No alarms and no surprises then? Except when it comes to album releaseschedules, of course. On Valentine’s Day, Radiohead sent the socialnetworks into meltdown with the news that their eighth album would bereleased online in a mere five days time. No introductory single, nopre-release buzz, no leaks. And then, just to catch us off our guards evenmore, they released it a day beforehand.
Of course, there’s a danger that this very 21st century way ofreleasing an album may overshadow the music itself. Not that there’s anychance of that with Radiohead, a band whose fans pore over every note,every lyric, every beat in an attempt to find out what it all means. So,what’s it like?
Well, firstly, the usual complaints that are often heard when Radioheadrelease a new album will be heard again here: this is not a remake of OKComputer or The Bends. As has been the case with Radiohead since 2000,there are no conventional guitar anthems, no radio-friendly big choruses.Instead, we get scattered, clipped beats, eerie electronica and someimpossibly cryptic vocals from Thom Yorke.
In fact the record that The King Of Limbs most brings to mind is ThomYorke’s solo effort, The Eraser. There’s little room for Jonny Greenwoodto peel off an incendiary riff, or for Phil Selway to break loose on hisdrum kit – and although this is very much in the spirit of In Rainbows,there’s nothing as immediate as Nude or House Of Cards to grab theattention.
Instead, The King Of Limbs is very much, to borrow that old footballvernacular, a game of two halves. Of the album’s eight tracks, the firstfour are full of the claustrophobic, tense beats we’ve come to expect fromRadiohead over the last few years, while the second half sees a lushersound which hints at a surprising new direction. While the opening trackBloom may sound a tad underwhelming at first listen, it sets the moodperfectly – an insistent piano riff, glitchy beats with even sampled brassand strings rising into the mix.
Lyrically, Yorke is as obtuse as ever. Morning Mr Magpie is about themost explicitly political track here – with snarls of “you stole it all,give it back”, it will no doubt be taken as a comment on the bankers rolein the financial crisis, while Little By Little sees the return oflust-filled Thom, previously seen on House Of Cards, as he moans “I’m sucha tease, and you’re such a flirt”. Like the rest of the album, it’sdisconcerting, but undeniably magnetic.
It’s the final four tracks on The King Of Limbs that mark this outthough as a particularly special album. The beautiful Codex is probablythe standout track here, its atmospheric piano bringing to mind pastglories such as Pyramid Song or Videotape, yet even more heartbreakinglypoignant. There are some spacey sound-effects, but this is the sound ofYorke at his most affecting, singing forebodingly of jumping into a riverwhile a muted trumpet plays sadly along.
The video for Lotus Flower has already passed into internet legend,featuring some truly terrifying dancing from Yorke, although the songitself won’t be one you’ll hear in many clubs. The scattered beats arestill there, but the overall emotion is one of sadness, with Yorkemournfully telling that “there’s an empty space inside my heart”. It’s atheme continued in the gorgeous Giving Up The Ghost, a lush acousticballad with multi-tracked backing vocals of “don’t haunt me” remaining inthe memory long after the song has finished.
Separator brings things to a close, a slinky bassline doing battle withSelway’s drum loops. “If you think this is over, then you’re wrong” runsthe refrain, thus launching a thousand conspiracy theories about a secondalbum possibly on the way. It’s not that line that sticks in the memory,though it’s another: “finally I’m free of all the weight I’ve beencarrying”.
Maybe it’s a nod to the looser, less tense feel of the second half,maybe it’s an intriguing hint as to Radiohead’s future direction. Maybe itdoesn’t mean much at all. King Of Limbs is a subtle, muti-layered affair -surprisingly low-key in places, and it certainly won’t win back any fanswho checked out in the late ’90s. Yet for the faithful, this is anothergorgeous, other-worldy missive from one of the most exciting bands of ourage.