record review: Radiohead – The King of Limbs (XL)

Sat cross-legged in a school assembly long ago, my seven-year-old self and a friend listened, hypnotised, to the uproarious music of Sum 41, and their popular song “Fat Lip”. It was on one of those rare occasions where the older students had control of song choice, and it was an introduction to music beyond that which I had immediate exposure too. Status is imperative at primary school level, and my friend seized on this opportunity to comment on the fact that he had previously heard the song, as his brother actually owned the album. We sat together in a sort of hushed awe as we contemplated exactly how meaningful this statement was. At the time, I had no idea what a ‘musical album’ actually was, and so, bound by a social code which would never permit me to ask, I allowed my mind to wander and to freely associate the idea of an ‘album’ with my prior experiences: I imagined perhaps a photo album documenting the making of the music, or a collection of lyrics bound together as a book.

These days, neither of those ideas is all that different from what can be physically attributed to being packaged as an album. Lyric inserts and band photos are commonly placed inside CD jewel cases for listeners to peruse at their pleasure. In one sense, though, there are very few parameters nowadays for defining what qualities an album actually must have. Radiohead are renowned for their ability to consistently push the boundary of our expectation for an album; both in terms of content, and how we actually experience it. OK Computer and Kid A, the most critically acclaimed of their previous seven releases, transcended categorisation and (particularly in the case of Kid A) heralded an entirely new perspective of the use of electronics in music. Their most recent work prior to The King of Limbs was 2007’s In Rainbows, where the band decided to ‘leak’ their album onto the internet through an honesty box mechanism, whereby listeners dictated the price they would pay for the digital download of the music. In an era where CD and general music sales are in constant decline, Thom Yorke and co. sought evermore innovative ways to deliver their art to the masses, aiming always to defy previous expectations as to how their music would be released.

It is curious, then, that in terms of both content and delivery, The King of Limbs does not seem overly concerned in crossing new terrain in the way Radiohead have always done. Many critics have passed over the innocuous announcement that this album was to be the ‘world’s first newspaper album’, a concept seemingly devoid of any relevance or immediate effect. In stark contrast to the avant-garde approach of In Rainbows, the idea feels trivial and insignificant to the progression of music as an artistic force. Neither does the music particularly experiment or venture in ways we are not accustomed to already.

In fact, the highlights of the album are just so because they are reminiscent of the Radiohead many have come to know and love. While I may not hold the band on a pedestal as elevated as some, I can appreciate that they have written some fantastic individual songs in the past; Yorke’s songwriting craftsmanship is not a skin one could ever shed overnight – and it is ever-present on The King of Limbs, as underwhelming as it might be. Lead single “Lotus Flower” is a perfectly distinctive Radiohead song; a driving rhythm section provides the roots from which synths can unfurl and blossom, Yorke providing the petals in the form of a memorable vocal melody. But the way in which “Lotus Flower” is successful is the same way that hinders it – ultimately, it offers nothing we couldn’t find on a routine trip back into their illustrious discography.

The album does divulge more than is usually accessible in terms of obvious influences. The wave of dubstep/post-dubstep music the band has chronicled in their public office listening charts rears its head in tracks like “Feral” and “Bloom”. These jittery numbers resemble many of the drum patterns that became the band’s trademark through Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows, and this has progressed into vocal filtration in the style of artists like Burial – and more recently, James Blake. Later on, more patient, spacious tracks discard this style, and another stronger entry, “Give Up the Ghost”, finds Yorke harmonising with himself, in a manner curiously evoking a Fleet Foxes vibe. Largely, the band doesn’t commit itself to one specific sound, and, spread thinly across an already reduced run time, justifies the views of many who will voice these minor complaints.

Are we asking too much of Radiohead to consistently produce something that surpasses all expectations? Before The King of Limbs, I might not have said so. Is it unfair for us to evaluate Radiohead on almost unachievable standards of progression and artistic advancement? Almost definitely. It is a somewhat sad stage to arrive at when the cultural ghosts and personal projections of what the finished product “should sound like” start to shape opinions before the final product has even arrived. It is clear that Radiohead are aware of this, too – opting to announce a new album only days away is not a mere publicity stunt. Still, what they haven’t done in terms of innovation here does at least leave behind a collection of songs well worth their individual weight. If this were to be an unsigned, rising band, it is likely that this album would be commonly respected – it would be an album I’d simultaneously force upon those close to me and yet try and maintain for myself, my headphones and I. But it isn’t; it’s a Radiohead record – a decent, listenable, refreshing, interesting, fascinating record – and Thom Yorke & co. will never again get the opportunity to release an album free from the pressure of anticipation. At the end of the day, Radiohead have emulated precisely the act of Sum 41 all those years ago – released a normal album.

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