It’s beena while since we’ve heard from everybody’s favorite British alternative rock band. Radiohead has been holed up since the smash success of “In Rainbows” in 2007. The album revolutionized how musical content could be delivered to listeners, allowing fans to download the album on a “pay-what-you-like” basis. The experiment proved to be phenomenally successful, critically and commercially, and it showed the music industry that truly good music can sell itself.
However, the band felt drained from its extended writing and recording periods, especially after such an artistically prolific decade. The band members took an extended break from recording with the intent to only produce music in an organic environment—recording as they pleased and releasing EPs at their own convenience. When it was announced on Valentine’s Day that the group would release a new album, “The King of Limbs,” via their website the following Saturday (Feb. 19). It turned some heads from musicians and critics alike. Then they decided to release it a day early to the joy of many salivating fans.
So what can be said about “The King of Limbs”? Thus far, it has baffled many music critics, who were unprepared for the prospect of a new Radiohead record. For starters, it is the band’s shortest album, just over 37 minutes in length. To put that in context, that’s less than Radiohead’s debut album “Pablo Honey” (42 minutes), which today appears more like a commercial rock record when compared to Radiohead’s work since “OK Computer.” With just eight tracks, it’s hard to get a good read on “Limbs” after just one or two listens. There is a lot happening here in such a short period of time, a lot of which most of Radiohead’s loyal fan base will be accustomed to.
From the standpoint of overall musical tone, “Limbs” sounds like something that could have been released between “Kid A” and “Amnesiac.” Essentially, it matches the Brian Eno influenced records that preceded “In Rainbows.” The whole album contains Radiohead’s familiarly ambient approach that dominated these earlier records. It’s a sonically menacing thread that loosely ties the individual tracks together. However, “Limbs’” use of electronics is slightly more subtle. The synthetic drones and dynamics come across somewhat organically, if not just more sparsely, than on Radiohead’s previous releases. At times, this is incredibly effective, especially on “Give up the Ghost,” complimenting the natural instrumentation and quiet vocal harmonies that sustain the song. However, “Feral” often flirts with the line between tastefully used effects and just being over-the-top electro-psychedelic-y (a technical term).
For the most part, the songs on “Limbs” are pretty consistently structured. A hallmark of the album is its use of heavily syncopated drum beats that have the quality of sounding almost looped. Drummer Phil Selway does an outstanding job at driving “Limbs” forward and grounding the loose rhythms and harmonies in something altogether stable and infectious. Most tracks have repetitive forms, but that doesn’t mean they are lazily constructed. In fact, there are enough times that some layers are peeled back or dropped out that allow the songs to breathe and expand. On “Lotus Flower,” Thom Yorke croons “Slowly we unfurl/As lotus flowers”—lyrically sexual, but also an accurate description of how many songs on “Limbs” operate. Drums falling out here, guitar out there, a climax at the end—most of this is pretty basic. But “Limbs,” like other Radiohead releases, is beautifully produced with dense arrangements that can sometimes only be heard and fully appreciated on high volume with good headphones. The sound gets in your brain and unfurls, spreading out and growing little by little.
“Limbs” is a pleasant surprise from a band that some fans considered to be dormant. However, it is definitely not Radiohead’s most accessible release and not a great point of entry into their extensive musical catalogue. It’s like running into an old friend at the grocery store, chatting for a few moments about their kids etc., etc., then heading off to buy your cereal. “Limbs” excellently compliments and expands on previous Radiohead releases in a subtle and musically entertaining way, but its brevity limits its potential to be viewed as the next great Radiohead release. To fans, however, it’s absolutely worth the listen, and it’s definitely worth getting excited over for the possibility of a tour. Who knows, maybe Thom Yorke shops at Hy-Vee.