Radiohead have always had a knack for being anything but conventional.
It’s been a few years since we have received any news from the Oxfordshire quintet. Several members pursued solo endeavors, including singer/rhythm guitarist Thom Yorke’s performances with his live band Atoms for Peace, drummer Phil Selway’s solo debut Familial and guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s composition work. After the revolutionary method in which 2007’s In Rainbows was released, in which fans could pay what they wanted for the album, it would be tough for the band to top the hype. However, they managed to do just that, when they announced Monday that their eighth full-length album, The King of Limbs, would be released in under a week.
The internet exploded. No one expected the band to announce the album this soon, let alone release it. The King of Limbs was set to be available on Saturday, though the band decided to release it a day early. The result is one of the best albums in their astounding career, mixing elements of Yorke’s solo album, The Eraser, along with the sound of previous records like Kid A and Amnesiac.
The album begins with “Bloom,” which features one of the best beats in the band’s career. The drumming by Selway propels the track, giving the song a dance-like quality, moving the most statuesque of listeners. When Yorke enters, the trademark croon that has been gone from music for far too long returns triumphantly. The instrumentation is sparse, featuring mostly electronic elements and drums. While the song will surely be adapted for live shows, it will be interesting to see how the band pulls it off.
The opening track is followed by “Morning Mr. Magpie,” which features a lot of electronic elements, along with more traditional guitar work from Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien and bass from Colin Greenwood. Yorke sings more intensely here than he did on the opener. The bass line midway through the song provided by Colin provides the song its groove for the remainder. Nigel Godrich, longtime collaborator with the band, handles the production which is marvelous here, something the band rarely fails to accomplish.
“Little By Little” is one of the best songs the band has crafted in years. Yorke’s whisper-like delivery is flawless, making it the highlight of the track and one of the best takes on the album. The guitar work is fluid, flowing seamlessly, contrasting the hasty, almost steel-like percussion. The addition of horns is a pleasant surprise, as well as something that will surely drive fans wild at live shows.
At just under 38 minutes, the album is extremely concise and the band does well to deliver eight completely unique songs that never begin to sound repetitive. Each song is distinct and they all stand out on their own merit when looking back on the album. “Feral” features sparse singing, making it one of the more instrumental tracks the band has released since the Kid A/Amnesiac era. The drumming here is some of the best work Selway has done in his career and the same goes for Colin’s bass work. Jonny and O’Brien also move back to their status as electronic wizards from the Kid A era using less traditional guitar work, like that found in In Rainbows and its predecessor Hail to the Thief, and becoming more or less programmers.
“Lotus Flower,” the first single from the album, follows and it’s one of the more conventionally styled songs. Yorke utilizes his ever popular falsetto here, with his vocals soaring above the thumping bass line and electronic drums. Any haters who doubt his talent need to look no further that this song to cease their disapproval. It would be interesting to see videos of the band performing this song, as well as the others on the album, to see what exactly each member of the band does on the track, as it is nearly impossible to tell by simply listening.
“Codex” is an interesting song, as it is the first from the album that doesn’t feature an electric, beat-driven sound, with Yorke singing over piano. It’s similar to “Videotape” from In Rainbows and “Exit Music (For A Film),” and is one of the band’s better ballads. One of Yorke’s best traits is that you can always feel the emotion present in his voice and the sadness on this track is heart wrenching to listen to.
Sounds of nature open up on “Give Up the Ghost,” which has the distinction of having some of the most traditional guitar sounds on the album, with a rare appearance of acoustics. The tribal-sounding percussion from Selway provides the smooth and steady beat satisfactorily. The effects placed on Yorke’s voice are incredible, making the singing impossible to not admire.
The last track, “Separator,” may not end up becoming one of the band’s most popular tracks, though it is one of their best. The first half of the song brings back the electronic sound from the beginning of the album, bringing it full circle, while the guitar and bass playing in the middle of the song recall the sound of the second half of the album. It’s the perfect end to the album, which stands firmly in the upper echelon of the band’s albums. It’s going to be incredibly hard for the other bands releasing albums this year to make one that will be able to top The King of Limbs.
Radiohead may not ever achieve the popularity that they did with “Creep,” and especially not with any of the songs on this album. This is not a slam, as they traded popularity for creativity and talent. As the band moved away from conventional approaches, they shifted to excellence and acclaim. If Radiohead has proven anything with their career, it’s that you don’t need to make hit after hit to be successful. All you have to do is write good songs that people will remember. Their status as one of the most groundbreaking bands in the world is preserved as they manage to write eight songs that are anything but forgettable.