Much of the almost instantaneous reaction to The King of Limbs has come with the caveat that any perspective on Radiohead’s new album at this point is unreliable and subject to change, which is fair enough considering that this latest offering is one that will take its time to fully reveal everything that’s happening on it. Or, as Chuck Klosterman put in a tweet, “I’m sure Radiohead is depressed about these reviews, since they obviously make albums for people to listen to once at 9:20 am on a laptop.” Springing not one, but two surprises on the listening public by announcing the existence and release of The King of Limbs early last week, then sneaking it out online a day earlier than scheduled this past weekend, Radiohead caught everyone off guard and forced critics around the globe into rendering judgment before they were ready — talk about democratizing the marketplace, since music scribes and industry insiders had to wait their turn along with fans, casual and diehard alike, to hear The King of Limbs, suggesting that no one has any more insight on or claim to the album that anyone else. In lieu of business as usual, they’ve figured out how to focus on the music and leave the work of hyping ’em up to everyone else, mastering the art of being popular in spite of themselves.
So Radiohead may or may not be the best or biggest band in the world, but it’s safe to say that it’s definitely the most enigmatic act around. Radiohead’s paradoxical nature and contrarian attitude might have even more to say about the band’s music and its reception than it does the group’s ingeniously back-asswards (anti-)media campaigns, which continue to rewrite the book on publicity in the digital age precisely by eschewing and disdaining self-promotion. The irony of the situation is that the less of a fuss Radiohead makes about itself, the more of a cultural phenomenon each and every one of its albums becomes, so much so that it can get a very large and very broad audience to pay attention to music that’s more or less devoid of any hooks or gimmicks (marketing aside) to sell it. Put another way, there’s no way any other band could release something as dense, complex, and abstract as The King of Limbs to as much hubbub, fanfare, and warm adoration — Thom Yorke himself might as well be describing Radiohead’s justified artistic hubris when he sneers, “You’ve got some nerve,” on “Morning Mr. Magpie”.
On first impression, it’s clear that The King of Limbs requires more patience and concentration than listeners who’ve been eagerly waiting more than three years for new Radiohead material can likely muster in the here and now. (Heck, the most insatiable of fans are already spreading rumors, wishfully enough, that the rushed release might mean these eight tracks are only half of a double album, as if there’s not enough to chew on already.) Setting a deliberate pace from the start, leadoff number “Bloom” is a late, um, bloomer: Beginning with Jonny Greenwood’s modern classical figures played simply on a piano, it builds layers upon layers of meticulous sounds by stacking pulsing, throbbing effects on top of Phil Selway’s gently clattering percussion, before Yorke’s wobbly crooning joins in. Never reaching a fevered pitch, yet gaining momentum slowly but surely, “Bloom” is the kind of opening track that serves as a preface for what’s to follow along the lines of Kid A‘s “Everything in Its Place”, not a heavy-hitting first impression like “15 Step” from In Rainbows. And it’s telling that one of the most immediately appealing tracks on The King of Limbs is titled “Little by Little”, which yields whatever might be catchy about it over time, weaving Selway’s rickety rhythms through the interlocked bass and guitar picking by the Greenwood brothers and Ed O’Brien. When Yorke coyly smirks, “I’m such a tease and you’re such a flirt” on “Little by Little”, it’s as close to a pop moment as you’ll get on the album.
That’s because there’s nothing particularly easy or user-friendly about The King of Limbs: The new release continues to play out the millennial drama between human imagination and artificial intelligence that has driven Radiohead since at least OK Computer, though perhaps more on a compositional level than as a conceptual thematic on this occasion. Yet despite the dark, vacuum-sealed soundscapes that producer Nigel Godrich creates for Radiohead’s alternate universe, The King of Limbs, on balance, finds this band as optimistic as it can be about the prospects of forging and strengthening human connections, especially when you hear Yorke’s soulful voice come through clearer and warmer than ever to rise just above the jittery guitars and haunting atmospherics of “Morning Mr. Magpie”. Likewise, the warped piano ballad “Codex” reaches for transcendence with a solemnly uplifting horns-and-strings arrangement that raises spirits in the most subtle of ways. In contrast, the almost rootsy folk of “Give Up the Ghost” finds meaning and solace in the little things, from the sampled nature sounds in the intro to the barely perceptible tapping that simulates something like a heartbeat that runs through the track.
But it’s the single “Lotus Flower” that best articulates the give-and-take between technological possibility and human expression. Everything seems amped up on the track; the synthesized grooves are deeper and heavier, the syncopated beats more precise and relentless, while Yorke’s approximation of a R&B falsetto reaches for more and hits higher notes, at least in a figurative sense. The song’s much talked-about video, featuring Yorke’s postmodern vaudeville act, dramatizes all the more vividly this tug-of-war between the organic inspiration and tech-driven art that Radiohead finds itself caught in the middle of: While online smart alecks have set Yorke’s un-self-conscious moves to “Single Ladies” and goofed on his herky-jerky boogie as his version of Elaine’s dance from Seinfeld, it’s actually the Chaplin-esque bowler the frontman is wearing in the clip that might hold a clue to understanding the method to his madness. Maybe it’s reading too much into things, but Yorke’s unsynchronized, idiosyncratic grooving represents the body and music in a moment of liberation, however fleeting, the flipside and bookend to the iconic factory scene in Modern Times when, as film scholars have noted, Chaplin critiqued modern life by making pop art out of vamping the automaton-like gestures of working on the assembly line. As much as people may point and giggle at Yorke in what’s his most vulnerable moment, the video and the song are really providing a glimmer of hope for reaching out and touching someone in a virtual world.
It’s because Radiohead doesn’t shrink from these more profound and existential dimensions of human experience that the band perennially stands out from even its most artistically adventurous and inventive comrades, as pompous and over-the-top as such a claim may sound. So while The King of Limbs reveals more of the band’s influences than ever before — early reviews have cited affinities with the work of young gun experimentalists Burial, James Blake, and Yorke collaborator Flying Lotus, while there are more than a few traces of the signature moves from those in its original peer group, including Bjork’s pop electronics, Tortoise’s post-rock, and the space-rock transmissions of mid-1990s Too Pure acts Laika and Moonshake — Radiohead has remained first among equals for the longest time because everything from the finest musical details to the most sweeping technical innovations are at the service of a larger mission the band has never lost sight of. As with anything that’s trying to do something bigger and better, lessons of that magnitude can take more time to sink in, definitely longer than the handful of hours we’ve had to absorb what The King of Limbs might be all about. In that sense, the jury is still out on The King of Limbs and that’s because there’s always something more to Radiohead.