Radiohead, The King of Limbs (Ticker Tape/XL)
Sunday 20 February 2011
The announcement on Valentine's Day of an imminent Radiohead album was greeted as enormously significant in many quarters, like Moses coming down from the mountain with a brand new slab under his arm.
The way this carved out a position of import and gravitas has been craftier than is generally recognised. The moment on "Little By Little" when Thom Yorke croons "Obligation, complication, routines and schedules drug and kill you" may suggest a desire to escape conventional music-biz treadmill, but there's more to this than meets the eye.
First, they've done a Snakes on a Plane with their eighth album by denying critics a chance to comment beforehand while simultaneously making this look like a philanthropic, fans-first policy. Second, the three-part staggered release – this weekend's download version (selling at a fixed price rather than the mildly disastrous pay-what-you-want model used for In Rainbows); a CD release in March; and a "newspaper" edition (including vinyl, artwork and assorted goodies) in May – purports to be innovative but actually mirrors the record industry's old trick of encouraging fans to buy the same product twice or thrice.
But what are they getting for their money? The King Of Limbs, named after a famous oak in the Savernake forest near the studio where In Rainbows was made, is good but not great. It's just eight songs long and starts in quasi-experimental vein with "Bloom", which has dense and complex washes of synths, off-kilter drum and an oddly Wainwright-like warble from Yorke. "Morning Mr Magpie", with Yorke moaning lines like "You got some nerve, coming here/You stole it all, give it back" over a nagging, insistent guitar motif, will doubtless be taken as a comment on bankers' bonuses. It might just be about a magpie. "Feral", an instrumental reminiscent of head-nodding Nineties "intelligent techno", gives way to "Lotus Flower", the notional single, which is just blank and cryptic enough to sustain various interpretations, it has a rolling, circular bassline and a vocal hook ("there's an empty space inside my heart ..."), but it's not exactly a singalong anthem. Far better is "Codex", a beautiful reverb-laden piano melody with a lyric that could be read as a suicide note: "Jump off the end/Into a clear lake/No one around/Just dragonflies flying to the side/No one gets hurt/You've done nothing wrong...". If The King Of Limbs was by any band other than Radiohead, the world would shrug. But when it's Radiohead? Hold the front page.
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