Radiohead - The King of Limbs (Download/XL)
Perhaps the best aspect of Radiohead's mischief-making release methods is also the worst - the fact that music critics are no longer privileged enough to hear the music before the fans. The impressive lack of leaks means that everyone is making the same snap judgement on the music at exactly the same time. In some ways this is refreshing, but in others it is deeply irritating. However important a band Radiohead are, I'm not sure that the very fact of an album's release really merits live blogging. Perhaps it's interesting to see how people's first reactions gradually change - but they don't really help anyone trying to form an impression of the album.
Having spent a good few days with The King of Limbs now, I can confess that my own thoughts on it have changed too. Lotus Flower, the first track to appear online with that ludicrous Thom Yorke dance moves video, underwhelmed on first listen - but its subtleties only emerge after a few plays. That it's actually one of the album's most straightforwarly melodic moments says a great deal about how far Radiohead are now veering from the demands of the mainstream rock marketplace. This, in itself, is nothing new really.
This, I suppose, is the general issue with The King of Limbs. Like In Rainbows before it, it feels less like a complete redefinition of the group's sound, but more like a subtle expansion. There are sounds and textures here that suggest Thom's recent collaboration with Flying Lotus proved influential, as well as a fair hint that the group have been consuming radical UK bass music. Colin Greenwood is very prominent in the mix on many of these songs, creating a general sense of murky claustrophobia. It is in the areas of sound and atmosphere that King of Limbs really excells - from the tremendous, overwhelming, disorientating initial blast of Bloom to the off kilter, disturbing Feral. Even in the album's more approachable second half, the treatment of Yorke's vocals and the discreet entrance of strings and other elements never prove anything less than imaginative.
Rhythms are important too. Another common thread with In Rainbows are that many of these songs are built up from propulsive, urgent drum loops. There's not a great deal of dynamic contrast (as Edward Randell has already stated here) but the band arguably compensate for this with more textural approaches (drums drop in and out, at times the bass disappears, leaving everything feeling very stark and naked). Much of The King of Limbs also extends the more sensual, evocative approach the group have assumed since Hail To The Thief. The band completely eschew any anthemics or emotional manipulation here - everything is rigorous and austere. In this sense, this may be a very timely recording.
Some commentators have made claims implying that there are little or no guitars on King of Limbs. This is palpable nonsense. The guitars are simply used sparingly and sensibly - as a means of creating a new mood or texture rather than simply being there to define every aspect of the band's sound. The appropriately haunting Give Up The Ghost is ushered in by an acoustic guitar strum, whilst Mr. Magpie has muted, picked lines that add to the track's tetchy, twitchy feeling. Perhaps the best use of guitar anywhere on the record comes on the superb final track Separator, a song that is gradually worming its way into the upper echelons of my unwritten list of favourite Radiohead songs. The delicate, intertwining guitar lines are so deftly blended with the overall sound that it takes a while to register their presence.
It is the second half of King of Limbs that provides the album's more transparent pleasures - but even these are handled with dignified restraint. It seems that Codex might at any point explode into something bigger and more grandiose, but even with strings and brass, it's just a subdued heartbeat. Giving Up The Ghost and Seperator are both beautiful, Thom Yorke's voice multitracked to heartbreaking effect. Yet none of this should blind us to the more visceral impact of the album's more combative first half, nor to the band's impressive attention to detail.
King of Limbs is an unusually short album, but its consistent quality is arguably a first for post-OK Computer Radiohead. I've always a maintained a true masterpiece could have been constructed from the most successful moments from Kid A and Amnesiac - instead, we ended up with both and some slightly tentative moments. A similar argument could be made when both discs of In Rainbows are taken into consideration. There's little doubt that Hail To The Thief was overlong. This one seems purposefully balanced, carefully sequenced, meticulously composed and, as ever, superbly recorded. With every listen, it reveals new details and fresh perspectives.