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Radiohead’s The King Of Limbs: These Are My Twisted Thoughts

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After having had the opportunity to live with Radiohead’s new album The King Of Limbs for nearly a week now, I can honestly report that I still have semi-mixed feelings about it. Which, at least in the case of this particular band, is probably a good thing.

So, to borrow from the title of a song once intended for this album, these are my twisted thoughts.

You see, Radiohead is a band whose albums — especially the good ones — have this tendency to sink in rather slowly, taking deliciously insidious root in your brain and in your psyche, brick by brick. Likewise, the really great ones — as I suspect The King Of Limbs may well prove to be — reveal previously undiscovered new sonic textures that might have been initially glossed over with each new spin.

Like most really great music, once it gets under your skin, Radiohead’s best stuff just has this tendency to really grow on you.

The journey getting there can be occasionally difficult, and quite often is. But the final destination is almost always worth it in the end, and also one which much more often than not leaves you wanting more once it’s over.

The King Of Limbs is no exception.

I also suspect that the physical CD release — which is still about a month away — will reveal even more new audio treasures of the sort only hinted at in the initial MP3 and Wav downloads that were released this past Friday. In the case of 2007’s In Rainbows, this was certainly true and then some. The difference between that initial download release, and the actual CD that came later, was almost like hearing two completely different records.

The King Of Limbs marks Radiohead’s full-on return to the layered, somewhat icy soundscapes of 2000’s Kid A, and its 2001 companion album Amnesiac, following the fuller, more traditional rock instrumentation (at least comparatively speaking) heard on 2003’s Hail To The Thief and 2007’s In Rainbows. Not surprisingly, there are already rumors afoot of a similarly forthcoming companion to The King Of Limbs (based on the title of the closing track “Separator,” and its lyric “if you think this is over”).

On an initial few listens, the songs here have the sort of unfinished feel to them that — at least to the more casual listener — might sound more like a series of half-baked ideas, even though looped over the occasionally lush, often trippy, but nonetheless intriguing music that it is.

On the surface at least, there is nothing on The King Of Limbs with the same grand, sonic sweep as In Rainbows best songs like “Reckoner,” nor a song anywhere as fully realized (at least in a traditional sense) as “All I Need,” from that same album. Even so, there is a hypnotic quality to these songs that is almost impossible not to be sucked in by, particularly after repeated listens.

But the real star of The King Of Limbs is Thom Yorke’s voice. As most fans of Radiohead’s post-OK Computer work already know, Radiohead’s lyrics have not always been one of the band’s stronger suits.

When you can pick them out here, lines like “I’m such a tease and you’re such a flirt” (from this album’s “Little By Little”), make about as much sense as “yesterday, I woke up sucking a lemon” did the first time Yorke sang them on “Everything In Its Right Place” from Kid A.

Even so, the way that Yorke uses his high pitched, borderline eerie sounding falsetto as an instrument to not only compliment, but enhance the overall atmospheric textures of this album is nothing short of amazing.

When Yorke’s lonely, seemingly just beyond the grave voice is looped over and over saying what sounds like “don’t…hurt…me” during the song “Give Up The Ghost” for instance, I have absolutely no idea what he’s singing about. But, and perhaps most inexplicably, I still find myself drawn spellbound to it like a moth to a flame.

The first time I heard Yorke use his voice as an instrument like this was on 2000’s classic Kid A, an album which, along with Amnesiac, gave me initial cause to draw comparisons to what David Bowie did back in the seventies on his Berlin trilogy with Brian Eno.

That comparison largely still holds, by the way. But hearing Yorke’s use of his voice as a unique compliment to the music on The King Of Limbs, I’m also reminded a lot of what Neil Young did on his highly under-appreciated eighties syntho-pop experiment Trans. It’s probably not a coincidence that Yorke has been known to occasionally sneak in a few verses of Young’s “After The Gold Rush” during the song “Everything In Its Right Place” at Radiohead’s concert performances.

Much like Kid A (an album which The King Of Limbs, not coincidentally in my own opinion, shares much in common with), and to a slightly lesser extent, Thom Yorke’s solo album The Eraser, the icy cool of Radiohead’s new album will probably not bring any comfort to those fans who have been patiently waiting since the nineties for that followup to The Bends or OK Computer (neither of which are probably forthcoming anytime soon by the way).

But for right now, The King Of Limbs really feels like one of those great Radiohead albums.


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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Nice review, Glen.

    Though, I am always concerned with the idea that a supposed “great” album takes multiple listens for it to reveal itself fully.

    Maybe, it’s that you really want to like the album because you like the band so you’re willing to settle? Or, that very few bands, nowadays, release anything magnificent anymore and we’re all willing to settle because we want music to live on. Personally, I think this heavy reliance on technology is what is killing the soul. Sure, there may have been some great ideas realized because of it, but, I feel that a lot of music has lost the dynamics.

    Just some thoughts… Still, a nice review:)

  • Dave

    Sounds like Radiohead dicking around to me.

  • Craig

    I first listened to OK Computer then the bends, hail to the thief and pablo honey. Strange order but none of those albums prepared me for Kid A.
    Having loved all those albums I mentioned I was lost at Kid A and really hated/couldn’t understand it. I remember even now it took 8 full listens and perseverance and persistence borne from my love of their other work, for me to finally ‘get’ Kid A and subsequently Amnesiac.
    I can now say that they are probably my 2 favourite Radiohead albums. Pyramid Song being my all time favourite song.
    So what I would say is this article is right in that listeners should let Radiohead’s experimental music grow on them. Give the king of limbs a lot of time.
    I loved it from 1st listen its everything I wanted due to my persistence with kid a and amnesiac.

  • ali

    While I agree that Thom Yorke can make the trite and mundane sound like haunting poetry with his voice, I don’t think his lyrics were/are always weak. The Bends and even Ok Computer has some incredibly powerful songwriting (see: Fake Plastic Trees, Karma Police…KP is admittedly a bit abstract but is nonetheless direct in its impact).

    In my mind, Lotus Flower has some of the most heartrending lyrics Thom has ever written: “there’s an empty place inside my heart/where the weeds take root”; “All I want is the upon a stick/just to see what if”; “I can’t kick your habit/just to feed your fast-ballooning head”

  • Philip Graham

    But what’s the album about?
    Well, the title, King of Limbs, does refers to an actual old tree in England, but it also seems like a fine description of a human being, too. And if you look at the lyrics of the first song, with its suggestions of birth, and the last song with its suggestions of death and transcendence, then the entire album could be seen as a vision of the life cycle, with all the accentuated rhythm of the music moving us along . . .

  • david j

    Dear Glen,
    ‘Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon’ is an old expression that I’ve seen as far back as late 19th century meaning to wake up in a sour mood. Appreciated your comments about Radiohead’s best albums taking time to ‘take root’

  • Regarding Brian’s comment (#1), I take your point, but also have to respectfully disagree.

    One of the thing that continues to make Radiohead such a fascinating band to follow, is the fact that they continue to take artistic chances, and do whatever sounds right to them regardless of the potential commercial fallout.

    This may mean they occasionally fall on their faces, but most often they don’t and I don’t think that they have done so here. There hasn’t been an artistic so commercially successful that experiments like this since Neil Young — an artist I am finding has a more direct artistic link to Radiohead than I have ever previously suspected.

    As for what the album is about, I’m not really sure yet. The way Yorke’s lyrics come in these short little bursts of color, rather than a more structured verse, chorus, verse format makes figuring that out all the more difficult too. But Phillip’s analysis in comment #6 probably comes as close to a decent guess as anything I could come with.

    Thanks for the comments all.


  • Meant to reference commenter #5 (rather than #6) above, regarding the theories on what the album is about. Carry on, then…