My enjoyment of The King of Limbs is still very much a surprise to me, considering how much I have made a point of putting on the record that I think Radiohead is a ridiculously overrated band, and considering how divisive this album has turned out to be. For a band that has made such an effort in their career to challenge how we view music, the initial response by many publications towards Radiohead’s newest album was astoundingly complicit, some releasing rapturous reviews for it mere hours after it was released. However, as the excitement over the surprising release has subsided, in addition to the requisite backlash that emerged a few weeks later, The King of Limbs seems to sit with overall derision from fans as an album that is not anything close to the quality of past favorites like OK Computer, Kid A and In Rainbows.
The reason why I believe The King of Limbs has not been viewed in such high regard as those albums, is because, in all its thirty-seven and a half minutes, it does not break any new ground or show any indication of where music will be going in the future, electronic, guitar-based or otherwise. The King of Limbs does nothing to conflate the zeitgeist or fellate the IQ of the music-listening community. It is, simply, a collection of good songs that doesn’t so much as make a dent in the paradigm of musical thought, like many Radiohead fans believe occurred with the other album that the band released in the first year of a decade. And that lack of creative overload that fans have come to expect from the band has seriously pissed some people off.
If anything, The King of Limbs is a rough summary of where electronic music is at this moment, or, more accurately, where Thom Yorke believes electronic music is at this moment. Ever since the man’s 2006 solo effort, The Eraser, Yorke has been concentrating more on the songwriting components of legitimate electronic music as opposed to the bleeps, bloops and screeches that I thought distracted from the sound of Kid A. As represented in the man’s various remixes of electronic artists and his guest vocal on “…And the World Laughs With You” from Flying Lotus’s excellent Cosmogramma, it is easy to see from whom The King of Limbs gets its inspiration. The skittering percussion that serves as the backbone for most of the album’s songs is reminiscent of Flying Lotus’s recent work and the vocal manipulation that occurs in “Feral” and other tracks is in line with the trend that has been prevalent in electronic music since Burial’s 2007 album, Untrue. Even the distant harmonies singing, “Don’t mind me” in “Giving Up the Ghost” sound like something Baths would write, and his debut album was released less than a year ago. The King of Limbs comes off less as a distinct Radiohead product than Yorke writing songs that sound like the music he’s been enjoying, lately.
Another reason Radiohead fans might not have enjoyed The King of Limbs is that it does not have much value in individual songs. Its tracks do not invoke melodies so much as moods; if you’ve heard the first few elements of a song, chances are you’ve heard what the rest is going to sound like. I can see people getting very frustrated with a song like “Separator,” in which a drum measure is stubbornly looped for five and a half minutes, and I would dislike it too if I didn’t enjoy the arrangement the band crafts around it. On The King of Limbs, Radiohead may rely on one or two elements to thrust a song, but never does that guitar part or vocal melody to fall back on fall flat. Yorke does his dejected moan bit very well, layering songs like “Codex” and “Giving Up the Ghost” with harmonies that gracefully weave in and out of the arrangements, Johnny Greenwood’s guitar only adds more depth to the backbeats of songs and… well there are so few distinct drum parts on the album, I can’t imagine Philip Selway spent more than an hour in the studio recording them. The MVP of The King of Limbs, though, is Colin Greenwood, whose supple bass lines keep all the songs fresh and lively when the album’s repetition gets deleterious.
For me, The King of Limbs is Radiohead’s most solid product yet, but scores of fans will end up throwing the album into the poison-tipped iron maiden where their copy of Pablo Honey has been toiling for nearly twenty years. My only advice if you’re considering getting The King of Limbs would be to take the unfounded amount of criticism it has received with a grain of salt, because, if you hold any album to the comical esteem this band’s material’s garnered over the years, it will fail, spectacularly. And, if it sounds like I’m giving the album too much shit for such a high rating, know that it’s because I’m still grappling with the fact that a Radiohead album might make it on my top fifty list at the end of the year, something I never would have imagined. Chances are you’re going to enjoy The King of Limbs, despite its intense exaggerations from both sides of the spectrum. The good news is the that the absent pressure to declare it the greatest piece of music ever recorded might give you some strange comfort.