- In the past, Radiohead have been champions of what you might call a "grower": an album that doesn't hit you at first, but gets better and better over time. Just think of Kid A, a record that made some fans indignant when it came out 11 years ago, then eventually became a cult favorite. This would normally make it seem unwise to critique their new album just a few days after its release––after all, the verdict could change after a few weeks or so. But somehow that seems unlikely with The King of Limbs. At just 37 minutes in length, it's not very much to take in. More importantly, it's not ahead of the curve the same way its predecessors were.
The King of Limbs is one of Radiohead's most challenging albums, but also one of their least dynamic. It's dominated by angular, jumbled beats, which at times makes for uneasy listening. Yorke seems to acknowledge this with the somewhat threatening first line, "Open your mouth wide," delivered as always in his twisted groan. Indeed, even Yorke's voice––never known for its soothing qualities––seems especially grating here, probably because it's backed by such jagged arrangements. But ultimately the effect is more drab than anything else. Radiohead have been much weirder before, especially on Amnesiac and Kid A, and then it was with verve and style. Here they sound stuffy by comparison, without much range or emotional depth.
The band's contemporary influences make a big impact on The King of Limbs. The fluttering beats echo Flying Lotus's Cosmogramma, for which Yorke did guest vocals. Anyone who's been keeping up with their office charts will have noticed a recent preference for funky and dubstep. This seeps through most clearly on "Feral," a 138 BPM track that would lend itself nicely to a remix by Pearson Sound or Joy Orbison. All of this is well and good, except that Radiohead don't really improve on these sounds, they just borrow them. And it's odd to see them taking cues from young artists, rather than the other way around.
There are some good things to be said for The King of Limbs. Radiohead are obviously a visionary band, and this isn't lost on the album entirely. Few artists would draw up something as unorthodox as "Bloom" or "Mr Magpie" and execute it with such aplomb, and some of the album is simply very pretty, especially the single "Lotus Flower" and the final track, "Separator." Much of the musicianship is excellent (especially the drumming), and as usual, the overall personality is unique. And though not as varied as most of their past work, the album follows an interesting arc, starting out abrasive and growing more somber toward the end.
Nonetheless, it's hard to imagine having a lasting relationship with any of these songs, or getting excited when the band starts into them in concert. And even if you're not expecting it to blow your mind, it's hard to shake the feeling that the album could have been more adventurous––or failing that, more engrossing. Radiohead are probably this generation's best rock band. The King of Limbs is their low water mark.
02. Morning Mr Magpie
03. Little By Little
05. Lotus Flower
07. Give Up The Ghost