Album review: Radiohead, “The King of Limbs”

February 23, 2011

Do Thom, Jonny, and the rest of the Radiohead boys dream of electric sheep? No one can say for sure, but reaction to the beloved art-rockers’ eighth album among the group’s beyond-loyal devotees has dramatically split into two camps: those reluctantly admitting that, yeah, it is a bit of a snooze, and those maintaining that, hey, this is Radiohead, you can’t just listen half a dozen times and think you’ve got it, you have to live with the thing, if not put every digital burp and serpentine syllable under the aural microscope!

Me, I’ve never been religious about this group: For a long time, Thom Yorke’s twisted gnome vocals were a major impediment; when there isn’t enough song amid the admittedly hypnotizing soundscapes, the albums just leave me cold (and not in the digital alienation way intended), and I’ve always longed for more of the considerable wallop that drummer Phil Selway and bassist Colin Greenwood provide onstage to make its way unto the recordings.
 
Ironically, given the viral mash-ups for Yorke’s little dance video for “Lotus Flower,” the rhythmic oomph is missed more here than on any Radiohead release yet. For chrissake, gentlemen, enough with the clipped hiccupping metronomes, give us something that sounds remotely like a snare and bass drum again! Yet as with Yorke’s 2006 sorta-solo album “The Eraser,” I’ve kept returning to “The King of Limbs” again and again since the much-ballyhooed early download last Friday, and for pleasure, not from a sense of duty. As with “The Eraser,” there is considerable beauty in the interaction of Yorke’s slippery vocals with the repetitive minimalist riffs, atmospheric walls of sound and especially the regale grand piano (most notable on “Codex” and “Bloom”), and that interplay seems to be what this short and relatively skimpy set of eight tunes is really all about—certainly more so than the grand but mixed-results attempt at reinvention of “In Rainbows” (2007) or the bold conceptual conceits of sacred texts “OK Computer” (1997) and “Kid A” (2000).
 
For all of the speculation about the strategy behind the mode of release here, which provides endless fun for music industry observers and hardcore fans alike, this strikes me as more of a time-biding EP than a proper new album, whatever those terms mean in 2011, rush-released either as a snapshot of a moment in time or a harbinger of a new way of working, perhaps with more frequent if less satisfying dispatches from Radiohead Central. “If you think this is over/Then you’re wrong,” Yorke repeatedly sings in the final track, “Separator.”
 
Then again, for all you doubters, he also croons in the same song, “Wake me up, wake me up.”
 
STAR RATING: 3 out of 4 stars