The King of Limbs
By Mark Abraham | 25 February 2011
As I think I’ve intimated in the past, my favor for Radiohead is more muted than that of many of my colleagues here at Cokemachineglow. For the sake of disclosure, then, I figure I should briefly reiterate my position: I think Radiohead is a good and sometimes great rock ‘n’ roll band, but I’m often uncomfortable with or unconvinced by assertions about their critical role in the vanguard of musical innovation and unrestricted musical experimentation. In other words, I think OK Computer (1997) and Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001) are good albums, if not the unmarred incontrovertible classics they are sometimes presented as. I have also noted that I think the thing the band is best at is finding a way to channel the spirit of their wide variety of influences into a very specific aesthetic they first outlined on The Bends (1995), and that their success in this endeavor is mostly due to the very distinct way Thom Yorke approaches vocal melodies, but that I find the aesthetic itself to at times be overwhelmingly dreary. I like Radiohead, I mean; I just don’t think that what the band is doing is so critically distinct from what a bunch of other bands—many of which Radiohead has taken cues from—have done or are doing.
Now, I also get why so many love Radiohead; on this point, I’m simply stating my own opinion. But because Radiohead is, as we all know, sacrosanct in certain circles, my simple assertion that Kid A isn’t an unblemished and perfect studio statement—one that is the last of its kind, according to some—has been met with severe grimaces by some of my colleagues. In one notable example, Alan simply dismissed my position as “untenable.” He didn’t mean that nastily, but he was as confused by my opinion as I often am by those who refuse to acknowledge the numerous weaknesses that I perceive as chinks in Radiohead’s armor: the clearly referential song structures which therefore aren’t all that original; the vague and unspecific lyrics; the sameness of tone across the spectrum of sounds they make; the amateurish approach to drum programming; the weaker songs and the way those weaker songs reveal the limits of the band’s abilities; the dumbing down of the experimental techniques they’re famous for making famous; and the complex interpretations of the meanings of their music that seem to sit more on top of albums like Kid A and OK Computer than actually complement them. To be clear, these are all minor issues that don’t apply to every Radiohead song or album; I’m just saying that liking Radiohead doesn’t mean justifying Radiohead, or, rather, that like any other band, Radiohead is made up of humans. No matter how intoxicating Jonny Greenwood continues to look as he gets older. Which is why I find it strange that the simple argument that Radiohead the band is just like many other bands—and therefore capable of producing music that varies in quality—is such a turn off for many people.
Which brings us to The King of Limbs, Radiohead’s eighth record. Because Radiohead is for so many a thing to cherish and, against naysayers, defend—a point of generic consensus in the often stratified world of independent music—the band gets saddled with expectations the likes of which few other contemporary bands will ever encounter. And these expectations, at least among our staff, have been confounded. Which is why you get me writing this review rather than any one of the out and out Radiohead fans on our staff. Because even now, on our staff board, nobody seems to know what to say. At first, Conrad figured he needed to listen to the album more before he got it; then he realized that getting it meant actually parsing out Yorke’s kind of shitty lyrics. Chris has already decided he doesn’t like it but keeps listening because…well, because it’s a Radiohead album. Jessica can barely listen to it to decide in the first place because she hates the high-pitched drum programming and the continued elision of Phil Selway as an actual live drummer. Kaylen’s left wondering if this is their makeout album. Andrew listened to it but doesn’t remember most of it. Babs called it “snoozegaze.” Maura thinks “Lotus Flower” might sound better if played at the MTV beach house. Chet is refusing to even listen to it because it’s a Radiohead album. Dom does him one better, refusing to believe the album is real.
I’m poking fun at my colleagues, here, of course; our discussion about the album has been a little more sophisticated than that. But what is so astonishing to me, I guess, is that The King of Limbs seems to finally be the straw that has broken the camel’s back, by which I mean it has somehow drained the reserve of goodwill Radiohead has enjoyed since Amnesiac. I thought Hail to the Thief (2003) was fun but bloated, for example, but while it was universally seen as a step down from Kid A, to be sure, that assertion was only made in the context of the lofty praise heaped upon the latter; on its own, Hail to the Thief was largely perceived to be a classic album and a list-topper at year end. In Rainbows (2007), which is the only Radiohead album outside of Pablo Honey (1993) I actually consider poor, did have its non-me detractors on our staff, but even then Chet and Joel framed their argument in terms of a loss of the magic that made Radiohead Radiohead, rather than, as I saw it, a natural and expected bottlenecking of all the various issues I have had with various Radiohead records since OK Computer. Funnily enough, then, here we have a record that I personally think is miles better than In Rainbows, if still subpar, and nobody seems to love it.
Hell, the most positive perspective on it from our staff is David’s, who still only wants to rate it at 72. And his basic take that the first four tracks are all studio trickery with no substance and that the last four tracks are more substantial seems to be generally agreed upon. Which means that our staff basically believes that 18 of the minutes of a 37-minute album are not so great and the other 19 are…okay. Not love-worthy, perhaps, but not simply just not so great. Which means that the majority of our staff doesn’t have a strong opinion on the album one way or another, outside of the fact that this is Radiohead and Radiohead should provoke strong opinions, right? Right? Because all the hallmarks of a Radiohead album—the skittish drums, the sense of space, the epic arcs, the clever studio trickery, the sense of despair—are here. And for all the talk of how Radiohead wants to kill the album, that too isn’t really true: the thing about Radiohead that has always been the most traditional thing is the fact that even at the band’s most obtuse it produces albums like the 1970s produced albums: epic, pre-punk things that are meant to be digested and experienced. Kid A did not balk that; Hail to the Thief did not balk that; and if Radiohead were a 1970s band, In Rainbows functions perfectly as their late-period and kind of shitty 1980s album which did not balk that. And neither does The King of Limbs really, with its stuttered intro, fleshed-out middle, and contemplative back half.
So what’s different? Interestingly, the very qualities that make this a subpar Radiohead album are what make it their most experimental record yet. But this is also Radiohead elliptically circling back on themselves in dramatic form. Even more dramatic, I imagine, if you’ve shelled out for 650 small pieces of artwork or whatever to explain how this works. See, there’s nothing new about the experimentation we get here. For example, “Lotus Flower,” the lead single, does all the things a Radiohead single does: the groove is umbilical to the song’s construction, founded in the entrance and exit of the bass line as Yorke’s voice waffles clearly above the clamor. What’s different is what has been removed: the track has no memorable vocal melodies whatsoever, and so the pulsing arrangement is quickly forgettable. In effect, The King of Limbs sees Radiohead removing the parts that used to give form to its forays into experimentation, which in turn allowed its skittish drum programming to be more broadly consumable than, say, the skittish drum programming of Two Lone Swordsmen. But since skittish drum programming itself is nothing new for Radiohead, on “Lotus Flower” or “Feral” or “Little by Little” or “Bloom,” all are merely reminiscent of the better drum patch-driven skittish tracks that Radiohead has gloried in since Kid A. Similarly, “Codex” is a somber, percussionless piano-driven song that reminds us of other somber, percussionless piano-driven songs. And while “Separator” actually provides a little build at the end of the album—it’s the only song here, really, with any sense of transition—even then its weight lies mostly in the sense that it doesn’t resolve in any meaningful way. The net result is curious: if Radiohead were treading new ground here, I’d hazard a guess that this album would still be frowned upon for lacking the glory moments that have characterized their past work, but I would probably be arguing in favor of this album of shapeless spare parts.
But while I normally like shapeless, here’s the thing: yes, The King of Limbs isn’t a bad album, and it doesn’t sound tossed off, half-cocked, unimaginative, directionless, antiquated, or derivative, but it doesn’t really land, either. And that’s despite the fact that The King of Limbs sounds—as always—like the band spent hours and hours in the studio perfecting every little thing. And so, it can even be quite pretty—Clay’s backhanded compliment—at least in the immediate sense of listening to various moments of beauty on the album. But The King of Limbs is simultaneously too familiar to be Radiohead’s foray into all-out experimentation and too experimental to satisfy the normal expectations we have for Radiohead. We’ve heard it before, I mean, but never this emaciated. Which means that the actual problem with The King of Limbs is something that even I, resident Radiohead downer, never ever thought I would say about this particular band: The King of Limbs is just redundant.