MHB WEEKLY: By the students, for the world

Arts Corner: Radiohead, The King of Limbs | February 21, 2011

Last week, alternative rock band Radiohead released The King of Limbs, billed as the “world’s first newspaper album” due to its unique method of distribution: fans can download the disc now from band’s website, and they can also order a deluxe version for physical delivery once the record is ready in March. For now, however, the social media world is agog at Radiohead’s ongoing creativity in an industry that’s waning, and reviews are surfacing across the corners of the blogosphere. Continue reading for thoughts on the record.

Since Kid A, the beacon of brilliance that like the birth of Christ split the modern music world into periods before it and after, the trouble with every new Radiohead record is interpreting the work on an endless spectrum of levels. The head could explode attempting to find sea-deep symbolism in half-whispered lyrics, or picking which tracks to canonize and why — not to mention the discussion of how this newest model of distribution (a newspaper album?!?) will affect history at large. Even after the laborious listening and nitpicked analysis that a Radiohead CD demands and deserves, a nagging feeling always remains: if, for one reason or another, this latest release doesn’t resonate as a grand instance of genius — the way it does with the hordes of hipsters in their darkest moment — then what the hell is wrong with the listener?

Imagine the confusion, then, at not loving this record, and the disappointment at not expecting to internalize its every nuance. “Bloom,” fittingly, is where the problem starts: it’s intensely aloof for an album opener, and sounds rather like a man sitting above masses who already wonder how high before he’s even asked them to jump. Thom Yorke’s lyrics are pointless apart from the meaning afforded them by his audience; musically, meanwhile, the track is a ramshackle, dream-sequence landscape with one golden element — an alternately ascending and descending bass line — that contents itself in monotony. Worse, it sets up the tempo that dominates the front half of this album, a jittery and stuttering pace that approximates aurally the paranoia of a schizoid his first day sober after a year of pharmaceutical serenity. Never before has Radiohead been so outwardly aggressive, which seems the mark of confidence overriding content.

It’s not until “Codex,” in fact, that something to absolutely adore arrives from The King of Limbs. An uncomplicated gem, the song is born at the very nexus of beauty and polish, and reminds fans the subtle grace that Radiohead alone can achieve without the pretense of overexertion. That this talent is confined to the lingering piano chords of “Codex” and the folksy elegance of “Give Up The Ghost,” however, is concerning. But taken together, these tracks break the busyness of the album’s first twenty minutes by suffocating the rhythm section and reinvesting faith in harmony: especially on “Ghost,” Yorke’s several vocal layers sound like a choir of spirits courted from the dead by serpentine guitar strumming. If “Codex” is a sonic sunset, then “Ghost” is the next day’s sunrise — breaking beautifully to give way to “Separator,” a third standout built of simplicity, steady hands and a shyly intoxicating guitar riff.

Still, that’s not to say the first five tracks are entirely without merit. “Little By Little” should make the playlists of trendy terrorists everywhere: its menacing chord ascension, sitar stabs and snakecharming percussion could certainly soundtrack an evil gathering if not for the most focal lyric — “I’m such a tease and you’re such a flirt” — spoiling the party with sexuality. “Morning Mr Magpie,” on the other hand, is the closest yet that the band has gotten to Beatlesque, not only employing a childlike song title but also channeling “Within You Without You” on the Eastern-tinged chorus.

But a song like “Feral,” which belongs in the same graveyard as the inexplicable cult favorite “The Gloaming,” sounds like something that should have fallen straight from the drawing board to the cutting room floor. No invention exists atop the collage of electronic gimmicks; perhaps its role is to make “Lotus Flower,” the curious choice for first single (see video below), sound glorious by comparison, when in fact “Flower” is so devoid of human emotion that naming it after a living, breathing organism seems sacrilegious. Certain moments on The Kings of Limbs — “Lotus Flower” the culprit of reddest hand — give off the impression of Radiohead trying quite hard to sound cool, an adjective they’ve never worked too hard to own outright. On the first half of this disc, one can almost smell the sweat.
What’s left of the effort is an album of two parts: one too eager to please, the other unconcerned and gorgeous. A sense of unity is therefore rejected — a rare condition for a Radiohead album — and timelessness is denied. But perhaps this is a fresh breath: The King of Limbs is 37 minutes of the greatest band alive flaunting its weaknesses and still outdoing the millions of imitators it has spawned. As such, Limbs rests an incredible pressure on the next Radiohead album, if such a mysterious entity can yet be conceived. That record, it seems, will represent a sort of definitive test: it will have to aim for yet another crest after the watermark set by In Rainbows, and it will determine whether Radiohead continues influencing the world or whether it begins to reiterate the achievements of the bands born in its wake.

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