Radiohead: The King Of Limbs

If you were to hold a gun to me and ask, “What’s your favorite band?” I’d probably have to say, “The Beatles!” However, if you were to then pull out a knife and ask, “But what’s your favorite current band?!” I’d reply, “Radiohead!” I think I realized they were probably my favorite band when Kid A was released; but I honestly can’t remember a time not liking them.

That being said, I tend to react with ambivalence whenever they release a new record. I’m filled with equal parts excitement and nervousness. I’m genuinely concerned if this is the album where they finally have a misstep. It’s like meeting an old friend for the first time in a few years. You’re eager to see how they’ve been and what they’ve been up to, but you’re also worried if they’ve changed or taken a step towards the dark side or something. Maybe it’s just me.

Even at their most brilliant, Radiohead’s albums are slow burns; it takes a few listens to allow the album to reveal itself to you. I often listen to them and think, “this isn’t the type of music that sells millions of albums.” Sure, they’re amazing, but they’re not exactly accessible. So what’s their secret? For all their No Logo, anti-corporatist posturing, Radiohead can hype, promote, and sell an album like no other. Somehow, the more aloof they appear over the release of their music, the greater the culture phenomena it becomes. In the nineties, when MTV and music videos were the main promotional vehicles, their lead single off OK Computer, “Paranoid Android,” was a surrealist cartoon without any inclusion of Yorke and co. Of course, they’re eventually heralded for having some of the greatest videos of the decade. Fast forward to Kid A. No official single. No big videos. Nothing. They purposely dispelled any hype surrounding its release. I won’t get into the marketing campaign of the album, but you see where this is going.

Now we come to what I think was the biggest transitional moment in Radiohead’s career post-Pablo Honey: Hail To The Thief. Thief is interesting for two reasons. It’s the last album they released on a major label and it’s probably their weakest album besides Honey. It’s really the last time we hear that Radiohead-against-the-world sound. They’re angry and frustrated with their cultural/historical milieu (what’s new, right?) but they come across as too didactic. What makes Radiohead so great is that they express that existentialist angst of the individual being made aware s/he is just another cog in the totalitarian machine. But here, they’re brow-beating us with their politics. Thief feels unfocused and disjointed. There’s a sense of urgency but it’s not as articulate as their previous efforts. Moreover, the band seemed frustrated with the album having been leaked before its official release. Hail to the thief, indeed.

Where to go from here? How about releasing your album yourself? Sell it on the web for whatever your fans think its worth? In Rainbows is not only a return to form but it’s the first glimpse of the new Radiohead, a Radiohead that’s not overly concerned with reinventing the wheel with every release. In Rainbows was praised for their return to a more accessible, The Bends type sound. After their foray into computers and world politics, Radiohead had finally come back down to earth.

The King Of Limbs, although probably their most electronic and computerized album to date, continues this new trend. Limbs, like Rainbows, is a revisioning, but not a regurgitation, of previously explored terrain. It’s tempting to compare this album to Amnesiac. To pass this off as an experimentation with a sound they’ve already perfected on Kid A, but, like Amnesiac, Limbs is its own animal. Here, Radiohead are pushing their electronic elements to their limits. They’re in familiar territory, sure, but they’re going down a path not previously explored, and have abandoned the comforts of familiarity and anything that’s been tested and proved. At this point in their careers, they could easily keep people interested by churning out a new album that dabbles with new sounds but still keeping one foot in the past, a la The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Stadium Arcadium, but they’re not a band that likes to make life easy on themselves.

One of the most striking elements of Limbs is its brevity. Coming in at a lean 37 minutes, it’s their shortest album to date, and many wonder if it’s really their new album – whether this is just half of the real King of Limbs. Some research on the interwebs has revealed that the band has grown tiresome of the recording process, and no longer has the inclination to go through the odyssey of producing a game-changer like Ok Computer or Kid A. To me, Limbs is thus a lot like Bowie’s Low. A short-length album of fragmented ideas, that could easily be turned into something more epic, but chooses instead to leave them unresolved and just throw them out there.

But that’s not to say Limbs is a non-starter. For me, it continues the sound begun with Rainbows, which is a more joyful Radiohead. Moreover, this is probably the first sexy Radiohead album. These tracks groove unlike their other electronic forays. They’re returning to a genre they helped popularize, but they’re also drawing on newcomers such as Flying Lotus and James Blake. The lead single, “Lotus Flower,” and its video, proves this. Sure, oftentimes the lyrics and the melodies contradict such a claim, but unlike their previous albums, Limbs is giving us a way out. On The Bends, Ok Computer, and Kid A, we were confronted with near despair and angst, and our best hope was the catharsis experienced at the end, or the new perspective it afforded us. But Limbs makes two things obvious to me: for one, what Radiohead have always been interested in is the negotiation between the human condition, the flesh, and what it means to be living in the world, and the potentially limitless possibilities of technology. Between the two falls the shadow, and this is where Radiohead, unlike any other band of our time, exist: in the gap between our bodies and our machines. Secondly, if this is our existential condition, then what are we to do? Simply wallow in our despair and bemoan our lot? Many criticize Radiohead for exactly this – that they’ve never really progressed beyond “Creep” and just continue to make depressing music. Well I say nay nay! How can a band simultaneously decry technology yet revel in its creative potential? What they’re doing, what they’ve always been doing, is trying to, at once, articulate a conflict, and then show us a possible synthesis.

And this is why I love Radiohead. They’re willing to not only plunge into those difficult waters, but also try and swim through it. Like all great artists, they show us both the crisis of the human condition and its possible redemption. If I must assign this album some sort of grade, I’d give it an 8.5/10.

cheers

-B

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~ by braddunne on February 28, 2011.

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