Radiohead – The King of Limbs

written by: March 3, 2011
Radiohead - The King of Limbs album cover Release Date: February 18, 2011


Reception of a new Radiohead album at this point is a foregone conclusion. Everyone is prepared to herald it another ground-breaking masterpiece before hearing a single note. But it isn’t that outrageous, considering what this band has done.

Radiohead’s string of seven albums from The Bends to In Rainbows has been unparalleled in innovation and quality.

After a three-and-a-half year wait, Radiohead graced the world with another album. A surprisingly light load, The King of Limbs bears eight tracks at about 37 minutes long. As promised, the album has a noticeable Krautrock influence of steady, complex rhythmic  patterns.

Opening track “Bloom” is relatively sparse, beginning with a haunting piano line, fitting for a psychological thriller soundtrack. The final notes of the piano are looped, and Phil Selway adds complex drum beats with Colin Greenwood’s bass following, which is reminiscent of  Can in the age of dubstep. Meanwhile, Thom Yorke sings “Open your mouth wide,” for now he will be feeding starving fans what they’ve been craving for so long.

“Morning Mr. Magpie” is a logical follow-up. Increasing the tempo, Selway rocks another complex beat with a lot of off-time high hat work. This is where the first sign of guitars appears. A quick and muted lead guitar riff compliments the drum work while the other holds down the low end. At this point it’s clear that the focus is on rhythms, as each instrument’s role is grounded in developing one.

With this new approach Radiohead has generated interesting and organic beats that take numerous listens to dissect.

After “Little by Little,” an early favorite for many, “Feral” nods to the work of Burial, chopping up  Yorke’s voice like the famed dubstep producer’s samples. Though it’s enjoyable, in its mere three minutes it doesn’t evolve any further.

This is where it become painfully obvious that there is little stylistic or sonic difference among the songs, which for the majority lack a strong melody. While tracks on The Bends are instantly recognizable, tracks on The King of Limbs can blur together. And while songs on Kid A featured meticulously selected tones and instrumentation, The King of Limbs is content to share them.

“Lotus Flower” changes the game, though. This infectious track trims the complex drum work and layered guitars in favor of a simple beat and some light synths, delivering the closest thing to a single on the album. However, as the video companion implies, this is basically the Thom Yorke show. Nothing on this track indicates collaboration, which is worrisome. Though the band’s role is mitigated in the second half, they still have plenty to say on closing track “Separator” with its iridescent guitars and funky bass work.

In the same way The King of Limbs is more rhythmic than it is melodic in the first half, it is more atmospheric than it is dynamic in its second. Songs set a steady vibe with a simple or nonexistent rhythm and stick with it for their entire duration. This is only a problem because previously Radiohead was able to be all of these things simultaneously.

Here, layers are added and removed and there are small crescendos, but nothing really pops.

Consider the moment the guitar enters on “15 Step” and the song’s three distinct melodies or the steady climb and glorious climax of “All I Need” from In Rainbows. While the developments are rich and intricate, at the core of all of these songs are simple, fundamental components: melody, chord changes and structure. Some tracks on The King of Limbs are missing one of these. If a song can’t be great unplugged, it won’t be great plugged.

Make no mistake, The King of Limbs is good, very good even. The production is masterful and the performances are tasteful. It borrows a little from today’s best music and mixes it into the band’s own. But for Radiohead, this is a bit under-baked. And albums are not chocolate chip cookies. For what feels like the first time, fans will have to learn to cope with the fact that Radiohead have simply made a good album.

Radiohead – The King of Limbs tracklist

  1. “Bloom”
  2. “Morning Mr Magie”
  3. “Little by Little”
  4. “Feral”
  5. “Lotus Flower”
  6. “Codex”
  7. “Give Up the Ghost”
  8. “Separator”