"If You Think This Is Over, Then You're Wrong": Radiohead's Exercise in Humility
The King of Limbs, while on the surface slighter than some of Radiohead's previous efforts, is still a vital, relevant addition to the group’s canon because of -- not despite -- its understated quality.
The experience of slipping into the grooves of a Radiohead record is uniquely sublime. Those who willingly surrender to the band’s strange, surreal beauty rarely find themselves unsatisfied. Thom Yorke and company have not only expressed the alleged alienation of a generation of young people in a technocratic era, but have managed to walk the thin tightrope straddling mainstream and independent musical cultures. The success of the single “Creep” (1992) and the later LP OK Computer (1997) transformed the Oxfordshire group from an underground secret into a college radio sensation. With Kid A (2000), the band’s music finally caught up with the severity of its message. Some fans were shocked when Radiohead replaced gentle piano progressions, crunchy lead lines, and acoustic drum patterns with laptop generated grooves, sinister synth sounds, and avant-garde jazz horn sections.
Since the release of OK Computer and Kid A near the turn of the century, Radiohead has vacillated between the guitar-driven classicism of the former and the electronic experimentalism of the latter. Amnesiac (2001) continued the experimental spirit of Kid A, but sacrificed the strong, soaring melodies of the former record for less accessible, abstract grooves. Hail to the Thief (2003) took a hybrid approach, combining the electric rhythms of the band’s more experimental work with more traditional rock songwriting techniques and instrumentation. With In Rainbows (2007), the band succeeded in making its most accessible work to date, a collection of energetic rock anthems and sublime ballads, all tied together with the most emotionally direct lyrics in the band’s body of work.
Prior to Radiohead’s digital release of The King of Limbs several weeks ago, the question on every fan’s mind was, “What kind of Radiohead record will this be?” Would it represent the apotheosis of alternative rock like OK Computer? Would it challenge purists as much as Kid A? Or, would it be a clear-headed, emotionally naked masterpiece like In Rainbows? Given the album’s more traditional CD/vinyl release on March 28, these questions are worth revisiting. The simple answer, it seems, is “no”. The King of Limbs is none of the above, yet simultaneously all of the above.
The album’s first half tends towards the dense sonic landscapes of Amnesiac with its fluid percussion and layers of ambient sound. The second half, on the other hand, embraces an unassuming minimalism reminiscent of more sparse tracks like “Nude” or “Videotape” from In Rainbows. The King of Limbs, while on the surface slighter than some of the group’s previous efforts, is still a vital, relevant addition to the group’s canon because of -- not despite -- its understated quality.
Sometimes a record’s relentless ambition prevents its initial acknowledgment by the masses. Critics and audience members sometimes chide the artist for his audacity, finding flaws in his sense of bold experimentation. This was arguably the case with Radiohead’s Kid A. While the album is now considered one of the great masterpieces of the new millennium, at the time of its release, some fans and critics felt that the band had pushed too far, embraced experimentalism too much, or changed their sonic texture to the point of making it unrecognizable. In contrast, some of Radiohead’s detractors are now saying that the band hasn’t reached far enough with The King of Limbs. The album runs a mere 37 minutes. There are only eight tracks. The indie radicalism of the band’s distribution method for In Rainbows (pay what you will) has been replaced with a more predictable $9.00-per-download structure and a traditional CD release. It’s a quiet record. None of the songs quite reach the heights of past ambitious tracks like “Paranoid Android” and “Everything in Its Right Place”.
After the wild critical success of In Rainbows, the band risks alienating portions of their audience by daring to be musically humble. Radiohead have become masters of the long-playing record as an art form, and OK Computer and Kid A were eventually lauded for their strong emotional arcs. Arguably, no one in alternative music from the past 15 years has created works as complete and thematically unified as Radiohead. However, to label The King of Limbs as “long-playing” is a bit of a stretch. Yorke has expressed discontent with the album format, decrying the undue pressure that the creation of a full-length record puts on musicians. As many have pointed out, The King of Limbs feels more like an EP. The sprawling, epic quality of previous Radiohead records is conspicuously missing.
To its credit, though, Radiohead still manages to establish a meaningful artistic arch in only a little over 30 minutes. From beginning to end, the record progresses sonically from restlessness to tranquility, from ambiguity to simplicity, from electronica to acoustic sounds. Thematically, the tunes on what constitutes side one of the vinyl release focus on uncertainty, mysterious imagery, and the hectic complications of living in an unquiet world. Side two’s lyrics are more emotionally direct, exploring the themes of longing, coming to terms with one’s past, and embracing the serenity of death. After listening to The King of Limbs, one feels that one has been on a journey through the minds and hearts of its creators, a claim that can be made about very few records.
In a way, Radiohead’s latest offering might just be its most personal collection of songs yet. If The King of Limbs is about anything, it is perhaps the pressures of the modern world and how an individual might find peace in such a chaotic context. In “Little by Little”, Yorke sings about “Obligations / Complications / Routines and schedules / A job that’s killing you”. One can’t help but think about Yorke’s discussion in interviews of the pressures surrounding the making of a new Radiohead record. Yorke’s assertion that “Once you’ve been around / You’ve been around enough” in that song could be interpreted not just as bemoaning a troubled relationship, but also alluding to the repetitive nature of the writing and recording process. When Yorke longs in “Lotus Flower” to “slip into the grooves and cut me up”, he could be referring to the way a musician may lose his or her sense of self to the practical demands of her art. The band asks its listeners to embrace the mysterious, multifarious nature of The King of Limbs with the album’s opening lyric “Open your mouth wide... Don’t blow your mind with whys” The group anticipates the listeners’ skepticism regarding this modest record, and invite them to sit back and enjoy the ride. The funky, disjointed electrogrooves and dense, synth-induced textures of the record’s first few tracks effectively support the band’s lyrical wallowing in ambiguity and frustration.
After the ultimately misguided (yet intermittently intriguing) dubstep instrumental “Feral”, the album shifts gradually from chaos to order. “Lotus Flower” -- while still prominently featuring an electronically generated beat -- is more structurally conventional than earlier tracks on the record. With “Codex”, a breathtakingly beautiful piano ballad, the band reaches towards peace and serenity. The final three songs slow the record down and serve as a quiet respite to the asymmetrical rhythmic bombast found earlier on the album. The textures of both “Codex” and “Give Up the Ghost” are noticeably sparse, recalling such previous warm Radiohead ballads as “Exit Music (For a Film)” and “The Tourist”. The musical transformation is reflected in the songs’ lyrics. The strange, esoteric ocean depicted in “Bloom” is now “A clear lake... clear and innocent”. Both “Give Up the Ghost” and “Separator” seem to speak to a gentle acceptance of death. In the latter song, Yorke speaks of “Falling out of bed / From a long and vivid dream”, as if to suggest that the surreal imagery and complex sonic textures from the first part of the album were just a mind trip. When he says, “Finally I’m free of all the weight I’ve been carrying”, we get the feeling that he has followed his own advice from the record’s first track, and is no longer “blowing his mind with whys”, but just accepting the realities of life as they come.
Despite its lack of audacious ambition when compared with previous Radiohead records, The King of Limbs is the perfect musical statement for this group at this moment in its career. The release of every album since OK Computer and Kid A has been an “event”, an opportunity for the band to prove how creative, innovative, and utterly transcendent its music really is. This time around, Yorke and company have made a deliberate artistic statement by employing understatement. The King of Limbs isn’t as innovative as Kid A, as perfect as OK Computer, or as politically relevant as Hail to the Thief. It is, however, an expression of a band wary of making grandiose statements, yet still filled with the joy and sacred mystery of musicmaking. Some have speculated that we are currently only hearing part one of Limbs, that the band will release additional material later in the year. If it is true that, as Yorke sings at the record’s end, “If you think this is over then you’re wrong”, it will be thrilling to see how the group continues their journey. If, on the other hand, we currently have the complete King of Limbs, it will go down as a fascinating “little record” in the band’s unmatched body of work.