Sometimes the weight of expectation is so great that the moment of release is doomed from the off. There was genuine, palpable excitement at the news of a new Radiohead album being less than a week away. In an age when even record label PR staff operate around when albums leak, this release mechanism sidesteps the usual build up and delivers a near instant fix for everyone at the same time. As a result, when you only have five days to wait from knowing of an album’s existence to actually hearing the thing, the excitement goes from zero to fever pitch in moments. As mere mortals stirred themselves into a state of aural arousal, the live-blogging plans whirred into action and the internet sharpened its typing fingers ready to shit out tiny nuggets of barely formed enormo-opinion at a world seemingly all trying to do exactly the same thing. While I can’t deny that there is something special about everybody sharing their first listen to a record, the depressing tendency towards massive overstatement and inane hyperbole made phrases like “where are the fucking tunes”, “it’s a Thom Yorke album” and “it’s another Kid A” make me want to pierce my own eyes with shards from a smashed up copy of ‘OK Computer’. The frequent desire to be first to review albums utterly baffles me. The pleasure of being first to listen, I understand, and I often get deliriously excitable when records I’m keenly anticipating arrive in promo form, but why prioritise saying anything over saying something? To see this lunacy in action, hang around any music discussion board and watch for any reasonably big release to leak. The clamour to declare the album to be either a masterwork or a disastrous misfire is startling and I can’t imagine listening to music in this way. When I’m reviewing albums, I am always determined to ensure that each record has had sufficient time to impress me before fashioning an erudite and witty paragraph or two. I remember as a teenager with limited funds spending hours upon hours poring over any album I bought, partly due to my youthful enthusiasm and partly because I wanted my money’s worth. As someone who now buys far too many records and receives a similar number in promo form, I do find myself occasionally longing for that less cluttered approach to music. It’s amazing to see how many people are willing to abandon albums by artists they seemingly at least have a semblance of interest in after one, clearly not all that attentive, exposure. The new Noah & The Whale album is actually rather good (no, really) but on first play it just seemed bloody odd and left me slightly nauseous. Elbow’s ‘Build A Rocket Boys!’ comes across as rather one-paced on initial listens but then gradually unfurls into something quite majestic. And, let’s face it, since when have Radiohead released albums which make perfect sense after ONE FUCKING LISTEN?
Listening to ‘In Rainbows’ the morning after the download was released I felt distinctly underwhelmed, wondering what the hell was going on with the drums and why it all seemed a bit hit and miss. I reassured myself that it would probably make sense in due course and that by the time the discbox vinyl had arrived I’d likely be glued to the speakers. That album has gone on to become one of my absolute favourite records and is as cohesive and plain beautiful a set of songs as you could wish to hear. Listen to the “ehhhh-ehhh” backing vocals which come in after several minutes of ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’ and tell me you’re not just a little bit moved. That said, it took me a number of months to really acknowledge that I loved that song and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The nature of reviews is that we don’t tend to wait months and months before transcribing our opinions but, in an attempt to at least find an imperfect solution, multiple listens are essential. Writing 40 From The Noughties was a delight because I got to review albums from a position of hindsight and, in an ideal world, that would be the best way for things to work. But they don’t. I, like you, want to know what’s good now and which new releases I should be spending some of my hard earned money on. So, what is ‘The King Of Limbs’ actually like?
A recent play of ‘Hail To The Thief’ served to highlight how our memories have a habit of musical revisionism. I had it tagged as a sprawling agit-rock record with the odd non-guitar moment and slightly too many songs. However, the awkward drum patterns and numerous scuzzy electronic noises were a surprise. Anyone who has been listening to this band for any length of time has long since had to adjust their understanding of what they sound like and the result is that it’s actually quite easy to forget how complex and downright strange some of their songs are. We’re all very well trained.
Take ‘Feral’, all repetitive, skittering beats and looped, echoing vocal fragments. While it initially seems an exceptionally curious beast, it actually ticks off plenty of the boxes for recent electronic music. The pitch-shifted sounds beloved of dubstep make an appearance whilst the backdrop kicks off like something bearing the Four Tet moniker before taking the more conventionally sinister twists and turns. It’s actually a pretty little thing which fits perfectly in the middle of this set of songs.
As is so often the case when a band appears to have wandered off into alien territory, the tracks which most obviously hark back to past glories are the ones to receive the immediate plaudits and celebratory yelps. ‘Codex’, with its solemn piano and clear, direct vocal performance has already been talked up as the track which will slot straight into playlists of classic Radiohead tracks. It builds beautifully, horns and strings used sparingly to both unsettle and enchant but it’s never even vaguely tempted to go for broke. It possesses a warmth not always present on the previous tracks to which it is being compared – in particular ‘Pyramid Song’, which is undeniably beautiful but utterly glacial and aching. ‘Codex’, as with so much of ‘The King Of Limbs’, features a smoothed off warmth from the dull thuds of the percussion which is somewhat at odds with such a digital sounding record.
Despite its hiccupping-train drum loop, opener ‘Bloom’ is actually an entirely fitting way to set the scene as the rhythm seems skewed from the off, only coalescing once your ears have had a chance to become fully acclimatised to the sonic terrain being inhabited. Once it clicks, you’ll likely find yourself sitting there wondering what exactly it was about it that confused you in the first place. Just like walking down dark streets to find somewhere you’ve never previously been to before only to find the return journey seems much quicker and considerably less threatening, the more full plays you give ‘The King Of Limbs’, the less any of it jars or seems wilfully perverse.
The guitar sound on ‘Little By Little’ couldn’t really be anybody else, evoking as it does memories of the band ranging across the last fourteen years. The track kicks off appearing to be operating just shy of the beat but, as with the opening track, once the not-actually-that-odd rhythm track has made its intentions clear, things are on pretty steady ground. Building like some of the more dramatic moments of ‘Hail To The Thief’ and featuring the lyric, “I’m such a tease and you’re such a flirt,” it is one of the more playfully malevolent songs on the album. ‘Morning Mr Magpie’ twitches in a similar vein but without any joyous pay offs or stellar moments to offer up any subsequent revelatory moments. Slotted between ‘Bloom’ and ‘Little By Little’ it makes sense and conforms to the notion that Radiohead make ‘challenging’ music. It is, however, a brief dip and the closest thing to ordinary on the record.
While I have little time for the theories about ‘The King Of Limbs’ being the slightly less sensational sibling of ‘In Rainbows’, closing track ‘Separator’ seems a logical continuation of the spacious oozing which dominated that release. Which is not to say that this album isn’t slightly less sensational than ‘In Rainbows’, because it is. What it quite clearly isn’t, however, is some tossed off Yorke solo project full of bleeps and noodling designed to annoy Jonny Greenwood fans. The floaty guitar wafts in the album’s final track are beautiful and not as far removed from the wall of sound flourishes on ‘Planet Telex’ as some keyboard-bashers would have you believe. It’s a suitably serene sign off, following the pristine majesty of ‘Give Up The Ghost’ which uses repeated, mournful and obscured phrases – seemingly “don’t haunt me” – to delicately build up a slimline musical backdrop. First plays suggested it was rather slight, not helped by having the unenviable task of following on from ‘Codex’, but don’t be fooled.
Replete with fully choreographed routine, ‘Lotus Flower’ provided the world with its first taste of the record and it serves as a logical entrance point to this imperfect beast. Another not especially unconventional song structure torn asunder by more manipulation of the rhythm track – though far less extreme than in some cases here – it’s actually quite normal Radiohead fare with brooding bass and the lyric “there’s an empty space inside my heart”. It’s a delicately crafted song which is all the better for following on from ‘Feral’ as the antidote to something altogether giddying.
Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, there’s been some sense that every Radiohead album since ‘Kid A’ onwards has been a disappointment, albeit from different quarters each time. Once you’ve set a precedent for doing something a little different, people are braced for each new release. With the excitement of hearing new music by a favourite band is mixed the preconceived notion that it will be difficult listening and that it will require a bit of work. Just like you look for idiocy in the words of a moron, it’s almost a sport to spot the oddities in a new Radiohead album. My advice is quite simple. Put the record on and see what you think. Then put in on again. And again. I’ve no idea where this ranks alongside their previous work and, for the time being at least, I don’t particularly care. It doesn’t strike me as their masterwork but I’m a huge fan of the band and I’ve got a new album of theirs to listen to. As far as I’m concerned, that’s actually a good thing.