When Radiohead releases a new album, it's always an eventnot just because of an unusual pricing scheme, or because the album's a surprise (this one was announced just days before it was released, and then made available a day before it was promised). It's an event because, deserving or not, they're established as the Best Band in the Entire World. That means that any new album will be held to standards very different from those applied to other acts. Being a Radiohead worshiper is thus a bit like being a Yankees fan: if the Yankees don't win the World Series, the season's a failure; if Radiohead's new album doesn't make your head explode, it's a failure, too.
Well, I've been listening to their latest record, The King of Limbs
, and my head remains intactso far, at least. Radiohead has a remarkable ability to straddle the line between innovation and accessibility: the songs are often unlike anything else in the mainstream, yet they're hugely popular. And In Rainbows
, the band's most recent album, placed particular emphasis on melody, with songs that felt more immediately comprehensible than their predecessors. Yet The King of Limbs
turns the focus away from melody and onto atmospheresound piled on sound. It plays more to your head than your heart: while, as always, I marvel at the band's proficiency in the studio, this one doesn't quite have me weeping. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it means it's going to take a lot of listens to fully appreciate the record. So these are my first impressions.
The album opener, "Bloom," is fairly representative of the first half of the record. First, it has a beat that makes you want to dance like Thom Yorke
, limbs flailing, in the privacy of your own room. Second, there are long stretches with no lyrics. But when Yorke's voice does appear, it's tracked several times, so that it hits you from all sides. Indeed, this is an album to listen to on headphones: it plays with stereo sound like it's a new invention, fully immersing the listener. There are so many instruments, vocal lines, and ambient sounds that it's difficult to isolate individual parts. Particularly in songs like "Morning Mr. Magpie" and "Lotus Flower," the band integrates real instruments seamlessly with electronic ones. Underneath it all are quick, jumpy basslines. The result is a batch of songs that are upbeat and likable, but don't vary a great deal from each other. On the one hand, this unifies the album; like each Radiohead record before it, it has its own character. On the other hand, it gets a little repetitive.
The last three songs, however, change things up. "Codex" is a slow, solemn piano piece. "Give Up the Ghost" is a gorgeous acoustic-based tune which features Yorke's pleading voice. The album closes with "Separator," perhaps its most intriguing track, which pairs a novel beat with a high, repeated guitar pattern that would be perfectly at home in a pop song.
A band noted for its anxiety here seems relaxed: these guys have proved themselves time and again, and on this record they're not out to blow our minds. More than ever, they seem to be enjoying themselves.