Here, then – a day earlier than expected – is our track by track guide to Radiohead’s eighth album.
Opens with an echo-laden piano intro, before settling into an awkward, lop-sided rhythm, while an insistent bass line taps away like Morse code. Prettified by lush-sounding brass, it does that ‘Kid A’ thing of sounding organic and synthetic at the same time, dredging human feeling from seemingly forbidding material. That said, it’s still a bracingly avant-garde, almost formless affair. ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’ it is not.
Morning Mr Magpie
A thrumming guitar riff echoes ‘Unforgettable Fire’-era U2, while lyrically Thom’s back in the adversarial, finger-pointing mode familiar from ‘Amnesiac’ (“You’ve got some nerve coming here”). You feel such a dullard saying things like “innovative bass playing”, but it really is – counterpoints all over the place. Meanwhile, a pulsing siren noise in the background creates a mood of mounting panic, before the track fades out amid electronic static and bird song.
Little By Little
Boasts one of those chunky Radiohead riffs in the ‘I Might Be Wrong’ mould, underpinned by shuffling percussion reminiscent of ‘Reckoner’. Like ‘Bloom’, the rhythm seems designed to wrongfoot and unsettle you – at times it sounds like two songs running at the same time. Standout lyric? “I am such a tease and you’re such a flirt”. Grr, he’s a tiger! File alongside such other Sexy Thom moments as ‘Talk Show Host’ and his turn on PJ Harvey’s ‘This Mess We’re In’.
Heavily treated vocals float in and out, while the different instruments – a bit of chainsaw bass here, a chime of keyboard there – sound like they exist in different universes entirely. In the run-up to ‘Kid A”s release Thom Yorke said he was bored of melody. Now it looks like he’s bored of traditional rock rhythms. Er, again.
What a subtle but powerful song this is, anchored by a sleekly propulsive bass line and capped with a truly beautiful, almost Prince-like falsetto vocal. Probably the only song on ‘The King Of Limbs’ with what could be described as an actual chorus, it seems to be about the magic of losing yourself in music and the senses: “Slowly we unfurl as lotus flowers…”
A relative of ‘Pyramid Song’ in more ways than one. Just as that song opened with an image of jumping into water, ‘Codex’ offers up an ambiguous vision of leaping “into a clear lake, no-one around.” The loping piano chords are similar too. Four minutes in, a string section enters to spine-tingling effect.
The song ends with more static and bird song – there seems to be an over-arching theme at work: the natural world in tension with modernity. Stately and mysterious, I suspect ‘Codex’ will be this album’s ‘Reckoner’, a standout track that grows in stature over time and becomes a fan favourite.
Give Up The Ghost
Acoustic guitar, more bird song… Jonny Greenwood doesn’t have much of a presence on this album, but his input on this track is magnificent, combining precise, spiralling arpeggios with Sigur Ros-style violin bow-type sound effects. Featuring richly layered vocals, this is a song to immerse yourself in. Bucolic but enigmatic, it’s unlike anything they’ve ever done before.
Another intriguing song that initially sounds shapeless but develops into a compelling, immersive groove. It also features the unlikely lyric: “I’m a fish now, underwater”. In common with most of the tracks on this album, there’s an enormous amount of reverb and echo on everything, making the lyrics indistinct and creating a vaguely unreal, dreamlike quality.
The title ‘The King Of Limbs’ (which refers to an ancient tree in Wiltshire) convinced some people Radiohead might deliver a more organic-sounding, even pastoral album. But it’s not like that at all. Admittedly it’s crammed with images of the natural world – cool inviting lakes, flowers, fish, fruit – but it’s hardly a folky, Bon Iver-style affair.
Some even speculated that ‘The King Of Limbs’ might finally contain ‘lost’ anthems such as ‘Lift’. Fat chance, basically. This is an avant-garde record, and most definitely not a return to the crowd-pleasing songwriting of the ‘OK Computer’ era.
In a sense it’s a continuation of ‘In Rainbows’ in that Radiohead have now worked out how to be experimental without sacrificing the human element. As on that record, they display the knack of sounding deceptively machine-like. It sounds electronic even when it isn’t – but there’s always a pearl of soulfulness hidden within.
In crude terms, it’s probably more an ‘Amnesiac’ than an ‘In Rainbows’ or ‘Kid A’, a record to admire more than truly love. That said, we’ve only lived with it for a couple of hours. The image of an unfolding lotus flower is probably a good symbol for the album itself: no doubt it will unfurl more of its secrets over time.