Radiohead, The King of Limbs Review

I’ve always had a really dumb love/hate relationship with Radiohead.  When I was 16, I heard OK Computer for the first time, and my teenage mind was utterly blown.  That was sometime in 2000.  After I heard that record, I declared Radiohead my second favorite band of all time, and seriously thought they might challenge the Beatles for supremacy as my favorite rock and roll monolith.  Of course, I was a very impressionable 16 year old, and hadn’t extensively heard that much rock and roll besides the Beatles.  As time shuffled forward, Radiohead had fallen WAY down the list of  bands I love, to the point where the idea of hearing from them really kind of annoyed me.  The dumb aspect of me hating them all started when I was 18 or 19, when I went with my friend Ian to lovely Camden NJ (Murder Capital of the US) to see Radiohead play live.  Somehow we got duped into buying counterfeit tickets, got thrown out at the gate by a ticket agent who just laughed in our faces, and cops who treated us like we just stabbed somebody.  So, there we were, waiting for HOURS by a dangerous pier outside the arena, because we had a friend who got into the concert, who needed a ride home.  I was scared.  There was a crazy homeless man who wouldn’t leave us alone unless we bought weed off him, and I just gave him the 6 bucks left in my wallet to leave us alone.  Ian wanted to sneak into the show somehow, but we had chatted up a naval officer of some kind who was also doubling as a lookout for the cops, and I was paranoid he would call us in if we tried something crazy like that.  Needless to say, after that night, I kind of hated cops, New Jersey, big concerts, and by extension, Radiohead. 

I remember getting Hail to the Thief soon after that, playing it once, and having no desire to ever hear it again.  By the time In Rainbows came out, I did the same thing, played it once, hated it less, but had no desire to play it ever again.  Skipping to as recently as 3 weeks ago, with this dismissive Radiohead attitude I had developed having fully dissipated due to total indifference, I found myself putting OK Computer back on my iPod out of curiosity.  I enjoyed the first 4 or 5 songs, but then lost interest soon after that.  Then a few days ago, out of nowhere, I read that they had a new album called King of Limbs coming out on the 19th.  I didn’t know if I’d get it till early this morning.  After reading this article in the nytimes ( the night before, I was convinced to impulsively buy it and review it for you folks.  Not only that, I’ve provided a link to the entire record for you, courtesy of the fine folks on youtube, which you can listen to right HERE!

So here I am at 8:33 AM with the record spinning out its last track.  I’ll go through it track by track, but having heard it once, my first impression is that there is nothing surprising about this record.  Its just the classic Radiohead sound.  Its melancholy, dark, clean, and mellow.  Longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich returns, and with him, they ride a pristine and lush psychedelic groove all the way to the end.  All of the balladry is restrained and mysterious, the lyrics are obscured and hard to pick out, and the faster songs pulse pleasingly, in repetitive techno grooves.  Its very well made music, but for me, it continues their trend of no longer being confrontational.  This type of music is designed to be experiential, not arresting.  I originally fell in love with the group because they used to be both of those things.  The music was always beautiful, but they would also grab you by the throat and knock you down with their dramatic musical twists and soaring pathos.  It was extremely vulnerable music written by a very sad man with a beautiful voice.  This new music sounds like that man has numbed himself with psychotropic drugs, and is making music for people who have done the same.  Perhaps they should have called this record Xanax Alprazolam.  Well anyway, here are the tracks.

#1.  Bloom.  It opens with a promising gorgeous piano line that quickly morphs into stutter stop techno track.  Thom eventually starts singing something incomprehensible, perhaps about moving out?  I don’t know, he doesn’t want you to know what he’s saying, rather he wants you to feel the shimmer of his perfect voice, which would be fine if the melody wasn’t so minimal and undramatic.  A very unmemorable opener for me.

#2. Morning Mr. Magpie.  Alright, more interesting.  A killer bass groove.  Is that Johnny Greenwood’s snyth or Colin Greenwood’s bass?  I have no idea.  It is really great.  Oh!  And I actually caught a few lyrics by Thom this time.  “Good Morning Mr. Magpie, how are we today?”  Then he starts slurring some more, and I lose it.  Anyway, the song pulses along with some cool whisper chanting that Thom is really good for, and some really nice keyboard work.  After hearing the whole record a couple of times, this is the one that seems the most memorable for me.

#3.  Little by Little.  It starts with an intoxicating rhythmic shuffle, and another really fantastic melodic bass line.  I gotta hand it to Radiohead, they are counter melodic bass geniuses.  I think its the main reason people forgive their increasing inscrutableness is because they always provide pleasure pleasing bass lines that tap deep into your spine.  Again, I have no idea whatsoever Thom is singing, and its starting to annoy me because he’s doing it on purpose.  I think he is a very talented lyricist, and fully capable of making himself clear when he wants, but I have no desire to track these words down, and I don’t understand why he has to obscure them.  I guess it plays into his whole, “I’m so tortured, and its not my fault if you people can’t understand my warbled bleeding expressions.”  Or maybe its just his English accent.  Perhaps people in England recognize instinctively the way he puts his syllables together and have no problem discerning all his musings.  So, maybe its just my American ears.

#4.  Feral.  My least favorite track thus far.  Its rhythm is just like Bloom, some kind of hurried stop-start techno beat.  On top of that, we get Thom just making some repetitive tones, and there is some real uninteresting snyth work too.  The shortest track on the record.  Very boring.

#5.  Lotus Flower.  Maybe Feral was part 1 of Lotus Flower, as the rhythm and melodic key sounds very similar.  On this one, I can decipher a few more lyrics, “I will set you free,” and maybe, “Just to see you running,” and uhhh, “Just to see your face balloon in head?”  Well, there is actually a bit of melody on this one, and you can’t deny the pure addictive tonality of Thom’s voice that probably lets him get away with more then he should on a song by song basis.  Anyway, as the song progresses, he reaches more and more for the falsetto, and just when you think its getting terrible, he is again saved by a real nice bass line.  Maybe they should have called this record, “Collin Greenwood and Friends.”

#6.  Codex.  Thom really knows how to write excellent slow psychedelic piano pop.  One of my favorite songs of theirs has always been Pyramid Song.  Why can’t Thom just make a record of him unpretentiously playing his piano and singing his heart out?  I’m sure he is amazing in his own house playing songs for his family and friends on his piano with nothing else.  Something I think he should consider.  Anyway, in Codex, we catch Thom at his piano, singing something beautiful, dark, and clear…well, musically clear, still having trouble figuring out the words.   He might have said something about jumping off something.  Not sure, but, this is a highlight for me.

#7.  Give Up the Ghost.  Great title.  Great unexpected sound of acoustic guitar.  Great captivating vocal.  Thom sounds like our favorite unintelligible angel again, but an angel nonetheless.  Maybe Thom is the last angel of rock and roll.  I don’t know what that means, but I love giving out titles to rock and rollers.  My only problem with this pretty track is that it doesn’t build to any great moment like you suspect it might.  It just builds on the beauty of the single melody until it fades into the last track.

#8.  Separator.  Ok, I get it, your song titles are just as obscure as your lyrics.  Looking back, what the hell could a song like Codex or Bloom possibly be about.  Well, the answer is vibe, which leads to my ultimate conclusion about Radiohead and their latest album.  They aren’t a pop band anymore.  They have decided to become an ambient techno snyth band.  Ever since OK Computer, Radiohead has teased its audience with albums that defy their expectation of waiting for another classic orchestral guitar Pink Floyd type masterpiece.  Now that they are all in their early to mid 40s, I think its time to give up that dream and just see Radiohead for what they are.  Some kind of slow paced IDM group fronted by an incredibly gifted singer.  For me, and millions of other classic rock nerds, its disappointing, because we all suspect they STILL could provide us with what we want, that being a classic pop album along the lines of the Dark Side of the Moon or Abbey Road. But, alas, they insist on pressing on with the style they discovered on Kid A. Don’t get me wrong, I really like Kid A, but I thought it was going to be a one-off departure to color their impressive LP catalog.  Instead, it was the bands mission statement, and they refuse to get away from it.  Whatever, they still make beautiful music, boring beautiful music, but beautiful.  I’ve heard this record 4 times this morning, and while I think it is crafted with excellence and polished with a perfect sheen, it doesn’t sound like it took “four years to write,” as the nytimes proclaimed in the article above.  How could it have been?  It sounds like it was written in 3 weeks, and meticulously produced at a slow pace over a year.  I have no idea what the reality of its production was, but I just get the sense that they all got together when they could with no pressure, and made something for the hell of it.  It is not the work of motivated geniuses with something to prove, but rather accomplished music hobbyists who like making pleasantly weird music.  Why are they still together?  Probably because they enjoy each others company.  Which is fine, but their artistry, like most bands who stick together for 20 plus years, has slowly given way to something less visceral, and less vital.

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