Saturday, 19 February 2011

Radiohead - The King Of Limbs (Album Review 2011)

It’s time to face the facts. Radiohead are not the band they used to be. In the nineties the band followed up a solid début with two incredible albums: The Bends and OK Computer, bringing awards (including a Grammy for the latter) and worldwide fame. But after this success the following decade provided only self-doubt and anxiety, both musically and personally for the band. Thom Yorke stated in Q Magazine that Radiohead came very close to breaking up and that he was suffering from depression, and it took three years for the band to return with a new sound: Kid A. After what had come before, to say the album is a challenging listen is an understatement. Bands and musicians reinvent themselves all the time but by anyone’s standards the transformation from OK Computer to Kid A is huge. This move into more fragmented, experimental and tense music is explained by the mind-set of the band at the time, especially Yorke. Kid A and follow-up Amnesiac were as difficult records to make they were for fans and critics to accept. So began the new Radiohead.

At the time it was not obvious but Radiohead had become the band they didn’t want to be. Music history is filled with tragic stories of the price of fame and the pressures it brings but with no demands from a record label and the media fallout of their change behind them, the band settled into their new life. Fans, mainly those aggrieved by the lack of an OK Computer 2 and the complete disintegration of the band they loved, were understandably divided. And they remain divided, five albums on from this musical schism. After the disappointing Hail To The Thief, In Rainbows was released for ‘a price of your choosing’ on Radiohead’s website. This radical and somewhat commercially absurd move gave the band a huge amount of publicity and got the industry thinking – oddly when the album was released ‘properly’ it topped the charts in the UK and the US (it would be great to think that those who got the album for free then went on to buy it). Album number five is The King Of Limbs, a fusion of the reborn Radiohead of Kid A and the focused comfortable Radiohead of In Rainbows.

Much of The King Of Limbs is centred on the cold, clinical electronic sound that has shaped the new albums. Drum machines, clicks and whirs, echoing vocals and short keyboard loops now replace long gliding guitars hooks, conventional bass, and standard verse-verse-chorus-verse rinse-and-repeat fare. A great example of this is Lotus Flower, the song at the heart of the album. A loose but discernible structure mixed with space-aged bleeps and a solid delicious bass line help to direct Yorke’s vocals. The main theme of his lyrics drags up the past and expose his new mentality: “We will shrink and be quite as mice. While the cat’s away we do what we want…” is trying to suggest that the band are now ‘out of sight and out of mind’ to old ‘fans’. And in ten years, Thom Yorke’s vocal has never sounded better than this.

An early highlight is Morning Mr Magpie, a clear euphemism for trying to regain past glory: “And now you stole it, all the magic; took my memories” sings Yorke with more than just a hint of bitterness. Musically the song races along, powered by stabbing guitars and drums, right up to a very downbeat ending. ‘Memories’ is replaced by ‘melody’ to complete the picture. Little By Little continues this theme. Better guitar-work and the rattling percussion are excellent. Yorke is more determined with this catharsis: “Obligation, complication, routines and schedules. Drug and kill you…” and “Never get noticed, never get judged. I’m no idiot, I should look” is straight, no nonsense and brilliant song writing.

One of the only problems with The King Of Limbs is an over-complication of songs that should be simple. Opener Bloom has a disjointed, stuttering, pots and pans backing track that gets even more scrambled at the halfway point. Yorke’s vocals vanish in favour of more chaos in the middle. Feral is the album’s worst moment, letting seemingly random ideas run riot without any control. Even the wonderful bass-heavy last minute or so cannot save it.

It is at the mid-point that the album settles down into stark minimalism for a much better second half. The dark piano-driven Codex, with its haunting effects and equally haunting vocal from Yorke, is a thing of beauty. Give Up On The Ghost’s dual vocal becomes three then four in a choir of wordless loops framed with acoustic guitar, bass drum and snake-tongue percussion. Closer Separator is wonderful and a sure sign that Radiohead is regaining some of their song craft that got them where they are today. Yorke’s vocal arrangement glides neatly atop mainly drums and bass. He ends with “Like I’m falling out of bed from a long and weary dream. Finally I’m free of all the weight I’ve been carrying. When I ask you again, wake me up”.

Radiohead’s past will always haunt them and the success of The Bends and OK Computer is now as much a curse as it is a blessing. Even though the album often feels like therapy, The King Of Limbs is the sound of a contented band but not a contended sound. It is as if they know what they want to do but bridging the gap between the past and the present has not yet happened. The King Of Limbs sounds like an attempt to make a better Kid A – to recreate musically all the newly found inspiration but without the tension and angst that tortured them personally – the songs from the first three albums with the sound of the last three. Radiohead are not there yet. And with eight songs and a thirty-seven minute running time, The King Of Limbs is unnervingly short. Free download single These Are My Twisted Words does not feature and would have made a good addition.

Ultimately there is more to life than music. The fact that Radiohead are still around and still making music is a very good thing. The alternative could have been much, much worse. And the way in which they are now doing this has much to be admired. Music should be challenging and engaging – pulling you in one minute and pushing you away the next. And the fact they are making the sort of music they want to make is part of the process. Finding the balance between self-satisfaction and giving the people what they want is hard, and if you are not comfortable in your own skin only you have the power to change that. So that is what Radiohead have done, to stay together, to survive as a band, and to keep making music. For good and for bad.


Anonymous said...

Um... No. Half of what you've said here is projection.

Chris said...

What do you mean?

Red said...

Great review.