Going out on a limb

A quick Google search will highlight the fact that Radiohead’s new album, The King of Limbs (EMI), is their most divisive album of the past 10 years.

Not since the band unleashed their 2000 masterpiece, Kid A, has a Radiohead album been so hotly debated by fans.

Some love it and are calling it the best thing they’ve released since Kid A, others have slammed it as ‘lazy”, ‘aimless” and ‘soulless”, and labelled it a ‘sub-par” Radiohead release. Some fans are even sharing conspiracy theories that The King of Limbs is just a part of a schedule of new Radio­head releases set for this year and fans should expect more soon.

It’s likely that these fan-driven conspiracy theories are a result of the length of the album—it clocks in at a mere eight songs and 37 minutes. I guess these fans fail to believe that this is all that Radiohead has produced in the past four years.

After spending the past two weeks with The King of Limbs, I am left with no such disappointment. It is a magnificent album, filled to the brim with killer songs, fascinating sounds and some of the finest moments of Radiohead’s career. To complain about the length of the album seems ridiculous when it flows as well as it does.

Sea-change album
Hail to the Thief might have clocked in at 57 minutes but, let’s be honest, there were at least three or four songs that could have been cut from that album and the finished product would have been the better for it.

This is the best Radiohead album since Kid A, which was a sea-change album. It was Radiohead making a clear break from the sounds of 1995’s The Bends and 1997’s OK Computer, which won them so many fans.

Amnesiac in 2001 and Hail to the Thief in 2003 were both great albums in their own right, but they didn’t stack up against Kid A because there were too many dud tracks included.

In fine voice
Then came 2007’s In Rainbows, the least experimental of Radiohead’s post-Kid A releases, featuring more ‘straight ahead” songs that seemed more personal in nature than the band’s previous output.

To add to that, frontman Thom Yorke was singing in fine voice, not mumbling his lyrics and distorting his voice as he had previously done.

The result was that the album received universal praise from the critics and fans alike and a lot of older Radiohead fans, who had become disenchanted with the band during their experimental phase between 2000 and 2007, returned to the fold.

Then on February 14 this year Radiohead announced that their new album was complete and would be released for download the following Saturday. In the end the band released the album a day early on February 18.

So what can you expect from The King of Limbs?

First let me say that the album is the most relaxed Radiohead album we have heard so far and this should not be read as lazy.

Yorke has said many times that Radiohead found the process and pressure of going into the studio to record a new full-length album draining and that it had become ‘a real drag”.

Establishing new ground
‘It worked with In Rainbows because we had a real fixed idea about where we were going,” Yorke told The Believer in 2009. ‘But we’ve all said that we couldn’t possibly dive into that again. It’ll kill us.”

So it seems a natural assumption to make that The King of Limbs is Radiohead establishing new ground for themselves.

Has Oxford’s greatest musical export found a way to put out music in a form that feels natural, without all the pressure and marketing of a major label release schedule?

The fact that a lot of the material included on The King of Limbs feels like more fully developed ideas the band explored on B-sides collections, such as the Airbag/How Am I Driving and COM LAG EPs and the In Rainbows bonus disc, seems to suggest so.

This is Radiohead finally beginning to feel comfortable with who they are as a band and The King of Limbs is all the better for that.

Rhythmic smorgasbord
Opener Bloom
is a dense piece of music, with its clattering rhythms and pulsing bass sounding like a collaboration between Charles Mingus, Brian Eno and Animal Collective’s Avey Tare.

Morning Mr Magpie
offers up a rhythmic smorgasbord that sounds like the Talking Heads meets electronic IT-Boy Flying Lotus when Yorke croons, ‘You got some nerve, comin’ here”.

Little by Little offers up a side of Radiohead previously heard on songs such as I Might Be Wrong and Optimistic, and Feral is a delightful little dubstep-inspired piece that has a great ghostly quality.

The album highlight, though, has to be the single, Lotus Flower, which sounds as if it is exploding into life after the dark and claustrophobic electronica that dominates the first half of the album.

Next is Codex, a gorgeous piano ballad in the mould of Amnesiac‘s Pyramid Song, and then the stunning Give up the Ghost, an acoustic-driven piece that one assumes draws its influence from many years spent listening to Neil Young records.

Electronic sound experiments
brings the album to a close with its sprightly electro groove and Yorke’s hypnotic vocals.
As I mentioned, just eight tracks and 37 minutes—but as a producer friend of mine always says: ‘An album should leave you wanting more, not wanting to turn it off before it’s ended.”

So if you are a fan of Kid A and partial to Radiohead’s electronic sound experiments, then make sure you get your hands on this album.

You can do this by purchasing a download directly from the band at www.radiohead.com for £6 or ordering the full package ‘Newspaper Album” for £30, which includes two 10-inch vinyl records, one CD, many large sheets of newspaper artwork, 625 tiny pieces of artwork and a full-colour piece of oxobiodegradable plastic to hold it all together.

The Newspaper Album will be shipped on May 9 this year but while you’re waiting for it you will have access to a free digital download of the album.

Your only other option is to wait for the CD version, which is expected in South African stores sometime this month.

The King of Limbs
is the sound of Radiohead finally taking their feet off the brakes and beginning to freewheel and it sounds wondrous.

Lloyd Gedye

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