Radiohead: The King of Limbs – review


It's hard to think of an album that sparked more internet discussion in such a short space of time as Radiohead's The King of Limbs did last Friday. Spurred into action by its arrival a day earlier than expected, harassed reviewers reviewed it on first hearing, and commenters and bloggers complained that it was ridiculous to offer opinions based on one listen, then offered their opinions about it anyway. Other journalists sidestepped having to form any views of their own by writing pieces that simply collated other people's, some of which were admittedly pretty amazing. "A few consider it awfully doomy," noted the Los Angeles Times, highlighting the hitherto-unheard subsection of Radiohead's fanbase apparently distraught the band had chosen to abandon their trademark boozy, good-time boogie sound.

All that virtual ink spilt and what did we learn about The King of Limbs? Largely that it lends itself less well to the kind of snap judgements Radiohead's current woo-hoo-we're-BEHIND-YOU modus operandi forces critics to make than its predecessor. In Rainbows handily offered them the sound of latterday Radiohead at their most prosaic. It foregrounded the guitars and songs of the tried-and-tested-stage favourite variety, relegating the electronics and experiments to a prominent supporting role: the result was as warm and human-sounding an album as Radiohead have made.

But The King of Limbs is structured not unlike David Bowie's Low: the more obviously song-based material in one half, sonic experiments in the other – but with the tough stuff first. Opener Bloom is dense, knotted and difficult, clattering rhythms, scattered pulses of bass, no verse-chorus structure, not much of a tune. Somewhere between a mess and a thrilling flood of barely marshalled ideas – a sensation amplified by the recording, which keeps slipping into needles-in-the-red distortion – it's music that's almost wilfully difficult to get a handle on. The lyrics are as elliptical as ever, but the overall message appears to be: try and form a quick opinion about this. Candidates are reminded to write on both sides of the paper. Handwriting and spelling, as well as the fact that a lot of people who thought Kid A was impenetrable ended up calling it the album of the decade, will be taken into account.

You could argue that there's more fun to be had in imagining deadline-pressured hacks trying to work out what to say about The King of Limbs' first five tracks than there is in actually listening to them. But if the overall impression is of a band so lost in sound they forgot to write songs, you have to admit the sound is pretty fascinating: the way the vocals shift unexpectedly in volume and clarity, the restless guitars that underpin Morning Mr Magpie and add a sense of agitation to a song that appears to be about the banking crisis, the bass overload and scattered vocal samples of Feral. This latter is the clearest example of those singles by Zomby, Untold and Ramadanman that Thom Yorke keeps plugging on the Radiohead website exerting an influence on the band's sound. What's intriguing is how well-incorporated it is; it's one of Radiohead's USPs that they are able to assimilate influences from dance music's outer limits without ever sounding like they're trying too hard.

When the album finally finds a more conventional focus, its structure makes sense as something more than a reaction against In Rainbows' user-friendliness. Lotus Flower, a new addition to what you have to say is a fairly slender catalogue of Radiohead songs about having it off, is as plaintive and sensual as the preceding tracks are opaque and remote – a trick repeated on Give Up the Ghost's sigh of submission. Neither are exactly a barrel of laughs, but they nevertheless feel like a long, relieved exhalation of breath after Feral's muggy, wordless dread.

Codex, meanwhile, is the kind of piano ballad that Radiohead were inadvertently responsible for making a default setting in rock music of recent years: such things obviously existed before OK Computer, but you can draw a pretty direct line between Karma Police and the stuff that gets played in the background when an X Factor hopeful starts talking about a recently deceased relative. It should sound hackneyed, but it doesn't. The melody is beautiful, but it winds and turns unexpectedly. The spectral brass and strings do the opposite of what orchestral arrangements usually do: instead of cosseting you with lushness, there's something unsettling about the way they weave in and out of the song.

Listening to it, you're reminded that Radiohead are the only band of their size and status that seem driven by an impulse to twist their music into different shapes. As The King of Limbs proves, when it works it's glorious, but that impulse doesn't always yield perfect results. Still, listening to Radiohead try is never less than intriguing; after all, their peers aren't trying at all.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Radiohead: TKOL RMX 1234567 – review
What the point of remixing songs that already sounded remixed, wonders Dorian Lynskey

Dorian Lynskey

13, Oct, 2011 @10:59 PM

Article image
Radiohead – The King of Limbs: First review

On first listen, Radiohead's The King of Limbs sounds like it will impress the faithful without breaking any new ground

Tim Jonze

18, Feb, 2011 @1:47 PM

Article image
Radiohead: The King of Limbs – review
Radiohead's dense and knotted eighth album may sound a little predictable but, as with all the band's works, it merits close and long listening, writes Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

20, Feb, 2011 @12:06 AM

Article image
Radiohead to release King of Limbs remixes
Oxford band announce series of 12in singles, featuring album tracks revisited by Caribou and Flying Lotus

Sean Michaels

07, Jun, 2011 @10:54 AM

Article image
Radiohead rule out King of Limbs sequel
Guitarist Ed O'Brien ends rumours of an imminent follow-up to latest album – but there are new tracks for Record Store Day

Sean Michaels

15, Apr, 2011 @12:15 PM

Article image
Exclusive Radiohead artwork plus The King of Limbs album stream

See artwork exclusively created for the King of Limbs project and listen to the album in full

Caspar Llewellyn Smith

28, Mar, 2011 @9:06 AM

Article image
Radiohead to record King of Limbs follow-up in December
The band are also planning a tour in 2012, while Thom Yorke aims to finish his next solo album Atoms for Peace

Sean Michaels

14, Oct, 2011 @10:44 AM

Article image
Did Radiohead record King of Limbs at Drew Barrymore's house?
Message of thanks to actor in sleeve notes for Radiohead's new album sparks online speculation about where record was created

Sean Michaels

23, Mar, 2011 @12:09 PM

Click to download: Radiohead tribute hits purple Patch
Chris Salmon on Radiohead's war-veteran song, and ever-proliferating dance mixes online

Chris Salmon

13, Aug, 2009 @11:30 PM

Article image
Click to download: Gorillaz, Radiohead, Yeasayer and more
Christmas has been and gone, but there are still lots of new musical presents yet to be unwrapped, says Chris Salmon

Chris Salmon

06, Jan, 2011 @11:00 PM