Burnhope On The King of Limbs

Mark Burnhope reviews the latest Radiohead

Even when they haven’t surprised us musically, Radiohead have set a precedent of innovation. Recently, that’s meant rethinking the ways music is shared in a web-driven 21st century where the leak is the new bootleg and record stores are dying. Well, they’re still brainstorming: the ‘pay-what-you-like’ aesthetic adopted for In Rainbows now looks less like ethical consideration than one-off P.R. experiment. In interview with the Australian Broadcasting Network, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails said the plan had been “insincere” and had amounted to a “bait and switch”, promoting what would later be a common-or-garden CD release. Unsurprisingly, The King of Limbs isn’t cheap; not if you’re after the elusive ‘Newspaper Album’ promising a host of fan-fondling treats. The big surprise this time: announce it days before release, and drop it on Friday 18th February, ahead of the advertised Saturday 19th (which explains why this review is late, and why the phrase “You heard it here first” isn’t in it).

Stylistically too, Radiohead could never resist being difficult. Pablo Honey through OK Computer had given us ‘alternative’, ‘indie’, ‘electric’, ‘acoustic’, ‘aggressive’, ‘down-beat’ and ‘downright miserable’, usually within a reliable framework of rock. But remember our bewilderment in gradually realising we’d have to scrap that lexicon for another, of words like ‘soundscape’, ‘backbeat’, ‘sample’, ‘loop’, music-tech references that many of us didn’t understand, let alone respect or appreciate.

The change accelerated over the course of Kid A, Amnesiac and Thom Yorke’s solo album, Eraser; and although Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows seemed to signal a slow trickle back to a more familiar rock sound, it’s those three which The King of Limbs – eight tracks at around 37 minutes – tries to build on. But song structures are stripped even barer; melodies are more fragmented. The overall impression is one of unnerving quiet. More than ever, ambience, sonic textures and minimalism are the order of the day. To that extent it mostly works, but I can’t help feeling a lack of more immediate, fully-formed songs (Where is this album’s ‘Everything in its Right Place’, ‘Idioteque’ or ‘Pyramid Song’ – a bit leftfield, but instantly mesmerising?).

‘Bloom’ begins with a gorgeous piano loop reminiscent of LTJ Bukem, Roni Size, even MJ Cole (but later on, where does it go?). After a few stabs of something like car horns, a part-drum ‘n bass, part-street carnival samba rhythm stutters, hiccups, trips over itself. A jazzy double-bass weaves around it. Add to this Yorke’s melody which, like others here, will take time to stick. The notes are long and drawn-out, the voice providing more of an ‘extra instrument’ than a tune you’ll want to hum to yourself while doing the dishes. Listen for the violins and horns in the lyric-free bridge, or the trumpets colouring the atmospheric second verse: welcome Sigur Ros-esque touches reminding us that Radiohead are, in essence, a post-rock band.

If Bloom sets the album’s tone, ‘Morning Mr. Magpie’ establishes it. After a palm-muted guitar (lasting seconds, looped) and a rhythm resembling (yep) 2step Garage, the lyrics kick in: ‘You’ve got a nerve coming here… Good morning, Mr. Magpie. How are you today? Now you’ve stolen all the magic to my melody.’ They remind us that Limbs will be an unwelcoming listen. It’s both threatening and strangely consoling, as if Yorke understands how difficult we’re finding all this. It feels less complimentary to say that the loveliest part of Bloom might be the breakdown, where drums disappear and atmospherics come to the fore. Perhaps my greatest annoyance: vocals are nudged just ahead of guitars; bass guitar is slightly out of sync with drums. It sounds like polyrhythm, a technique which should make absolute sense on its own terms, but alongside bands who’ve mastered it (metal band Meshuggah, for example), Radiohead’s attempt feels like pointless complication, obscuring rather than enhancing an otherwise-decent song.

For me, ‘Little By Little’ is the first reason to get excited. The subtle drum groove picks up triphop, funk and Latin percussion. Hand-drums, strings and a distant sitar blend together for an Indian flavour. A mournful, romantic acoustic guitar calls to mind the more contemplative side of Flamenco, and – in terms of popular music – Jose Gonzalez. Looped drumbeat aside, it hints at something from OK Computer, fulfils this album’s promise of rich, sonic textures, and – like the guitar in ‘Magpie’ – gives a refreshing nod to acoustic instruments over the tech-atmospherics of ‘Bloom’ or ‘Lotus Flower’. ‘Complications. Routines and Schedules.’ Not this time, Thom.

By far this album’s deepest foray into urban dance music, ‘Feral’ works like an instrumental interlude, apart from some vocal cut-ups reminiscent of Garage producer Todd Edwards (albeit swimming in reverb and far less interesting). To be flippant, this is ‘Radiohead Does Dubstep’ and wouldn’t be out of place on a Burial album. That isn’t bad; it’s rather beautiful, actually – a hiccupping 2step rhythm; those all-important atmospherics; a perfect dub bassline – but Radiohead aren’t content to leave it there. They remind us that they’re not Dubstep artists by pouring over superfluous vocals and jarring tumbles of percussion. In the end, what isn’t derivative about the song threatens to ruin it.

‘Lotus Flower’ was chosen as lead-single and given a video (a bowler hat-wearing Yorke throwing shapes inside a corrugated-iron post-apocalyptic subway or aircraft hangar) for obvious reasons. Unfortunately, elements which make it single material – the catchiest melody here, a palatable song structure, atmospheric keys, dub bass, and the most generic d ‘n b rhythm on the album – make it also rather bland. But if you’re looking for the song to play at a house party, this is it.

If ‘Little By Little’ was the first reason to get excited, ‘Codex’ is the second. A gorgeous, slow piano ballad with a beautiful chord progression similar to (but warmer than) ‘Pyramid Song’, it begins a fine three-song close to the album. Typically, the chords lodge themselves in the mind and only change a little, but – as in the best minimal work of Sigur Ros – this time we don’t care. Think haunting contemplation rather than mindless repetition. The horns reappear, again evoking Sigur Ros. The outro softens to a classical chattering of strings. Everything rides over a metronome like the sound of measured footsteps over a pavement. It’s all rather lovely.

‘Give up the Ghost’ is an acoustic guitar-led, post-rock piece which – like the best of Sigur Ros’ Takk album –  evokes the sun rising over mountains shrink-wrapped in snow. ‘Separator’ begins with a subtle triphop drum loop, soon joined by a jazz bass like we heard in ‘Bloom’. It’s a clever and subtle reprise, not of a song but an instrument. That’s followed by hypnotic atmospherics, a lovely jazzy guitar and the lyrics: ‘If you think this is over then you’re wrong.’ What could that mean? Seek and ye shall find: ten minutes on the Internet will point you to more rabid speculation than you could shake a glow-stick at.

Those with the patience – and if you’ve come this far with Radiohead, that’s you – will find lots to like on The King of Limbs: tight basslines from Colin Greenwood, bleakly beautiful piano from Thom Yorke, atmospheric guitars and keys from Ed O’Brien and Johnny Greenwood, Yorke’s vocals moving with ease from a snarling, nasal moan to a sensitive falsetto. But you might wonder how much time they spent in the studio; there’s scarcely a phrase or rhythm which isn’t cut to shreds and looped (and never with the flair of the best Jungle or drum ‘n bass music). Maybe this ‘collage effect’ is inevitable for a band which at some point fell into the habit of writing twenty-odd different versions of every song, but – like reworking a joke – sometimes first instincts are best.

Buttons and dials, cuts and samples have long been a labour of love for Thom Yorke’s crew. But compared to their previous bouts with Electronica, this album too often feels like a pleasant stroll through the clichés of the underground nightclub, cherry-picking our favourites as it goes. That’s commendable, but with a caveat: decide for yourself where it sits amongst the best work from Unkle (whose ‘Rabbit In Your Headlights’ features Thom Yorke himself), Squarepusher, Portishead, Sneaker Pimps, Courtney Pine, The Cinematic Orchestra, Roni Size and Reprazent, Lamb and – in their subtler moments – even The Prodigy and Nine Inch Nails: bands that have done this kind of live music/ dance hybridisation for the last two decades.

The King of Limbs has its delights, but they’re diluted by too many retreads of familiar ground both in terms of Radiohead’s own catalogue and the wider context of intelligent dance music. It doesn’t challenge or question its genres like The Bends or OK Computer did with, say, Britpop, or even like the ‘problem albums’ often did with Electronica. Depending on your frame of reference, it’ll either expand your musical horizons or bore you rigid. In that sense, on its prettiest moments, it’s Radiohead being – if not excelling – themselves.

Mark Burnhope is a British poet.  He has a BTh from London School of Theology and a Creative Writing MA from Brunel University. He has poems in Magma, nthposition, Other Lives, and forthcoming in Horizon Review. He currently lives and writes in Bournemouth, Dorset.
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