Commentary about Radiohead’s unique distribution model has surpassed discussion of their music for some time now. After the pay-what-you-want (followed by pay-a-lot-for-extras) model they utilized on 2007’s In Rainbows, the band again surprised the music world by going from announcement to release in just five days on their their newest record, The King of Limbs. Today, it debuted digitally (a day early), while the physical and deluxe “newspaper album” versions will follow in March and May, respectively. But enough about that.
The King of Limbs builds on the atmospheric ambiance of Kid A and In Rainbows, putting the band’s early grunge sound even further in the rear view. There’s not even anything approaching the rough-edged rock of In Rainbow’s “Bodysnatchers.” Instead, Radiohead embraces Thom Yorke’s solo work and collaboration with beatmaker Flying Lotus, crafting an album that is sober and melancholy. It’s their most cerebral work yet.
Like a flower in spring, the album opens with “Bloom.” The cascading garage beat gives way to a jazz feel: muted bass, echoing guitar and orchestral strings that swell as if they’re an extension of Yorke’s voice. After “Bloom,” the album reveals a trifecta of twitchy, cacophonous bliss. On “Morning Mr Magpie,” Yorke coos “you’ve got some nerve / coming here / you stole it all / give it back” as the instrumental loops double back on themselves. The title of “Little By Little” describes how it progresses, as the electronic sharpness of programmed drums juxtaposes Yorke’s falsetto: “I’m such a tease and you’re such a flirt.” “Feral” is the most experimental of the three, surging but never quite breaking through.
The first single, “Lotus Flower,” harks back to the immediacy of “Reckoner.” The lyrics seem to describe the mood of the album and the band’s own subversive approach to music: “I will sneak myself into your pocket… We will sink and be quiet as mice / While the cat is away and do what we want.” Once again, Yorke’s lilting falsetto provides a romantic edge to an otherwise cold tune. In a new turn, the video features him doing an impression of Marcel Marceau during a seizure.
Except for a heartbeat bass drum, “Codex” is exceedingly simple, driven only by piano chords and vocals, until mournful horns enter, dueting with Yorke. The lyrics focus on innocence, while the line “jump off the edge / into a clear lake” make this the 21st century version of the band’s suicide-anthem “Creep.” “Give up the ghost” is an adjoiner to both “Bloom” and “Codex,” with it’s nature’s symphony sound effects and hollow-body acoustic guitar.
The album closes with “Separator,” which features Phil Selway’s punchiest drum line and guitar trills and fills right out of the Zeppelin song book. Its “wake me up” refrain is an appropriate close for a dreamy album that never gets out of bed. On The King of Limbs, Radiohead retreats under the covers and into half-dream, half-real world. Won’t you join them?