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Album Review: Radiohead - The King Of Limbs (XL)

NME’s verdict on Yorke and the gang’s eighth

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You’ll read a lot in these pages about the method of [b]‘The King Of Limbs’[/b]’ release. But let’s face it: the moment it actually arrived should be the moment when all those digi-debates faded into background chatter… just as long as the album was any good. [b]Thom Yorke[/b] could come goose-stepping down your driveway, barking, “[i]Roll up! Roll up![/i]” through a megaphone, before forcibly poking the CD through your letterbox with a lightsabre, and it’d still create a “social media buzz”. That’s because people just bloody love [a]Radiohead[/a], with a deathless devotion that time cannot wither, nor free jazz saxophones stale.

Actually, that’s not quite true. Some [a]Radiohead[/a] fans found their passion waning a little in the wake of 2003’s [b]‘Hail To The Thief’[/b], their second hard-to-really-love album in a row. But then [b]‘In Rainbows’[/b] came along in 2007 and reset everyone’s enthusiasm. Miraculously well produced, and sonically gorgeous in a velveteen, red wine kind of way, songs such as [b]‘Reckoner’[/b] reintroduced the gut-level human element that had been missing post-[b]‘Kid A’[/b].

Hence the high level of expectation attending [b]‘The King Of Limbs’[/b]. As soon as the title was revealed – it’s a reference to an ancient tree in Savernake Forest, Wiltshire – [a]Radiohead[/a] nerds began puzzling over hidden meanings. One indie website even went as far as tracking down the mighty oak itself (conclusion: it looks, er, really old and stuff). Some speculated that the album might finally unearth such lost [b]‘OK Computer’[/b]-era anthems as ‘Lift’, others that it would feature a more organic, pastoral sound than previous releases.

All wrong, as it turns out. [b]‘The King Of Limbs’[/b] has the same relation to [b]‘In Rainbows’[/b] as [b]‘Amnesiac’[/b] did to [b]‘Kid A’[/b]: ie, stylistically similar, but not as good. It is [a]Radiohead[/a]’s most ambient album to date, with thick layers of echo and reverb creating a watery, dreamlike feel that is further evoked by the various marine images – the oceans, lakes and fish – that recur throughout. 

It’s also bracingly avant-garde in places, with rhythms seemingly designed to throw you off balance: on [b]‘Bloom’[/b] and [b]‘Little By Little’[/b] the effect is disorientating, like you can’t quite find your place in the groove. In fact, you’d hesitate to describe [b]‘The King Of Limbs’[/b] as a rock album at all. There’s very little guitar. Beyond some [b]Sigur Rós[/b]-style atmospherics on [b]‘Give Up The Ghost’[/b], Jonny Greenwood as a guitarist is the real ghost on this record.

Highlights? [b]‘Codex’[/b] would slot neatly onto any playlist of [a]Radiohead[/a]’s most beautiful songs. It’s a close relation to [b]‘Pyramid Song’[/b] – same reference to jumping into water, same looming piano chords – but where that track sounded ominous and troubled, ‘Codex’ is shimmering and full of light. [b]‘Lotus Flower’[/b] is a marvel, too. A frictionless slab of robo-funk, sung with a [a]Prince[/a]-like falsetto croon, it’s a powerfully... sexy song by a band not exactly known for their hip-swivelling lasciviousness. It’s also the only track on the album that you could describe as having an actual chorus.

None of which would be a problem if [b]‘The King Of Limbs’[/b] could be said to be about anything. Admittedly, there does seem to be a theme of technology in conflict with the natural world – we hear bird song juxtaposed with electronic static in at least two songs – but those ideas don’t bleed into the lyrics. In fact, there’s so much reverb covering everything that Yorke’s words are sometimes indecipherable. What’s that he’s singing in [b]‘Lotus Flower’[/b]? Something about a “[i]monk of honesty[/i]”? He wants to feel “[i]your fast-ballooning head[/i]”? It’s impossible to tell.

This matters, because the brilliance of [a]Radiohead[/a] has never just been about their sound; it was always about the words too. In the early days ([b]‘Creep’[/b]), Yorke sang about personal anguish. Then, on [b]‘The Bends’[/b] and [b]‘OK Computer’[/b], he articulated the shared psychic pain of modernity. From [b]‘Kid A’[/b] onwards he turned his anger outwards towards politics ([b]‘You And Whose Army’[/b]). But now what is he singing about? Nothing – he’s floating around in a bucolic fantasy land of flowers and magpies. What happened to the paranoia, the finger-pointing rage?

It’s actually kind of chillwave, this muzzy-headed sense of disconnectedness. Towards the end of the album, there’s a feeling of hearing sounds while slipping between sleep and wakefulness – birdsong, snatches of lyrics, instruments fading lazily in and out. It’s telling that the album ends with Yorke singing “wake me up” over and over again. This is, in the end, a sleepy-sounding record.

For that reason, [b]‘The King Of Limbs’[/b] is more an [b]‘Amnesiac’[/b] than an [b]‘In Rainbows’[/b] or an [b]‘OK Computer’[/b]: a record to respect for its craft, rather than worship for its greatness. Listen to it enough times and you may convince yourself you love it. But let’s not kid ourselves that it’s up there with their best work. It just isn’t. 

One of the many [a]Radiohead[/a] rumours is that [b]‘The King Of Limbs’[/b] is merely the first instalment of a larger body of work – and considering how long they worked on it for, it’s a possibility. Let’s hope so. Because by this band’s standards, these eight tracks feel like a thin return after over three years away.

[b]7/10[/b]

[i]Luke Lewis[/i]

The King Of LimbsOrder a copy of Radiohead's 'The King Of Limbs' from Amazon

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