Undoubtedly, many of these “first impressions” will appear in the coming hours and days and many of them will lavish praise on the album. The words “dense,” “layered,” and “complex” will be used frequently. I will likely be guilty of these two things but as a precursor I should note that I am not the rabid Radiohead fan that adores everyone of their releases. Hopefully that makes me a little different than the multitude of other blogs and publications that put Yorke & Co. at the top of the list of musicmakers. I like Radiohead a lot and I listen to them often. Kid A remains on of my most listened-to albums. I don’t like all their music and they have a lot of ‘skipworthy’ songs, but I’d say I’m a fan.
It’s worth saying upfront that The Kings of Limbs is not a drastic departure from the “Radiohead” sound that the band has developed and most strongly displayed on In Rainbows. If there was an easy way to tie up the album’s sound, it most strongly resembles a combination of In Rainbows and Kid A; it has the former’s cool, melodic vibe and the latter’s electronic glitchiness and late-night feel. These aren’t the best ways to describe either album I realize, but I think it’s important to try and capture the feel of this album relative to Radiohead’s others.
Opener “Bloom” kicks off the album with a warped, strange piano. After only a few bars, its looped over itself to become a bit of a drone and Phil Selway’s utterly strange drumming comes in. Selway’s on top of this album entirely, giving it a solid, interesting base throughout. When Yorke comes in with his signature elegance, on the line “Open your mouth wide,” he makes the track grand. As the track moves on, it quickly grows more layers. (Yes, it becomes dense and complex.) Greenwood’s composing seems to have come back in the form of horns and strings on the end of “Bloom.” These horns in particular lend to a late-night feel, calling back old Detective serials: overdrawn monologues and deserted, rainy city streets lit by a neon glow. It serves as a great opener. New enough in sound to draw the listener in, but still distinctly Radiohead.
“Morning Mr. Magpie” feels like it could come directly from In Rainbows, with its loose rhythm and instrumental center of a plucked rhythmic guitar line. It’s hard for me to listen to it without moving back and forth in the strange schizophrenic way of Thom Yorke’s dancing. His vocals come in strong, snidely singing “You’ve got some nerve…” About halfway through the track, the plucking guitar is dropped for a purely electronic drum rhythm, which the track slowly builds its way back from. The Kid A feel starts here, when a background vocal of Yorke whispering nonsense in a direct call back to that album’s strange, off-kilter opener.
The next two tracks, “Little by Little” and “Feral” are the two weakest on The King of Limbs, at least in my opinion. “Little by Little” kicks off strong, with more strange rhythms, this time driven more by a bassline that’s just-off-kilter-enough. Yorke’s vocal performance here is a strong one and the track is a strangely danceable one considering its strange rhythm, but following up “Bloom” and “Morning Mr. Magpie” it feels too much to me. This could quickly change as I give this album its full due, but as of now it simply doesn’t work for me. “Feral” is the shortest track on the album and its a wonderful piece of electronic work, but it feels like one of the longer tracks. It doesn’t seem to go anywhere for me. It doesn’t help that it’s probably the least accessible track on the album. It is a good comedown from the first three tracks, being slightly less in-your-face but I can’t help wishing it did something.
I’ll say it upfront, the second half of The King of Limbs is impeccable.
Kicking off with the album’s first single, “Lotus Flower” it doesn’t go anywhere but up. If you haven’t heard this track, be sure to check out the post previous to this one. The song’s video actually does what a video should and improves the experience of the song. It’s largely down-tempo with a rhythm section that doesn’t claw for attention the way the album’s first songs do. This track seems to be all Thom Yorke. His falsetto swerves around the continuous beat–one could even say it ‘dances’ on it. This track also is one of the strongest Kid A style tracks of the album, being almost entirely electronically driven.
“Codex” starts in with a brief snippet of Yorke’s voice being pushed forward. After only about a second, it’s cut off for a calm piano, tapping out chords. It’s one of the calmest songs on the album and certainly the most serene. The horns return touching lightly on Yorke’s somber falsetto. It ends, fittingly, with the sound of birds chirping.
When the birds end, Yorke’s voice comes back with the distant “Don’t haunt me…” that continues through “Give Up the Ghost.” After a few seconds of this, an acoustic guitar strums its way in. I never thought an acoustic guitar would sound new, but it’s the last sound you’d expect after the entirely electronic songs that preceded it. It’s an absolutely gorgeous song and became my favorite of the album quickly.
The last song of the album, “Seperator” has lead some to believe that this release is only the first half of a release. The King of Limbs is Radiohead’s shortest release after all, coming in at only 37 minutes. I don’t really believe that at all. The son itself is a solid closure, drawing back bits of the tracks before it. Selway’s off-kilter drumming returns, though mellowed a bit, Yorke’s voice takes on the etheral quality it attained during the second half, and in all it brings back the energy without supplanting the album’s ‘rocker’ tracks. It really gets its stride about two and a half minutes in, when Greenwood introduces a surprisingly optimistic-sounding guitarline, pulling the song into the positive, hopeful ending that we all want.
“If you think this is over, then you’re wrong”
The King of Limbs isn’t a grand cultural statement, or even a grand artistic one. It’s a very talented band doing what they do best. It may not be Kid A or OK Computer, but it’s a solid album that any fan should be glad to pay for. It’s got the depth to warrant listening through several times over. In fact, it’s likely that one could listen to this months from now and still be picking up on new things. It’s not Radiohead creating a new sound or defining a genre, but it is new and fresh. You say one thing about this band, they know how to pick a sound and get the best use they can out of it.
Radiohead’s never really needed to do the grandest of things. Their method of doing things is distinctly their own. So for all the hoopla about the Grammys and their award, it’s still safe to say that Radiohead is the biggest independent band in the world. And yes, there is a good reason for that.
Give Up The Ghost
Morning Mr. Magpie
Verdict: Buy It