Nowadays, a new Radiohead album is about the only event in pop music that forces people to stop and think about it for more than the time it takes to compose a 140-character opinion. Something about this British art-rock juggernaut compels even those with the shortest attention spans to painstakingly deconstruct and analyze their albums, to reserve judgment, to give them the time and space to grow. Maybe it’s because Radiohead generally make better records than everybody else (which they do), or maybe it’s that they’re the only world-famous rock band to still have something resembling mystique surrounding them as people (which they are). Either way, the week since the abrupt release of their eighth studio album, The King of Limbs, has been something of a break from the way most people consume music these days.
The King of Limbs makes clear, arguably more so than anything else they’ve released, just how big the gulf is between Radiohead’s cultural notoriety and the kind of music they make. Even by the standards of the band that released Kid A and Amnesiac a decade ago, these songs are challenging and frustrating. As opening tracks go, “Bloom” makes “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” sound like “Airbag,” as Thom Yorke’s voice floats formlessly over a single, syncopated, mechanical drum loop and washes of haunting, vaguely orchestral keyboards. Even when the pace picks up, as on the jittery “Morning Mr. Magpie” and closer “Separator,” the closest thing to a straight-up dance track on The King of Limbs, the hooks don’t get any more pronounced. One song, “Feral,” doesn’t have a discernible vocal melody to speak of. This is one of those albums that, as they say, take time and attention. If this were any other band, everyone would have tweeted their reactions after one spin and moved on to the new Lykke Li album or something.
And yet, there’s no way The King of Limbs won’t be the talk of the music blogosphere the entire year. Chalk it up to force of habit. Ever since Radiohead became the most capital-I “Important” rock group in the world with the release of OK Computer, nothing they’ve done has been allowed to simply represent them. Given their stature, there was no way that 2007’s In Rainbows and its accompanying pay-what-you-want distribution scheme could simply be a band in between record deals trying out creative ways of putting out their music—everyone else made it into this game-changing “future of the music industry” narrative. Even in the summer of 2009, when they released the one-off single “These are My Twisted Words,” I wrote that they may have been ushering in a new renaissance of “serious” rock bands releasing singles as standalone pieces of art. That didn’t exactly happen, but you couldn’t blame me for thinking it would. That was just what we were used to from these guys.
What The King of Limbs proves is that the band’s members don’t care about any of this stuff. Maybe they did a decade ago, when their overwhelming desire to step away from conventional rock tropes drove them to make Kid A and Amnesiac. Limbs is certainly Radiohead’s most abstract, electronic-based record since that tandem, but this time, it doesn’t feel like a reaction to anything. In fact, it might be the first true “transitional album” of this band’s career. The rumors of a “second half” to the album that started circling certain corners of the Internet practically the minute it was released are probably nothing more than the usual conspiracy-theory BS, but listening to The King of Limbs, it’s not hard to see where such speculation comes from. This album feels like it’s building towards something more cohesive—it’s a reasonable simulacrum of how their career might have played out had they released Amnesiac before Kid A instead of the other way around. It may be better judged once we’ve heard their next album.
With all of that said, most of these songs are really, really good. Radiohead may not be pushing the boundaries of rock music like they used to, but neither can they be accused of spinning their wheels. In Rainbows was Radiohead’s mellowest record to date, and probably the closest the band has ever come to being in a holding pattern. If there was one complaint about that still-solid album, it was that they were playing it a little too safe. That’s one criticism that can’t be leveled at The King of Limbs, which nearly rivals Kid A for the least guitar ever on a Radiohead album. But beyond that, Limbs has even less overt hooks than either that record or Amnesiac. The closest thing here to a “Pyramid Song” or “How to Disappear Completely” is the gorgeous “Codex,” and the only potential “Idioteque” is “Lotus Flower.” Most of the rest of the album is dark, weird, skeletal electronica made palatable by Yorke, whose utterly distinctive tenor sounds as captivating as it ever has. “Little by Little” and “Give Up the Ghost” could have been on Yorke’s 2006 solo album, The Eraser, and I mean that as a compliment (As for those who say this album sounds more like a Yorke solo album than a Radiohead album, The Eraser wasn’t made in a vacuum, and Yorke’s bandmates are by all accounts just as into Flying Lotus as he is).
The fact that “Separator” closes with the line “If you think this is over then you’re wrong” has played into the baseless “second half” theories (and by the way, how fucking meta would it be for a band to comment on the nature of its album’s release within an actual song on said album?), but that lyric may not be completely insignificant. The material here is as strong as we’ve come to expect from this band, but its pleasures aren’t nearly as surface-level as even Kid A’s. The best way to judge The King of Limbs in the long run may simply be to hope someone spurs Radiohead on in this direction.