I’ve gotta be honest with you, folks. I seriously contemplated getting drunk to review Radiohead’s brand-spanking-new The King of Limbs. But then I remembered that it’s eight in the morning, I’m fighting what I think is a pretty nasty sinus infection, and I’m not in college anymore. So I guess a cup of coffee and a fistful of Sudafed will have to do the trick. Somewhere, Lester Bangs is nodding in agreement.
There’s an inherent difficulty in reviewing Radiohead records for me, largely because I don’t believe the band eats sunlight and shits rainbows. I like Radiohead well enough, don’t get me wrong, but I by no means like every one of their albums (I happen to think that Amnesiac can go fuck itself, for instance). However, this is a band with some pretty scary fans (and some pretty lovely ones – I know plenty of rational people who like Radiohead), some of whom will deify the band first and justify their sins later (I can’t wait to see a fan’s defense of “Feral”, but we’ll discuss that song in a minute). So let’s just all bear in mind that this post is about what I think of The King of Limbs and only about what I think of it. Do with that information what you will.
The King of Limbs was released basically last Friday, after being announced like a week before that. I’m all in favor of this kind of release model because, as a fan of music, I hate knowing an album’s release date and finding that it’s still months away. Waiting is very un-American, you see, so Radiohead’s nearly instant gratification of their fans earns them bonus points right out of the gate. The album is bass-and-drum heavy (“Bloom” opens with some Phil Selway beats that will not be all that alien to people own the last Portishead record) but seems to be largely free of the excessive laptop love that plagued Thom Yorke’s solo album. It’s also largely free of the suck that plagued Yorke’s Coachella set last year (he played with his other band, Atoms for Peace. My hope is that The King of Limbs means Atoms for Peace is over once and for all. They were embarrassingly bad).
Like every Radiohead album that is not The Bends or OK Computer (which are both deserving of pretty much every ounce of adoration you can heap upon them), The King of Limbs is going to take some time to grow on me. I like its relative brevity (eight tracks, not quite forty minutes), which has allowed me to work my way through it about eight times in the last two days. In general, I think The King of Limbs is a little more musically exciting than 2008’s In Rainbows, although that album had its good bits too (“Reckoner” being probably the best). On the first few listens, I like most of the songs on The King of Limbs and I can really only point to one that I think definitely sucks.
That would be the inexcusable “Feral.” I paid nine dollars for The King of Limbs, which is about a dollar and twelve cents per song. If I could get my buck-twelve back for “Feral,” I’d be very happy indeed. It’s the sort of studio masturbation that only Radiohead’s most devout followers will find a way to excuse; for the band’s detractors (and, this being the internet, they have many. If any given Radiohead album comes into the world with fans ready to crown it the Greatest Thing Ever Made, it also comes into the world facing a built-in backlash simply because Radiohead made it. To be clear, again, I am on neither one of these teams), “Feral” is a song they can point to and justifiably ask, “What’s all the fuss about?”
That said, there are plenty of things to like about The King of Limbs. As I listen to it right now, I really enjoy the back half of the album. Granted, “Feral” sets the bar pretty low, but I like the layered vocal tracks on “Give Up the Ghost” and the haunting piano ballad “Codex” is pretty lovely too. I get the feeling that, since the success of songs like “Creep,” “High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees,” Radiohead has wrestled with their talent for writing catchy songs. I read somewhere that Thom Yorke refers to “High and Dry” as his Rod Steward phase, which is funny but also kind of sad. Sure, “High and Dry” is simple, but it’s a beautiful song in its own right. I think, between In Rainbows and The King of Limbs, Radiohead has kind of worked up the courage to craft twisted – yet melodic – pop songs again. Certainly “Separator”, which closes the new record, is a subtle but lovely pop tune (same goes for “Little By Little”) and its chorus is one of the best melodies on the album.
Honestly, I think it would be great if Radiohead continues to release albums eight songs at a time, pretty much whenever they have them done. I think they, like R.E.M. and a Nine Inch Nails, have a tendency to fuss over things a bit too much in the studio (this is an opinion, Radiohead zealots. I don’t much enjoy really fussed-over music), and that’s a habit that can be especially deadly to guys who have a lot of musical know-how. Perfectionism dehumanizes art, so you shouldn’t want your favorite band to be perfect. Radiohead is far from perfect, of course, but I think releasing shorter albums more frequently might help them loosen up and be a little more playful (as opposed to fastidious) in the studio.
The King of Limbs, if you ignore “Feral” (which I certainly intend to do for as long as I shall live), has lots of layers and textures to sort out, but it doesn’t feel overstuffed. There’s apt to be a lot of talk about “accessibility” surrounding this album because it’s a Radiohead album and critics like to think they’re smarter than you for “getting” Radiohead, but there’s no big secret to understanding The King of Limbs. To me, it feels deceptively stripped down, with each instrument occupying a distinct space. Of course, none of that means anything if the songs aren’t good and, though it may be the Sudafed talking, I think The King of Limbs has some pretty good songs on it. It doesn’t send me around the bend with giddiness (Radiohead’s music is too serious to make me giddy – they don’t sound like they have a lot of fun playing it, so it makes me feel weird if I have too much fun listening to it), but it’s proving to be an excellent soundtrack to a day of sinus medication and naps. If that’s a little too backhanded of a compliment for you, let me just close by saying I think The King of Limbs is “good.”
Now where the hell is my Sudafed?