There are moments when you have to question your validity as a music journalist. Reviewing Radiohead is one of them. Radiohead isn’t a band; it’s an institution, and one with a fanatical membership at that. Those who care most about this release will (as they should) make their own minds up about it. So the value of critically appraising The King Of Limbs is clearly limited, and that’s before one even considers that its release was orchestrated specifically to bypass thoughtless critical appraisal, that can so detract from the pleasure of that first listen.
That this unexpected release was staged so successfully will, in fact, probably prove the most remarkable feat of this album; it has been many years since an album generated this level of release-date excitement. Bloggers everywhere went into overdrive, desperate to be among the first to deliver their verdict. That The King Of Limbs could begin arriving in people’s download folders halfway through Friday morning, with virtually everyone clueless as what to expect, was a unique event in the climate of music sharing. The launch gloriously transported fans and journalists to a simpler time, as it was analyzed, nitpicked, indulged in and pored over for the first time, everywhere, simultaneously.
The King Of Limbs is quite dense, and remains fairly opaque during those first few listenings. The album follows very much in the footsteps of In Rainbows, but lacks the immediacy and variation of its predecessor, making for an altogether more challenging experience. That’s not to say there aren’t rewards waiting if you’re willing to be patient. Morning Mr Magpie is an invigorating exercise in restraint. Its bass and drum lines click with tireless repetition, constantly threatening to burst into something elaborately complicated, but ultimately submitting to the song’s unapologetically meticulous structure. Little By Little is pleasingly textured, creating a game out of discerning the central melody from the wash of background noises. Feral is perhaps the one song on the album that misses its mark. A nod towards the avant-garde, this instrumental purports to thicken the record’s moody atmosphere, but perhaps lacks the invention required to validate its presence. Followers of Flying Lotus will recognise the inspiration Thom Yorke has taken here from his time spent contributing to the superb Cosmogramma, but feel disappointed that the song doesn’t quite recreate the magic of that album.
The King Of Limbs is reborn with Lotus Flower. This is the closest thing the album has to a single, and the video is well worth a look; Yorke heedlessly shows-off his own charmingly erratic brand of dancing. Separator, the final track, is possibly the album’s strongest. Jonny Greenwood’s guitar makes a rare, shimmering appearance, lifting an album that would otherwise be in danger of seeming downbeat, mournful even.
The King Of Limbs does not have the playful, creative streak of In Rainbows, and it steers well clear of the alt-rock anthems that built the band’s global reputation. Indeed, it can seem joyless and hopelessly understated in places. This is, however, a considered and well-crafted piece of music, but most impressively, a strong restatement of the band’s commitment to reinvention and innovation.