Filed Under (Reviews and Interviews) by Jason on February-25-2011

Be forewarned: There is nothing acoustic about this feature. Why not, you ask? Well, we have other interests.. don’t you?

The King of Limbs: the album everyone is talking about. The album you’re obligated to have an opinion about, unless you’re a Christopher McCandless protégé, and your plan involves leaving it all behind for a short and lonely life in the Alaskan wild.

Much of what has been said about Radiohead’s new cut is highly critical, and not unfairly so – there is plenty to be critical about. This album almost completely lacks the technical virtuosity and compositional boldness of OK Computer (and even, one could argue, to a lesser but still significant extent Kid A and Hail to the Thief). There is no single track that breaks ground in quantifiable ways, no obvious standard the way there was Paranoid Android, no masterpiece hidden in plain sight like How to Disappear Completely.

And yet The King of Limbs is just what we’ve come to expect from Radiohead: brilliant, destined for decades of replay and analysis, a landmark, a statement of our times. One might even say that it is the flagship of a newly coined sub-genre we can call “post-pop” (or has that label, like every other, already been taken?) – a self-conscious critique of pop culture, a parody of its most ludicrous and indulgent components with a simultaneous embrace of its redeeming qualities.

This is best exemplified by the album’s first single, the first song most people heard and the only released with a video, Lotus Flower. On the surface, it’s pretty conventional Fourth Wave Radiohead (i.e. Pablo Honey->OK Computer->Kid A and Amnesiac with some transitional identity confusion around the time of Hail to the Thief->In Rainbows and The King of Limbs) – an ostinato bass line, modulating occasionally to fuel the melody which is original yet memorable, with dark, borderline indecipherable lyrics painting a vague picture of conflict, whether internal or interpersonal is impossible to tell.

To understand this song, one should begin with the video, which features a fedora-clad Thom Yorke spastically dancing alone in a back-lit warehouse. Ludicrous though it may seem, the intensity of Yorke’s performance is in large part genuine. At the very least, it reflects the unapologetically idiosyncratic intensity he brings to everything he does. It also matches the pulsating feel of the music playing which, as Radiohead (among precious few others) so often does, defies the neat mood-based categorizations we like to impose on music: sad, happy, pensive, ecstatic, angry, calm, lovesick, defiant.

Of course, it’s not meant to be taken entirely seriously (a fact which, admittedly, didn’t dawn on me until my second viewing – you can imagine my initial amusement). The objective, it seems clear, is parody – plain and simple. One man in a simple costume dancing alone in an empty warehouse before two stationary cameras is an unambiguous joke at the expense of plastic pop-producers with “fast-ballooning heads,” not to mention production and promotion budgets. (The “©Radiohead” at the video’s conclusion drives home the point with an emphatic “Eff you, record labels!”) When you consider that “Lotus Flower” is the name of at least two other modern pop songs – including one by Blackalicious – the message, illustrated in particular by the goofy dancing, becomes crystal clear.

A look at the arc of pop-music history suggests that this trend – the development of an almost Dadaist sensibility as a sub-genre – was all but inevitable from the outset. The 1980s produced the first pop stars who were truly modern in a sense that Generation Y-ers can understand, and by carving that niche into entertainment culture, they and their producers taught us what kind of star we want, what we really, really want. With that model to emulate, teeny-boppers and alt-pop-rockers (almost always with inferior talent) rode the originators’ coattails into the new millennium and, to a degree, up to today.

The latter half of the last decade, though, has seen a rebellion against cutting musical cookies and a renewed emphasis on creativity and originality even in pop. The incorporation of indie music into the mainstream reflects this, as does the meteoric rise of Lady Gaga, the self-styled performance artist (and I don’t mean just musical performance) who knows exactly what her largely oblivious audience needs to stay happy, and gives it to them with a smile and a peep up her meat-dress. But it’s Radiohead that really has their fingers on the pulse of popular entertainment, and as the band with arguably the greatest crossover appeal of the last two decades, they’re best positioned to do something about it.

All this may strike some as insufferable pretentiousness and others as plot-thickening intrigue – both opinions likely formed long before reading this review, and long before hearing this album. Regardless of which camp one falls into, though, it’s worth noting that Radiohead isn’t quite so vain as to see their music as the high-artistic antidote to creatively bankrupt pop. Though their catalogue is indeed peppered with moments of genuine creative brilliance – transcendence, even – in this instance they carry the air of satire, not superiority. This is a group not interested in rising above the messy pop-cultural fray, and it couldn’t if it tried. Their middle-aged ambition, having apparently satisfied their adolescent impulse toward experimentation and progressive composition, seems to be the cautious embrace of the flavor of the week, at least enough to provide an authentic internal critique of it. I take the nonsensically scrambled final verse in Lotus Flower to be a sly *wink* to this effect.

In any case, the album isn’t completely – or even primarily – a statement of any kind, and Radiohead does take their work and their product seriously enough to treat it like just another album, which at the end of the day is precisely what it is. And in fact, The King of Limbs is a lot like its immediate predecessor, In Rainbows, if the latter had terrible memory loss (get it? Amnesiac?). Codex, like a hybrid between Videotape (In Rainbows) and Pyramid Song (Amnesiac) – and every bit as beautiful – is perhaps the best example of this. For the rest, give the record a spin and see for yourself.

Radiohead – Codex by theacousticversion-1

Radiohead – Morning Mr. Magpie by theacousticversion-1

Reading: What is Radiohead Thinking? A Review of The King of LimbsTweet This: Send Page to Twitter

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Comments
Adam L on February 27th, 2011 at 11:13 pm #

Good review, although I almost totally disagree. So far, and I’ve only given it probably four complete spins yet, I think this album is just boring. I really like your title (“What is Radiohead Thinking”) but for me, it would probably be said in a totally incredulous tone. As in, I don’t get this album one bit. I’m trying to find a way to see it is a progression from any of the music that Radiohead has made before this and I’m really struggling to find an answer. It’s like they took all the forward thinking from Kid A and dumbed it down. What have they pushed forward with this music? So far, I’m hearing nothing.

Have they already said everything they could say as a band? I think, perhaps yes.

Julz on March 1st, 2011 at 11:32 am #

I’m hoping some of these conspiracy theories are true and there is in fact a second album… http://www.nme.com/blog/index.php?blog=10&p=9807&title=radiohead_the_king_of_limbs_the_conspira&more=1&c=1

Joe on March 1st, 2011 at 11:14 pm #

Adam – what you see as “dumbing down” I see as a measured embrace of what’s popular in 2011, as if to say “I see what you all are doing, and here’s how you can make it more interesting without losing your appeal.” To some extent, Radiohead has always been about challenging the casual music listener to pay closer attention, to experience music not just as a sensual, but as a cerebral experience. Seen in that light, this album is actually quite a daring experiment: how far can they wander into the world of the pop format, of the bass and drum-machines, of minimalist composition not as laziness but as a stylistic – and dare I say even a capitalistic – statement, and still succeed on their own terms? If you ask me, *this* far. And probably no further. Which is quite something for a group with Packt Like Sardines in a Crush’d Tin Box and There There on its resume.

Julz – I take it TKOL doesn’t do it for you either. I share your hope that there’s another record, but if there isn’t I won’t consider this a failure. I see it as an extension of In Rainbows in stylistic terms, but it’s more fully self-aware. With self-awareness comes some inhibition, but also context and clarity. This is an album with a statement. And in a way, if the whole kit and kaboodle is only 8 songs and 37 minutes, that statement is all the more powerful.

Julz on March 2nd, 2011 at 12:05 pm #

Yes, this album was a bit underwhelming for me as I was expecting an album with crazy explosions of music and sound (and longer than 37.4 minutes). While I’m not disappointed (the album is beautiful-esp Codex), I wanted each song to really stand out. Nevertheless, I will continue to listen and let it increasingly grow on me as all Radiohead albums do.

Side note: When I heard the opening to “Little by Little” I immediately thought of “Sour Times” by Portishead. Maybe its just me..

Also, FYI, ‘Morning Mr. Magpie” is an old Radiohead B-Side. I think I like the original better than this album’s version (I will gladly send it your way or you can check out an acoustic version (:P) here: http://www.rawkblog.net/2011/02/video-radiohead-morning-mr-magpie-2002-webcast/ )

HumanV3 on August 11th, 2011 at 12:50 am #

While I tend to “want” to agree with the author – and I really do want to – I do find it hard to accept this as a Radiohead album. If you listen to Thom’s “The Eraser” solo project, it makes me wonder how much input the rest of the band really had in forming the musical styling of TKOL.

Being a 20 year fan of the band (almost) I have ridden this coaster through claustrophobic tunnels, dizzying spiral twists, doubtful upside-down loops and exhaustively-exhilarating plunges into what they dish out as popular music. I’ve backed them up when they needed it (Amnesiac) and revelled in the glory of The Bends, OK Computer and In Rainbows with the masses, and yet… for the first time as a fan (and critic), I was totally floored with a hint of disappointment – and that’s all it is.

I can hear what the songs would’ve sounded like without the production and they would have been great; and I’m all for art, but sometimes “doing it for ourselves” is something best bridled by garage bands with stars in their eyes. My 2c.

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