Exuberant. Not a word usually associated with Radiohead, but then there we had it, bursting all over In Rainbows (2007) — from the vibrantly multicolor artwork to the joy of paying a buck (or less) for a download to the undeniable energy of “15 Step”, “Bodysnatchers”, “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” and so on. The word could also describe the appetite critics and fans alike had for the record, greeting it with almost universal acclaim. The band garnered praise for sounding — after a decade in the spotlight as the world’s preeminent creator of rock equal parts artful and commercial — fun, free, no longer concerned with reinventing themselves completely on every album.
So, let’s get it out of the way, then: no, Radiohead have not redefined themselves on The King of Limbs, their eighth studio LP and their second “Surprise!” rush-release. They have, however, scaled that exuberance way back. Many listeners will likely claim The King of Limbs a throwback album, an echo of Radiohead’s tutelage under the Warp Records catalog and subsequent forays into electronica on Kid A (2000) and, in particular for our purposes here, the divisive Amnesiac (2001). Those listeners will not be wrong: this album pushes programmed beats and silky synths again into the forefront. More to the point, like Amnesiac, much of this material seems on first listen tinged with abstraction and elliptical constructions. The songs do not register as pop, or even art-pop or whatever other hyphenated monikers we could’ve rightly used to describe the bright and crisp In Rainbows. These songs seem harder to know, more distant, less organic.
That, by the way, is fine. The King of Limbs is a beautiful record, one that begs more of a conscious listen than its predecessor, but one that provides equal — if different — thrills in doing so. Though it seems strange and restrained on the first several spins, there are signs apparent that Radiohead do not record in an isometric chamber, sealed vacuum-tight. Elements crop up in all corners that set The King of Limbs at least partially into a narrative of popular turn-of-the-decade sounds. Touches of the woozy beats of Flying Lotus (though less frenetic) and the cyborg R&B of James Blake (though, well, more frenetic) come to mind right away, hinting at Radiohead’s comfortable place on the edges of contemporary electronic music. Of course, the most apt reference point for a Radiohead album always seems to be, yes, Radiohead. The King of Limbs has the band reinvestigating their love of computer-driven music, but it never sounds stale or reheated.
As ever, Thom Yorke’s lyrics describe isolation and loss, a vague sense of dread permeating things through and through. “Open your mouth wide,” he instructs us right away, “universal sighs”. His sense of dislocation, his unease, has become as integral to Radiohead’s sound as any musical element. Where In Rainbows often functioned on contrast, lacing together Yorke’s melancholic lines with uptempo compositions, The King of Limbs provides a more cohesive atmosphere. “Bloom” offers its masterful production — all clattering percussion and layer upon layer of brass, keys, computerized blips, and Yorke’s commanding vocals — in the service of that subtly dark mood, not moving in its progression so much as shifting in its seat. It’s a knockout opener, but one that doesn’t quite register as such until you grow more familiar with its rhythms.
That lack of quickfire dynamism will be, if anything, what keeps some people from loving this album. Like “Bloom”, most of the record’s best songs rouse themselves slowly. “Morning Mr Magpie” uses interlocking staccato guitars and a head-bobbing bassline to build tension, shapeshifting into a danceable track so incrementally that you might not notice when your hips start to move. “Little By Little” repeats a similar trick, and both of the songs borrow from In Rainbows’s jazzy drumming and bass-centric grooves to great effect. In fact, it’s in those moments of sly come-ons that The King of Limbs asserts itself in a way possibly unique in Radiohead’s catalog: this is a sexy record.
Whether it’s Yorke insisting, “I’m such a tease / And you’re such a flirt”, or the slow smolder of “Lotus Flower”, or the insidious low-end in “Feral”, the album feels remarkably visceral for such a crystalline group of compositions. It blends the lascivious with the mechanical in a way only hinted at in the band’s previous efforts. Yes, the emotional weight remains elsewhere, in the breathtaking suicide note of “Codex” and the ultimate release represented by album closer “Separator”. Still, swirling in there with Yorke’s apocalyptic surrealisms and his band’s tricky rhythms, there’s a beating heart that feels almost animal. If The King of Limbs doesn’t feel alive to you at first, give it some time to wake up.