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Track-By-Track

A Track-By-Track Review Of Radiohead's King Of Limbs
Ben Graham , February 19th, 2011 09:41

Ben Graham gives King Of Limbs an early listen, and finds the group moving further into the leftfield. This, he suggests, is a very good thing

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Here it is then: suddenly upon us, with a lack of promotional build-up that is, of course, the most effective fanfare in itself: the new Radiohead album, given a week’s notice and launched a day earlier than expected at that. It’s a media event, most certainly; and no doubt many column inches will be given over to discussing the marketing, the presentation, the notion of what being a rock band on a record label in 2011 actually means, and so on. But most importantly, King of Limbs is a collection of songs, and it’s the strength of those songs that must inevitably support the whole preposterous edifice. So without further sociological guff or preamble, here’s this writer’s raw response to the music itself.

‘Bloom’

A looped sample of a melancholy piano melody gives way to glitchy beats and an irritating high drone; this is Radiohead in definite Kid A territory, like it or not. And as a matter of fact, I do. Very much. “Open your mouth wide,” Yorke sings, as his opening gambit: his next line I can’t quite make out, as his vocals are quickly swathed in echo, looped and multi-tracked; something about the universe sighing, oceans and rocks? Appropriately elemental imagery anyway, before the lyrics give way to plaintive hums, moans and the repeated sound of his breath being caught; the voice as an instrument to be played and manipulated, and already we’re into one of the album’s abiding themes, an embrace of technological media at the same time as a yearning for the purity of unmediated nature. When a swirling, synthesised wash of sound swims in, it’s suggestive of the boldly modern (for the time) orchestral arrangements on Scott Walker’s ‘Plastic Palace People’, the highlight of 1968’s Scott 2, while the overall feel owes something to Walker’s more recent Drift album. The meditative, spiritual jazz of Alice Coltrane also comes to mind; not to suggest that there’s anything backward-looking about this song, or this album, but that it manages to combine the shock of the new with the feel of a timeless classic. And, you know, music that someone’s actually put some thought and feeling into.

‘Morning Mr Magpie’

Here’s one you can dance to: an insistent, two-note funk groove rides in on crackling hi-hats and muted, choppy guitar, as Yorke spits out, “You’ve got some nerve, coming here.” This is tense and threatening after the immersive opening number, Yorke calling out some thieving, possibly corporate, toerag: “you’ve stolen art, give it back.” Cue fevered journalistic speculation; for my part, I’ll merely note the contrast between the guilty magpie’s appropriation of art and magic, presumably for cynical or commercial reasons, and Yorke's previously noted exhortation to just “open your mouth wide”. This can be taken as shorthand for the primal self-expression and un-tethered imaginative possibilities that remain the source of great art and music, and which exist in their purest form in the free jazz, folk idioms and experimentation for its own sake that Radiohead seem to be looking to for inspiration on this record.

‘Little by Little’

Mariachi-style guitar picking carries a romantic melody over what sounds like rattling cutlery, as Yorke croons about dark nights and complications. There’s a deliberate nursery-rhyme quality to the vocals- “little by little, by hook or by crook”- that suggests an incantation or charm, to warn off danger or just to quell panic and fear.

‘Feral’

Glitchy cut-ups and a busy, shuffling beat notwithstanding, this instrumental track has something of the feel of ‘Moments in Love,’ Art of Noise’s groundbreaking 1983 re-interpretation of Satie’s Gymnopedies. Yorke's voice is sampled and rearranged in empty dark space, alongside lonely synth stabs, and the result is some strange meeting of progressive drum n’ bass with modern jazz and ambient choral music: too anxious and unsettling for chill-out muzak, it nevertheless harnesses an odd beauty.

‘Lotus Flower’

The loping jazz bass and the echo around Yorke's plaintive falsetto here remind me of John Martyn’s 1973 classic, Solid Air. There’s a similar yearning for spiritual redemption through both music and love, as Yorke sings of the empty space within his heart, and the ideal of absolute freedom. And for me, this is the kind of setting where Yorke’s high, clear, yearning voice works best- against the wide velvet darkness of bass, synth and beats, rather than competing with dense layers of guitars. There’s hardly any conventional guitar sounds on this album, and this far in I think you’ve realised there aren’t going to be any ‘Paranoid Android’ style stadium rock anthems either, which is fine by me.

‘Codex’

A gorgeous, melancholy piano ballad, this relatively straightforward number is one of the album’s high points. You keep expecting it to explode into epic grandeur; it’s to its credit that it never does, remaining sparse and under-stated, with only a sorrowful, muted trumpet refrain coming in as counterpoint. Close cousin to Amnesiac’s ‘Pyramid Song,’ the imagery is once again elemental and nature-focussed, preoccupied with ideas of space and freedom, at the same time as suggesting the sacrifices required to achieve these goals.

‘Give Up The Ghost’

Driven by the pulse of a hand slapping against the body of a gently-plucked acoustic guitar, this beautiful atmospheric piece is another that evokes the late John Martyn. Yorke’s vocals are multi-layered, looped and echoing, fading and decaying, and making no discernable sense whatsoever; what they do communicate is an emotional resonance, a slipping away from reason and logic which is in keeping with the song’s title. It seems relevant that the track begins with a recording of birdsong, very obviously looped and sampled- nature in the raw as captured and framed by modern technology- and ends with what is either the repeated snipping of scissors or the stitching of a sewing machine- the cutting of cords or the joining together of separate parts into a new whole?

‘Separator’

Somewhere in this closing track is a blues, a modern-day spiritual worksong; Yorke’s singing is at its most soulful, while the musical setting is jazz-tinged and sparsely upbeat, with fretless bass weaving between skittering, trebly drums. A glassy, opaque guitar slides in as Yorke begins pleading for someone to wake him up, presumably from the somnambulistic state of modern life, in which man is cut off, separated from nature and true reality, although he could also be singing about the end of this drowsily hypnotic, dreamlike collection of songs.

Lasting just thirty-eight minutes, King of Limbs is a noticeably short album by contemporary standards, although back in the vinyl age it would be considered a perfectly respectable duration. But in this relatively brief span it sees Radiohead reaching out in many directions, joining hands at one extreme with the post-post-rock of Animal Collective and their ilk, and at the other with the experimental greats of bygone eras, like the aforementioned Alice Coltrane and John Martyn, who had the vision to step outside of genre and commercial considerations, swimming out into the ocean of all music, into Patti Smith’s limitless “sea of possibilities.”

It’s too early to say that this could be Radiohead’s best album to date, but I’m tempted. King of Limbs revisits the Kid A / Amnesiac period that alienated so many fans of OK Computer but does so with a greater maturity and weight of experience that enriches both the songs and the process. The members of Radiohead are growing into middle age now; it makes sense, perhaps, to increasingly align themselves with jazz and the experimental tradition rather than the youth and virility-obsessed conventions of rock n’ roll. King of Limbs is Radiohead moving further into leftfield, away from the mainstream they once courted, a mainstream that will no doubt damn this album as pretentious and self-indulgent, with all the confused venom of a lover spurned. And they will no doubt meet with equal brickbats from the other side, once again cursing them as an uppity pop band appropriating the innovations of the avant-garde for their own ends, like Bowie before them. I don’t really care. Speaking as someone who hasn’t always been a fan of Radiohead, who has at times found them pompous, over-rated and dull, King of Limbs is a thing of beauty, it has something to say, and it works. It’s OK by me.

Tim Green
Feb 18, 2011 2:49pm

The album opens strong...really like the first 5 songs. They definitely create a new radiohead sound motif, an amalgamation of drowny ambiance, thumping bass, multi-limbic rhythms, and an over all drained-of-color, as in blank and white (like a newspaper) feel to it. Thus making it the antithesis of In Rainbows, which was iridescent and filled with color. A polar album in that sense.
They have again morphed and yet retained their essence, which is a signature of all their great albums.
A bold and mesmerizing artistic statement in my opinion.

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emmz
Feb 18, 2011 3:16pm

and once again, you're perfectly spot on. Maybe I've been brainwashed by reading you too much, but it's really quite impressive.
The way this album approaches the theme of nature is just really moving. It is the only real thing after all, as you say. Musically I find it pretty mindblowing, so intricate and delicate, I can't stop playing it! This subtelty makes this morning's video even funnier!

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ben
Feb 18, 2011 3:26pm

it sounds exactly like their last album

which isnt a bad thing,

but it's just radiohead isnt it

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Ben
Feb 18, 2011 3:36pm

" this far in I think you’ve realised there aren’t going to be any ‘Paranoid Android’ style stadium rock anthems either, which is fine by me." Shit, really? Cause I was holding out hope 15 fucking years later.

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Josh
Feb 18, 2011 4:41pm

"The King of Limbs must surely rank as the most peculiar of their albums so far. Retaining In Rainbows mature freedom, and Hail to the Thief’s intricacy whilst returning to the more curious, post-millennial nervous twitchings of Amnesiac. Where Radiohead poked their head out from the cave with their recent output, here they look at the world afresh, crawl back inside and wallow. But it’s OK, they’ve been there before. They even decorated the place. It somehow feels homely. "

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James
Feb 18, 2011 4:53pm

If you think this is over, then you're wrong.

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decky
Feb 18, 2011 5:15pm

waited four years for this?? only 8 songs and track 4 is awful... i understand everybody will have their opinions and this is mine... DISAPPOINTED MAJORLY. the last three songs are pretty good but what are the first 5?? they changed to the kidA type stuff to reinvent themselves and yet here they are now STILL making that type of amnesiac shit!

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Griff
Feb 18, 2011 5:19pm

Best album to date ? You have to be kidding me. This is underwhelming, dull at best. MorningMrMagpie is the only track with any decent structure. Really not impressed with this. And to think In Rainbows was free, and I paid for this ? Phhhh.

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Ryan
Feb 18, 2011 5:20pm

It's an album meant to be played on vinyl, echoing throughout rooms of a house.

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Jeremy Chea
Feb 18, 2011 5:23pm

Speaking as someone who began a love affair with Radiohead because of songs like "Pyramid Song" and "Everything in its Right Place", I welcome this. I have only seen/heard "Lotus Flower" thus far... and I dug it. I cannot wait to get home tonight and listen to the whole thing and read your review again.

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decky
Feb 18, 2011 5:43pm

In reply to Ryan:

where did you come to this conclusion? did they say it was meant for vinyl? it doesnt matter WHERE its played, its just not a good listen in my option. people are defending them online simply because of their reputation, but they should tell it like it is, for four years work this is a piece of cow dung at times...what is track 4??

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Lebanon
Feb 18, 2011 6:25pm

Sometimes, even with Radiohead, songs are just songs. Some of the pretentiousness and arrogance they're often accused of could no doubt be attributed to journalists who hold them up in such a firmament as to review each song in comparison to a seraphic choir. Yes, we all love Radiohead and yes this album is great. Albums barely warrant the time given for reviews. To analyze each song, especially in such a ridiculously hyperbolic fashion, is to simply feed the delusion that they are something more than a great band. THAT is where the sentiments of pomposity and over value are conceived. I didn't see a song by song review for The Twilight Singers or Bright Eyes albums (both of which came out this week as well). If ignored entirely by the music media outlets, they would be heralded with few who could argue their originality and artistic vision. But it's reviews like this, the first of many to come that cause Radiohead fatigue for fans and defectors alike.

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Peter
Feb 18, 2011 6:26pm

Dull, irrelevent and dull. Oh did and did I say it was dull? You've let us down Radiohead. Surprised and disappointed.

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tenbenson
Feb 18, 2011 6:31pm

In reply to decky:

no, i don't like it because of their reputation, i like it because i think it's good. bang goes your theory.

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decky
Feb 18, 2011 6:34pm

In reply to tenbenson:

bang goes your taste in radiohead albums

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Leviathant
Feb 18, 2011 7:46pm

So "Feral" shares two notes with "Moments In Love" and that becomes a feel... for a song that, while penned by people who no doubt were influenced by Satie, is by none-but-the-most-absurd measure a re-interpretation of the Gymnopedies?

This review is a definitive contemporary symbol of pseudo-intellectual wankery. I guess the problem is that people who actually know what they're talking about with respect to music have better things to do than scrawl out reviews of Radiohead in an era where anyone can listen for, and think for themselves.

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todd
Feb 18, 2011 8:16pm

feral to me sounds like a busy band re-interpretation of what burial does.
i don't see what the big deal is, they are a bunch of guys making music. why expect anything?
it sounds like radiohead. by now you should know not to expect anything, other than it will still sound like radiohead. nothing's shocking.

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Ahmed Martin
Feb 18, 2011 11:05pm

Loved the review. Very well written!

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Feb 18, 2011 11:08pm

Its just another Radiohead album thats more easy to admire than to love

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tenbenson
Feb 19, 2011 1:30am

In reply to decky:

i think i can live with that.

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gary numan cassette
Feb 19, 2011 6:34am

jazz? JAZZ? i detect no howard moon here.

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grant
Feb 19, 2011 10:28am

In reply to gary numan cassette:

The drums on that first song sound EXACTLY like Liars.
Both the drumbeat and the tone of the drums.
Not a bad thing. Just saying, like.

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Fanny Campos A.
Feb 19, 2011 8:28pm

Very good review, the best I've read so far
but Sorrry, to die is wrong to speak of trumpets ... is the ondes Martenot of jonny, I'm almost certain, and also appears in 2 tracks not just one

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Beefcake
Feb 19, 2011 10:18pm

I enjoyed the review, very well written, engaging and it picks out what are on paper the progressive and interesting ideas i would look for in a Radiohead album.

Unfortunately, it's an album to be written about rather than listened to. Everything I liked about In Rainbows is absent.

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Lou
Feb 20, 2011 2:54am

Why do reviewers always give Radiohead a pass on their empty, confusing, almost meaningless lyrics? And I ask that as a fan of the band's work. But sometimes it feels like there's no there there.

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pawnoflimbs
Feb 20, 2011 4:02am

I love this review, though I think the notion of declaring a specific album as the best Radiohead record is a useless exercise. It's another brilliant addition to the cannon of specific albums that encapsulate certain moods.

All the other reviewers mysteriously seem to be using the same language to describe it, so this was really refreshing.

Thanks.

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Sup
Feb 20, 2011 7:32pm

Really dont get how people dont like this album, at all. I say that as someone who isn't hugely keen on the amnesiac/kid A stuff. Its easily their most soulful album to date. Maybe people should actually listen to it before reacting.

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Tim Russell
Feb 21, 2011 3:20am

"Moments in Love"??? A pint of whatever Ben Graham's drinking please.

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Peanut
Feb 21, 2011 12:43pm

Spot on. But surely the sound at the end of Ghost is a tape on a reel-to-reel spooling?

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Emma Cunton
Feb 21, 2011 9:16pm

It's pretentious, coddling reviews like this that hold Radiohead accountable for nothing and probably helped ruin people like Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom. At some point you really ought to rope these people in and let them know that not that many people really enjoy it anymore, that the albums are not really very good listens front to back. I agree with whoever said Radiohead is a great band that sounds like Radiohead. This shit is NOT shocking. And LOL so hard at "meant to be played on vinyl".

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Tim Russell
Feb 22, 2011 2:13am

If you applied the "If this was the debut album from a new band..." test to this album, would it be getting the unanimous rave reviews it's currently getting, or would it be seen as a listenable but unremarkable set of fairly derivative electronica?
I've given it half a dozen listens so far and it still sounds like little more than polite background music. Not had it on the headphones yet to be fair but I can't see my opinion changing too dramatically.

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danmac
Feb 22, 2011 10:05am

Yes, but it's not as good as Solid Air (few things are)

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Stavros P. Leibowitz
Feb 22, 2011 10:21am

Tuneless toss to these ears. Radiohead are more about marketing and spin than they are about music. If this was a debut album it'd get laughed out of the room and rightly so.

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Joe
Feb 22, 2011 11:36am

In reply to Griff:

In Rainbows was free?

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Angus
Feb 22, 2011 5:15pm

In reply to Tim Russell:

If this was a debut album from a band, I'd be shitting all the way to the happy bank.

I like the fact that this band inspire absolutely every response on the known spectrum, though. There's something titillating about hearing the same music described as 'polite background music' and a work of vaunting genius (Im sure someone's said that somewhere). One just has to take a deep breath and step away from the keyboard.

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Feb 22, 2011 6:16pm

In reply to Angus:

couldn't agree more ! Also interesting to see that many reviewers argue that this album was heavily inspired by dubstep & electronica. I see what they mean, especially Flying Lotus, but I'd say RH actually love these acts because they share many references/the same idea of music. This is music that will be performed live, on instruments, and it makes a world of difference. That's why I think tQ's review is so spot on. And no one mentions all the bird/nature sounds in the album... Weird !

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jase
Feb 23, 2011 12:58am

astute review - why would these guys revert back to ok & bends days anyway?- anyone who is remotely creative will tell you that repeating yourself to appease the masses is worse than death! - they want to challenge themselves & the listener - i say go along 4 the ride & appreciate it 4 what it is:a beautiful
moody collection of in rainbows2esque late night sounds 4 the soul

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Michael Avi
Feb 24, 2011 11:35pm

This is most likely only a portion of the album. A digital release, 2 10" LPs, a CD; Do we really think Radiohead are going to release a short 8 tracks on 3 different formats? We can safely assume that they are more ambitious then that.
Prediction: there will be four parts to the King of Limbs, and we have only seen one-- the "digital" part. And of that, it is inspiring material, this review is spot on. Cannot wait for March 28.

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steven Duncan
Apr 9, 2011 11:22pm

It's not even an E.P. It's a double A side 7".

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