seemed that Radiohead had reached their creative apex: unbeatable confidence in their musical prowess and a sharpened degree of honesty in their lyrics. Naturally, I assumed that their next album would continue this trend. Indeed it does, but not how most thought it would.
The opening notes of “Bloom” establish the fractured sound of The King of Limbs. Staggering sampled jazz drums and watery bass stabs create an atmosphere of unrest, while Thom Yorke’s voice and the occasional full orchestra add melodic intensity. Like the album as a whole, while completely disjointed, it manages to flow smoothly and entice regardless.
This album is rife with experimentation. The obscure electronica bent of “Bloom” is pursued further on “Feral,” a wordless song that grooves with a frantic polyrhythm and ambient vocal drip-drops until an ominous and addictive bass line enters the scene, turning the innocent jam a shade darker. The loose “Little by Little” explores the sexual tension first unearthed on In Rainbows’ “House of Cards” while stretching the boundaries of electric guitar. The haunting “Give up the Ghost” echoes like a contemplative soliloquy in a vast graveyard. Its plaintive acoustic guitar and sweeping vocals truly sound like a message from another world.
Elsewhere, the clean and atmospheric style of The King of Limbs’ predecessor resurfaces, albeit melted into simpler new shapes. “Lotus Flower” combines a lulling beat, brooding bass and spare keyboards with a vocal sounding like it was recorded in an airplane hangar. The song’s chorus is a beautiful and moving testament to the tragic strength of a single lonely human, trying to find his way through the emptiness of his own heart.
I have heard The King of Limbs criticized as too similar to Radiohead’s experimental albums of the early 2000s (Kid A and its jazzy evil twin Amnesiac). But while these albums changed the band’s style so radically that any future shifts in sound will be inevitably compared to them, I think the key difference here is in the confidence level. At the turn of the millennium, Radiohead were creating music from a position of alienation and despair, attempting to separate themselves as much as possible from the bleak soundscapes they created. But as they grew older, they gained more and more control over their own realities. This album finds them venturing back into the polar wastelands of Kid A and the unfeeling metropolises of OK Computer with confidence in their step. They embrace the fear, internalize it, and create out of it. They bring human warmth to the terminal cold, hoping in a way that only they can.
In an album so disjointed and complex, the emotional heart can be found in the simplest song, “Codex,” an understated lullaby that lolls in phased piano and infinite space. In a revelatory lyrical moment, Thom Yorke croons to listeners to “jump off the edge/into a clear lake.” This quick juxtaposition of terror with calm just about sums up the grim precipice that The King of Limbs dances along. In its most beautiful moments, it is at its saddest. As the music softens, the lyrics intensify. Like a true masterpiece, it is able to fully explore the entire spectrum of human emotion in the world it inhabits. Unlike most masterpieces, it will make its point, over and over, in a quick and poignant segment, not of an hour, but of your life.
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