Music: Radiohead - "The King Of Limbs"

There is no doubt about the significance of Radiohead’s new LP The King Of Limbs. When the British five-piece releases a new full-length, the indie community pays extraordinary attention, especially this time because TKOL is the first album after a four-year break, only disrupted by some solo efforts and side projects and the stand-out but also so far stand-alone track “These Are My Twisted Words”. Due to the digital release, The King Of Limbs was experienced all over the world at the same time. This unifying atempt to create a global listening experience was an outstanding concept itself. And Radiohead proved once more to rather create a “gesamtkunstwerk” than just put out some music. Ever since their sophomore album The Bends from 1995 the importance of their output is unmatched in alternative music. On the other side, the expectations for every new release is just as high. Consequently, the way critics and even fans review the final product is oftentimes extremely narrow-minded. From a modern-day point of view it’s quite easy to state that for example OK Computer or Kid A have been revolutionary. We can already look back on a decade of critical reception for both of these by all means revolutionary records. But that’s not what reviewing music is about entirely. It’s even more important to be able to  notice a masterpiece when it comes out.
On Friday, February 18th 2011, The King Of Limbs came out, one day earlier than it was announced. It’s the eighth full-length album of the critics’ darling, and it was, similar to its predecessor In Rainbows, released digitally. The album features eight songs and runs a little over 37 minutes which makes it the shortest LP Radiohead has put out so far. A physical copy will be issued on March 28th/29th, a special (possibly extended) 2x10” vinyl “newspaper album” will be shipped on May 9th. The video for “Lotus Flower” was released on February 18th. So far so good.
Now the tricky part comes into play. The first question is how to approach the eight new songs? Each one for itself, as Thom Yorke’s interview with The Believer in 2009 might lead us to think? He announced that the band will focus on digital singles and EP’s, and that they don’t want to “go into that creative hoo-ha of a long-play record again”. So maybe we should blank out everything they’ve came up with so far in their career and conceive The King Of Limbs apart from any expectations, influences, or genre boundaries? Even if it was the best case scenario to only rely on musical content, it would not be possible to completely ignore the context of the whole album or it's surroundings. Radiohead have never even made music just for music’s sake. As I said before, they have lived out the sometimes pretentious Wagnerian ideal of creating a gesamtkunstwerk, even in the very much unpretentious environment of popular music. It involves on one side, of course, the music. But on the other side there is the album artwork, the touring, the show, and last but not least the marketing of the product. It all comes down to account for the artistic value of their albums. Radiohead are out to do that, but they also know about the probable multimedia overload.
And that seems to be the reason why this time they separated their art temporarily. We get to see the artwork first, a music video, then we receive eight new songs to chew on. More artwork will follow through the different physical releases, and I’m just assuming what ever else they will pull out of their hat over the next couple of months. However, at that time people will already have made up their mind, will have formed an opinion about the music. And, despite Radiohead’s holistic attitude, that is still the most important aspect of their work.
So why this patience? Why not release everything at once and don’t give a shit about wether people get it or not? It seems that Radiohead wants to preserve intelligent music making in the age of odds. A lot of things depend on chance and not talent; now more than ever. Someone likes a band on his or her favorite social network. His or her friends form a fanbase. It’s attracting, because liking an unknown band have always gave us music lovers the chills. It creates an exclusive sub-network within the social networks of the world wide web. We basically use the freedom to be part of everything just to form new barriers, but that’s nothing to worry about, it’s just the way things are. And Radiohead undertakes the endeavor to adjust to those circumstances. They created a method of digitally releasing music that fits the means of the internet but does not threaten the concept of an album as one whole unit. In a way it contradicts Yorke's assumption not to release any more long-play records, but the relative shortness of the record, the way that the different levels of art arrive in parts, and even the rather elusive and evolving character of the music, seems to fit the state of our 21st century perfectly.
Again, it is a brave move and prove of their true musicianship to strictly focus on a set of eight songs and get the most out of them, instead of adding tracks that are not as well-developed, for the sake of more music (that usually is not as cohesive). Radiohead have always been an album artist, and the setlist of The King Of Limbs works as one unit. An average run time of a little less than five minutes per song already foreshadows the perfected concept and ambition of every track. This is comparable to last-year’s stand-out LP This Is Happening (#2 on my year-end list 2010) which likewise featured only nine songs that, however, lasted about six minutes in average.
It’s Radiohead’s most sophisticated album in many ways of perfomance, production and mastering, and finally composition and texture. The instrumentation is diverse and oftentimes hard to identify as a particular kind. On the other hand it shows the band’s care to preserve the growing suspense and evolution in each song and from one song to the next. The absence of guitars in a lot of songs makes it even more haunting if they appear timidly on “Morning Mr Magpie” and “Separator”. Songs like “Codex” wouldn’t even work, if they weren’t as understated and introverted. The sampled beat patterns are the indispensable fundament for the ever-evolving chord progressions and bass-lines. Dubstep-inspired experimental tracks take turns with songs not as free in form but more accesible in melody, featuring subtle orchestration (“Bloom”, “Codex”) or weird folk guitars (“Give Up The Ghost”). And more than ever does Thome Yorke’s voice add the necessary sentiment to every tune, most prominently when he shows off his crystal-clear falsetto vocals in the chorus of “Lotus Flower”.
The new record has a strong personality but acts it out very introvertedly. One can find hints for the polyrythmic complexity of Amnesiac and the fusion jazz indecations on Kid A below the alien soundscapes. In spite of the innovation of those last-mentioned albums they both lacked warmth though. The records actually depicted the absence of warmth in First World society, leaving the listener resignated, confused, and without hope. The King Of Limbs now starts out where Kid A left off. It’s not heart-warming, for sure, but it sounds like a caring mother’s last goodbye. She seems full of despair but also full of love and pride for her child. That child is the king of limbs. It’s what brings the missing jigsaw piece into place. Thom Yorke, the Greenwood brothers, Ed O’Brien, and Phil Selway gave birth to this brain child. It is doomed to die, like all living things, but in opposite to the Kid A it develops before.
With “Bloom” it starts off with the one extreme. Yorke’s obsessions with dubstep, minimal, and ambient music become obvious throughout the first half of the album: contrapuntal bass lines and repetitive beats are spiraling around pulsating synthesizers and ethereal layers of noise. But one can already sense the emotional shift from the opening track to the album’s magnificent centerpiece “Lotus Flower”. As if the first half was just a reprise for Kid A – the king’s dead sibling – this track is the peripety of the albums storyline. The child king grows up, let’s lose of parental authority and develops an own identity, moving towards the other extreme. The emotional immediacy of In Rainbows comes in mind when “Codex” or “Give Up The Ghost” haunt you like the memory of a long-ago relationship. The question that “Separator” leaves open, obviously on purpose, is wether this is the end. The child became a grown up, but how is it going to age? This album leaves room for more, and the recent future will tell if we are supposed to come up with an end ourselves or if Radiohead has another set of songs to chew on. The King Of Limbs, however, is on a good way to become just another one of Radiohead’s gesamtkunstwerks, maybe even the most impressing one so far.