Historically, I have had consistently delayed emotional responses to Radiohead’s albums. I remember Christmastime eleven years ago, when I asked my grandfather to buy me Radiohead’s 1997 album OK Computer along with their most recent album at the time, Kid A. And I remember listening to these albums and just “not getting it.” It was like Thom Yorke’s brilliance was too much for my little 16-year-old head to comprehend. But a few years later, in college, I gave the albums another shot and became addicted; but, it took months for all the subtle nuances and hypnotic lyrics of each song to settle in. When Hail to the Thief was released, I waited two years to buy it and for some reason I didn’t download In Rainbows when it was available online on as a pay-as-you-like basis. I eventually caught up, yet, their most recent album, The King of Limbs, seems to have placed me in the same quandary I was in eleven years ago – I’m just as lost as ever. I say this because the album seems like such a musical departure from more recent releases like the aforementioned In Rainbows (2007) and Hail to the Thief (2003). This album is menacing, eerie and vulnerable in its lyrical admissions.

In Chris Richards’ Washington Post review of The King of Limbs, he writes of the album, “It’s not a thriller, but it’s an album worth exploring and re-exploring – until the next one drops out of the sky.” It is imperative, that, as a listener, we view this album as a cohesive piece. Each song follows the next in a particularly crafted order. The opening song, “Bloom,” largely sounds like a full-fledged orchestra is rehearsing with a garage band for their upcoming on-stage performance, while the singer is simultaneously belting out his lyrics, unaware that the show hasn’t yet begun. This dissonant, yet brilliant arrangement is revisited in another incarnation a few tracks over for the song “Feral.” Yorke sets us up for sonic discordance and follows this pattern through to other tracks. In “Little by Little” the song presents itself as heavy on percussion until the buried melody emerges and leads us into the chorus, where Yorke’s emphatic lyrics become clear. This emphasis on noise and musical composition over lyrics is something that Radiohead has experimented with in the past, yet never to this degree. Songs like “The National Anthem” off of Kid A and “The Gloaming (Softly Open Our Mouths In the Cold)” from Hail to the Thief have dabbled in this technique, yet both of these songs still manage to maintain some rhythmic familiarity and tonal guidance. “Bloom” and “Feral” are more reminiscent of trance-like jam sessions. They are open-ended.

In “Lotus Flower” it is the bass lines, electronic sounds and hand claps that form the foundation of the song. It is in this song that Yorke’s voice surfaces as the hauntingly crooning dynamo we are all familiar with. The final song, “Separator,” is possibly the “cleanest” track on The King of Limbs. It is a fitting end to the noisy, dream-like compilation of songs that we have been listening to. Yorke sings that it’s like he’s “falling out of bed / From a long and weary dream.” This feeling is all-too-familiar to the listener as we shake off the forceful nature of the previous songs and prepare to return to reality.

It is clear that Radiohead’s musical energy is alive in each track, but their lyrics are simple and, once again, must be viewed as a piece of a larger whole. In “Little by Little” Yorke sings, “Once you’ve been hurt / You’ve been around enough.” In the song “Give Up the Ghost” the words “Don’t hurt me” echo continuously underneath the layered lyrics that comprise the main composition of the song. There is pain in this album, yet also freedom. In “Lotus Flower” Yorke tells us of how “Slowly we unfold as lotus flowers.” In the music video, available on their website, he writhes on screen and moves his body in a fluid and maniacal manner. Just as Yorke “lets go” of the classical rules of dance and/or music videos, so should we all “let go” of our previous conceptions of what Radiohead should or should not sound like. This is an entirely different album than what we have heard before. In less than forty minutes, we are taken on a journey that may confuse us at the onset. Upon first hearing this album, my body wasn’t really sure how to physically respond to the music and my brain was uncertain of what to make of the far less coded lyrics than I am accustomed to hearing from Radiohead. Yet, as Chris Richards points out in his review, “[Yorke’s] voice is the band’s one constant, but it’s not so much an anchor as a kite that floats over the proceedings.” We can rest assured that we will always be guided through new territory.

And while there is no doubt that Radiohead has evolved and found their own unique sound since the release of their debut album Pablo Honey, this album stands apart from all the others in its emphasis on fragility and sonic mixing.

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CLARISSA OLIVAREZ holds a Master's degree in Literature from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a Master's degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University. She currently lives with her husband and two dogs in the Washington, DC area. Her writing has been published in Haggard & Halloo, Blood Lotus, Fogged Clarity, Midwest Literary Magazine, and an anthology entitled Winter Canons. She has taught at American University and Northern Virginia Community College.

11 responses to “A Review of Radiohead’s New Album, The King of Limbs

  1. Art Edwards says:

    I always admire a listener who admits she doesn’t quite grasp what she’s hearing, because that’s often how I feel. It happens more often with books than music for me these days, but still.

    There’s something to be said for being confused about what one hears. It keep doors open for future listens. And these things can reveal themselves as time passes. When it comes like that, it always feels like a gift.

    Thanks, Clarissa.

    Art

  2. Joe Daly says:

    Nice review, Clarissa. I had similar impressions in my first couple of listens to this album, and I think that as I give it more time, it will continue to grow on me.

    With Radiohead, I’ve learned to give myself permission to not “get it,” with the understanding that perhaps gradual saturation is the key to unlocking the pleasures within each album. That has often, but not always been the case with that band’s catalog. It certainly was with OK Computer and it seems to be the case here.

    I used to resent that in order to enjoy Radiohead, I had to force myself to listen to it, even if it was just background music. Now I treat it like a bottle of wine- I let it breathe for awhile before deciding whether or not I like it.

  3. Good breakdown of this album, Clarissa. I would say Radiohead is the most brilliant band I’ve ever seen live (and at Radio City Music Hall, fantastic all around!). I’ve always thought of their arrangements as organized chaos, and it was really fascinating to watch them manage that chaos, as it were, in person. That’s not to say I love everything they do. In Rainbows never grew on me beyond “15 Steps,” but I’m already liking King of Limbs much better.

    • Cynthia – I’m so jealous…I’ve never seen Radiohead live. That must have been something! My favorite song off of “In Rainbows” is “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” but “15 Steps” is great too. I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about “The King of Limbs”….

  4. To Art and Joe: Thanks so much for agreeing that it’s ok to let the music sit, while our thoughts continue to percolate on what we just heard. I especially like the comparison to a bottle of wine – Radiohead’s songs do need to breathe awhile before we can fully appreciate them for what they’re worth.

  5. Have you tried the OK Computer/In Rainbows mash?

    I’ve always thought Radiohead’s first two albums were their best, but I know a lot of people who love them.

  6. Arielle Bernstein says:

    Awesome review, Claire! I can’t wait to listen to the new album! I feel like I need to be in the right emotional space in order to listen to Radiohead: the space to feel a wide range of conflicting and chaotic emotions, some of which I understand intuitively and some of which seem strange and unreal to me.

    Have you seen the Thom Yorke Single Ladies Mash Up? : )

    • Thanks, Arielle! I know what you mean about being in the right “emotional space.” Listening to Radiohead often does entail some sort of mental and/or emotional preparation.
      I have seen the mash-up! It’s so perfect. 🙂

  7. Gloria says:

    Clarissa – what a great review. You’re a woman after my own heart.

    I’ve experienced the same delayed response to Radiohead. I must have heard Ok Computer dozens and dozens of times before the day I was listening to “Fitter, Happier” and I just got it. I was nearly elated – like I’d finally unearthed a gem from some rock I’d been chipping away at, but didn’t realize it.

    I’ve not heard King of Limbs, but I’m not surprised to hear that it’s leagues beyond Pablo Honey. Radiohead are (bear with me for this comparision) like The Beatles or Led Zepplin in my opinion – in that their sounds can vary so much but can still be distinctly them. I think it means they’re no one trick pony. I eventually find love for everything they do. I’m a convert.

    Thank you for breaking down the tracks. You’ve definitely sold me (on an album I was probably going to end up buying anyway, but if there was any doubt [which there wasn’t] it’s all gone now.)

  8. Clarissa Olivarez says:

    Thanks, Gloria! We must be soul sisters! Thanks for the comments!

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