Whatever format of this you end up with – download, CD, “newspaper album” (whatever the hell that is) – is largely irrelevant. The way we buy and listen to music is changing – but the music itself remains the whole point. Without it there would be no download, no product, no MP3 or CD or newspaper album. The King of Limbs isn’t a download, or a CD, or a pair of 10-inch vinyl records, it’s an album. Of music. To be listened to. Eight tracks of music making up Radiohead’s latest album.
And a great one too. It takes a few listens, because there is so much musical information to be taken in, but eventually the thing, er, blooms in your head like a monstrous, beautiful alien flower. Fans of the Bends/OK Computer era will be frustrated (again!), but those who appreciate Radohead’s more experimental side will be delighted. This is their most “extreme” album yet by their terms – for there is of course far more extreme and experimental music out there against which The King of Limbs would seem like Level 42.
It’s got the intricacy and beauty of In Rainbows, but it masks this behind initially frustrating layers of drum programming and “glitch” and God knows what else, so that on first listen it sounds fussy, overdone, desperate to keep up with the times. Further listens however reveal the clever and beautiful structures behind all this. It’s at once floaty and gossamer-delicate, and deep and earthy, with some amazing, swooping basslines. Thom Yorke’s voice is treated on most tracks, and used as if it were another instrument, merging into the music to astonishing effect. There are guitars, but this album bears the influence of Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack work (e.g. There Will Be Blood) more than any other Radiohead record. It’s hard to tell which bits of the drumming are “live” or programmed, which adds to the mystery.
It starts rather like In Rainbows Disc 2 with a looped piano tinkle, and then we’re into Bloom. “Open your mouth wide, a universal sigh”, yawns Yorke, perhaps anticipating the groans of the OK Comp drones. The music is fast and skittery with a superb repeating bassline, subtle and hooky with a satisfyingly deep pay-off, somehow reminiscent of previous album openers Airbag and Planet Telex. The middle bit goes jazzy with a muted crescendo of horns and synths before the main theme reasserts itself. Yes, jazzy! I would say this was Radiohead’s folk-jazz-glitch album, if I felt like stuffing pigeons into holes.
Good Morning Mr Magpie is next, an old song buried under layers of programming and swirls of – stuff. Yes, it is hard to write about music sometimes! This has a chorus, and a good one, which should calm down the Compers. Little By Little follows – and on initial listening is horrible, all you can hear is the tricksy percussion. But further investigation reveals clever chord structures. Definitely a grower. Ending “Side 1” (I just can’t stop myself from thinking that way!) is Feral, the only really inessential track, and, as many have said, it DOES sound like Burial, or like Radiohead are trying too hard to sound all hip and modern. It does end, though, with the most amazingly sinister bass synth ever, worth hearing on a decent system.
Then come four of the best tracks and the most perfect song sequence Radiohead have ever recorded. Lotus Flower, my favourite track here, is, er, bloody beautiful. Propelled by a choppy bassline and thwacking drums… gah I’m not going to bother trying to describe the music any more, I’m beginning to feel like an early ’90s NME hack, it’ll be sonic cathedrals next. Suffice to say, Lotus Flower is lovely and Thom Yorke’s vocals are sublime. Next is Codex, a fairly trad RH piano ballad but just listen to the last minute or so, they’re beginning to sound like Talk Talk circa Laughing Stock! Now this is a direction I’d love them to pursue. Give Up The Ghost follows, a woozy acoustic ballad with instrumentation that recalls Can’s Ege Bamyasi album. If you’re gonna sound like someone, sound like Can. Or The Fall. The final track, Separator, is surprisingly upbeat, with a catchy, somehow Indian-sounding bassline, finishing off with a lovely twinkling guitar refrain that sounds a bit like The Blue Aeroplanes (don’t say “Who?”).
So overall a beautiful, interesting, multi-layered album that’s a treat for the ears and repays listening on a decent hi-fi or through decent headphones. What more do you want?