The King of Limbs
Is it possible to review a Radiohead album two days after its unexpected release? Lee Henry thinks not
It’s hard to love Thom Yorke. I say that as someone who likes order: no surprises, please. Anticipating Radiohead’s new release, I logged on to Dead Air Space weekly over the past six months, preparing myself for the shock announcement that was to come, and when it did – The King of Limbs, available for download in five days’ time – I was ready.
Then, on Friday, one day before the Big Day, a text from former CultureNorthernIreland web editor Kiran Acharya: ‘Radiohead out today not tomorrow.’ I imagined that I heard a high-pitched, self-satisfied snigger over my shoulder; saw a manic, twitching shadow dance against the wall. Goddamn you, Thom Yorke! I loved you!
Two days after it transferred from a dedicated microsite to my laptop, is it even possible to review The King of Limbs? And, given that CultureNorthernIreland is a website dedicated to Northern Irish arts and culture, should I be reviewing it at all?
Of course I should. Name me a contemporary musician in Northern Ireland who hasn’t been influenced by Radiohead and I’ll concede that, okay, so Daniel O’Donnell doesn’t do electro. Consider the sales of Radiohead albums and singles (both physical and digital) in Northern Ireland and tell me that no one is interested in The King of Limbs.
Other reviewers have focused on Radiohead’s gleeful deconstruction of music industry norms when reviewing The King of Limbs (no promo interviews, out-of-the-blue album release, everything done online). Tell us something we don’t know. What does it sound like?
Opener ‘Bloom’ recalls Yorke’s only solo album, The Eraser, and The King of Limbs is more like that album than any other Radiohead long player. The bass is minimalist, the guitars minimal. No doubt Yorke will claim another 'laptop' credit on the physical 'Newspaper album' when it is released in March.
There is no ‘Reckoner’ on The King of Limbs, no ‘All I Need’, no soaring, heart-wrenching crescendos or orthodox song structures. From the eco-friendly ‘Bloom’ all the way through to the quietly euphoric closer ‘Separator’ there is barely a chorus to choose from.
Perhaps in retrospect Radiohead consider In Rainbows, their last album, to be excessive. If so the only ‘acoustic’ track here, ‘Give Up The Ghost’, is their idiosyncratic response to that excess. Opening with birdsong, it is one long(ish) laidback jam based around two chords and Yorke's repeated refrain, 'Don't haunt me'. A reference to 'Harrowdown Hill' and the death of David Kelly, perhaps.
What stands out either side of ‘Give Up The Ghost’ are the beats: it is as if Yorke and Co (meaning Jonny Greenwood and producer Nigel Godrich, in effect) built these songs from the snare up.
At times – as bursts of effects-laiden vocals appear where they have no right to be and added rimshots have you grasping wildly for the rhythm as if you’ve been punched in the ear – you would be forgiven for thinking that The King of Limbs is more likely to appear on the shortlist for the Turner Prize than the Mercury.
Having said that, as the parts slowly become the sum and The King of Limbs opens up to reveal its true identity, I'll no doubt look back on that line and cringe.
Is it possible to review The King of Limbs so soon after its release? No, not really. Since OK Computer, Radiohead albums have been intentionally inaccessible. (Cue high-pitched snigger.) I hated In Rainbows for weeks, initially: now, it’s my second favourite Radiohead album.
Right now I’m still coming to terms with The King of Limbs (loving 'Lotus Flower' and 'Codex', not too fussed on 'Morning Mr Magpie'). No doubt you are too. Let us know what you think by commenting below… in a couple of weeks, of course.