This will not be a review. This is merely my thoughts, somewhat stream-of-consciousness, as I experience the newest Radiohead album for the first time.
First off, the track list:
The King of Limbs:
02 Morning Mr Magpie
03 Little by Little
05 Lotus Flower
07 Give Up the Ghost
I am a Radiohead-obsessive, but I do not go out of my way to track down all the live videos that get posted after shows, because I don’t like to hear them in such bad quality. For that reason, I’ve been informed (via AtEaseWeb) that 4 of the songs have been played live before, but the only two I’ve personally heard in other forms are “Morning Mr Magpie” (which I just happened to randomly post a month ago; guess I’m pretty prescient) and Lotus Flower (which has a spiffy black and white video, watch below):
Note on the video: Apparently there was a choreographer, but if you’ve ever seen Radiohead live before, you know that’s pretty well how Thom dances anyway. It’s a pleasure to watch.
Okay, now then, onto the album listening party (which is occurring in my bed right now; anyone want to join me?)
I loved the opening piano tickling of first track Bloom, then the fuzz kicks in and the album goes electronic. A little bit symbolic, methinks. And I’m digging it so far.
I’m four tracks in (no, I’m not going track by track, I’m just going to keep writing and listening to the album on repeat) and it’s obvious that this album is going to have 2 clear comparison points: Kid A and Thom Yorke’s solo album, The Eraser (“Feral” especially has the feel of the latter, though the way Thom’s voice is de-emphasized in the mix definitely screams Kid A era).
So I’m just going to say it: This album is not going to be as well-received as In Rainbows. I don’t mean critically, which will likely be positive (because so far, in my mind, this album is really solid and interesting), but I mean by fans. After In Rainbows, which some people saw as a companion piece to OK Computer (I don’t really see it), released 10 years later, The King of Limbs feels like Kid A’s spiritual successor (a little more than) a decade later.
And we all know that Kid A turned off a lot of people (intentionally so).
So, after Radiohead became the Biggest Band In The World for the 2nd time in their career (the 1st being after OK Computer conquered the world), is this the band intentionally sabotaging that widespread recognition by using a similar release strategy but giving a much less populous, much less Pop album?
Pure speculation. I haven’t even finished the album yet.
Now “Lotus Flower”: So beautiful. Clearly a standout track, Thom’s voice is as gorgeous as it gets, with the delicacy pushed to the forefront.
And “Codex”: Haunting. Not what I was expecting from the title. Figured this one was going to be a lot of glitch, but it’s mostly piano and Thom’s voice right there, soft and solemn. Really beautiful, makes me wish I had a lyrics sheet.
(Now that I’ve caught up with some of my initial thoughts, it’s giving me a chance to write about each track as it comes):
“Give Up The Ghost” is a track that I know has been around, but I’ve never heard it before (or don’t remember it). I tend to be a sucker for Radiohead’s slower, more contemplative songs, and this one definitely fits the bill. That makes 3 songs in a row that fall into the Slow and Beautiful mold, which is a bit unusual for Radiohead as they tend to mix them up. Yet all three of these songs has a different sort of beauty.
Lotus Flower feels romantic (upon first listen; reading the lyrics may undermine that feeling), Codex feels sad and forlorn, and Give Up The Ghost just seems to be filled with longing, a desire for someone (the line “into your arms” emphasizes that) that is reinforced by the way Thom’s voice echoes around him.
The famous closing track.
With the exception of maybe Hail To The Thief’s “A Wolf at the Door,” Radiohead closing tracks tend to be one of the best songs on the album (I actually like “A Wolf at the Door”, it just isn’t a stand out track for me).
So, “Separator”: A return to drums, a bit more upbeat (just a bit) and then the gradual, sneaking return of guitars. It’s a building track, starting pretty bare, just a repeating drumline and Thom’s voice, but elements keep appearing and adding, instruments and echo. By the time Thom starts repeating “Wake me up, wake me u-u-u-up,” his voice is just another part of the mix. Will this count as one of the great closing tracks? My first, honest reaction: I don’t see it. It’s a fairly intriguing track, but I don’t get an emotional wallop from it.
That said, “The Tourist” seemed kind of bland at first, but now it’s one of my all-time favorite tracks, a truly mesmerizing close.
So time will tell, with all of these tracks. That’s how Radiohead works. The best parts of their songs reveal themselves with time. This isn’t Lady Gaga.
After a first listen (as the album goes back to the beginning for a second go round), I will say this: It does feel like a short album, but not a throwaway track in the bunch. In reality, it’s only 2 minutes shorter than Amnesiac, my second favorite Radiohead album, so not all that short.
Real quick rehash as I go back through:
“Bloom” definitely feels Kid A/Amnesiac era, actually reminds me of the B-Sides from that phase, Fast Track especially (with Radiohead, ‘B-Side’ is never an insult).
“Morning Mr. Magpie” is given the electronic treatment, no longer the solo acoustic track it was as a webcast demo. It’s always hardest to embrace the songs you’ve known before in different versions (which is another reason I don’t try hard to track down advanced, live recordings of possible album songs), but I do really love how the song breaks in the middle for Thom’s ethereal voice to just float. Sometimes that’s better than any lyrics. This is a song (like “Nude” on In Rainbows) we fans have been waiting for an official version of for a long time, and now we have it. I’m satisfied.
Fuzz transitions into:
“Little By Little,” a song that feels most like “In Rainbows” to me. This one has a lot of interesting things going on in it, a sort of plastic/flamenco guitar strum in the background that is pretty different for the band. This is a song that just chugs along with no chorus (classic Radiohead in that sense), and some floating reversed guitar in the background. This will probably be the song that arouses the most passionate debate. I don’t know why I say that exactly, but I just sort of sense that this song may be the bellwether for this album, in that whether you like it or not will determine whether you like the album.
And then, back to “Feral.” Upon second listening, this track is the closest thing this album has to the ‘palate-cleanser’ tracks of Kid A and Amnesiac, “Treefingers” and “Hunting Bears.” I say that not because it sounds like those tracks (it actually reminds me of “Kinetic,” another Kid A/Amnesiac era B-Side), but because it’s the shortest and because the lyrics are barely there, secondary to the atmosphere of the track.
Which brings me back around to “Lotus Flower” (still great). I won’t go back around to give my second (or third) thoughts on the closing half of the album.
I will just give my summation of the album, as I’ve experienced it so far:
With over a decade since Kid A and Amnesiac released, this has the aura of a return to that form. It’s sort of strange for a couple reasons. While this isn’t exactly the band repeating themselves (the album definitely has it’s own vibe that’s going to make it stand out in their discography), it does feel like the band expressing a particular facet of their ability/taste that most coincides with the aforementioned electronic era of their music.
There are no hard-rockers here and very few guitars, so I definitely expect a backlash from those who never really liked Kid A in the first place.
But, the funny thing is, that album (along with Amnesiac) has gained such admiration over the previous decade that I think there will be a lot of people who absolutely embrace The King of Limbs as the return of their Radiohead.
So, a divisive album from Radiohead. Shocker.
For me personally, I’m digging this album thoroughly. There will be screams of “Overrated.” There will be old time fans who love it, and those who hate it. There will be those people out there who don’t like the album who will say that the people who do like the album are just “sheep” pretending to like Radiohead because they’re supposed to.
And at the end of the year, The King of Limbs will float in the Top 10 lists of quite a few people (with some of them even being people who dismissed the album at first).
I’m not being prophetic (though, come back and read this post on December 31st, I’ll be right), I’m just acknowledging the inevitable cycle that comes with the release of anything by Radiohead.
Is this album worth your time and money? Quick answer is, if you like Radiohead when they mix electronic craftsmanship with beautiful serenity, then absolutely.
The real answer is, you should experience every work of art for yourself, if it interests you. If you’ve never been a Radiohead fan, starting here won’t likely change your mind. If you’ve been in and out throughout their discography, it’s really a crapshoot. And if you’re like me, you’ll listen to this album over and over again until you’ve unlocked its many secrets and it becomes a part of your very being.