The shape of the next Radiohead record was revealed in an interview for Familial, drummer Phil Selway’s modest acoustic side-project. The question: whether the album would be born from extensive touring and live experimentation as was the case with In Rainbows. ‘Uh, no’ was the chuckled reply.
It’s easy to see what was so funny. Where In Rainbows was conciliatory and sensuous, Limbs heralds a return to their stark post-Kid A textures: a part-Jazzy, part –IDM inspired and introverted sound that dispriviledged the guitar at every opportunity. Take album-opener Bloom: Greenwood’s hollow bass punctuates an ephemeral piano sample and a scattershot drum rhythm; where schoolchildren’s cheers would have lifted the mood on 15 Step, sky-bound strings and heralding brass only offer a monetary relief from the repressive murkiness. It’s a dark, in-ward looking opening, but once the layers are peeled off and examined – whirring tremolo guitar, Yorke’s reverberant croon – it’s a sumptuously cascading sweep up there with anything the band have done. Part of what made In Rainbows so bracing, a muscular, organic quality exampled by ‘Bodysnatchers’, is packed away (along with the guitars) in favour of the band’s unique brand of the post-millennial existentialist blues.
Officially the album stands as Radiohead’s eight full-length, but in reality it’s not quite there. The album as a medium of carrying music has always been troublesome for Radiohead; Thom’s ambivalence to making ‘long-play’ records is well known and, as the In Rainbows album cycle wound down, the group made noise about what exciting and innovative way they’d their work in the future. Middling tracks such as Twisted Words and Harry Patch were rushed out along with some ill-defined talk about how they might just release singles and EPs here and there when it suited them. Far from idle chatter from a band the world now listens to when it comes to release strategies, the difficult and well-documented Kid A/Amnesiac sessions bear out the sincerity of the message. For a band that hasn’t been shy in distancing themselves from rock convention, a less rockist delivery method didn’t seem that unlikely.
Coming in at a undernourished 37 minutes and eight tracks, The King of Limbs bears this discomfort unapologetically. The first four songs riff on their Warp influences, favouring kinetic energy and texture over melody and traditional song writing. Whilst the second half is a far more conventional affair where the organic, understated ballads the band made their name with predominate. It’s a messily paced album formed of eclectic elements, but far from the genius offcuts of a restless band, Limbs never really sees the group pushed out of their comfort zone; there’s never the feeling that they’re exploring new territory. The urge to shock and to re-invent is absent, and the result is something sometimes familiar to the point of self-plagiarism. The break in Little by Little sounds like an amalgamation of several Amnesiac tracks, Codex is a mash-up of every ethereal piano ballad the band have made their name with – Karma Police, Pyramid Song, Nude, take your pick – and lead-single Lotus Flower’s spasmic beats, only really offers a less nervy, more sensuous take on Idioteque – a good one, but still.
Obviously re-heated Radiohead is still better than most bands’ best. Alongside the aforementioned Bloom, Feral’s looming bass and off-kilter drums offers a convincingly Radiohead regurgitation of all those esoteric dubstep tracks Thom posts up on his office charts; the brass swell and funereal piano of Codex is very pretty if very familiar. Doing what you’ve done before isn’t the way to a poor album for a group like Radiohead; it’s just not the way to a great one either. When the band does misstep it isn’t down to bad songs, rather familiar or unpolished ones. Morning Mr Magpie features light, patterning and, you guessed it, syncopated percussion; three understated guitar lines intersect with one another and the beat, grounded by that ever present, mushrooming bass. The confluence of too many ideas eventually reaches a head when a second and just as shambolic drum beat ambles in accompanied by an electronic chime, creating a grating dissonance before the song fades out to bird chatter and static fuzz – an abandoned, half-successful experiment, nearly there, but not quite.
From a younger band Limbs would be promising pre-debut EPs, but from the celebrated ambassadors of the avant-garde it’s an unapologetically messy catharsis of ‘Radiohead-y’ tracks; the kind of album an established band puts out when they’re not that keen on going through the rigours of crafting big statements but still have creative itches to scratch. There are great songs that, though sometimes familiar, can sit proudly next to anything they’ve done. There’s also an equal amount of promising but unrefined ideas not yet polished into the diamonds we’re used to on Radiohead albums. That Radiohead probably meant to release a more informal record doesn’t excuse the unremarkable from a band that can do better.
MP3: Radiohead – Bloom
MP3: Radiohead – Codex