One of the things that has made Radiohead (consisting of vocalist Thom Yorke, bassist Colin Greenwood, drummer Phil Selway and guitarists Johnny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien) one of the defining bands of the last 20 years has been their unpredictablility. In terms of their music, every one of their albums showcases the band’s willingness to explore new territories. From the buzzsaw-guitar rampages on 1995’s "The Bends," to the Pink Floyd-influenced view of the future on 1997’s "OK Computer," to the twitchy electronica on 2000’s "Kid A" and 2001’s "Amnesiac," Radiohead has refused to stay in one place musically. They’ve also surprised audiences with how they release their albums. In 2007, they sent a shockwave through the industry by allowing let fans to determine their own price when downloading the album "In Rainbows," if they wanted to pay at all.
Radiohead’s newest album, "The King of Limbs," was released on Feb. 18 on their website, where fans could download the MP3 file for $9. The CD comes out on March 28. The album itself isn’t one of their masterpieces, and it continues with the electronic sounds of their most recent records, but it still has its own musical rewards.
"The King of Limbs" is the shortest album the band has released, consisting of only eight songs. The first track, "Bloom," sets the tone of the album with clattering piano, a drum machine that sounds like something hitting garbage cans with a baseball bat and Yorke’s trademark wailing, haunted vocals. He sings: "Open your mouth wide/universal sighs/and while the ocean blooms/it’s what keeps me alive." The lyrics are not very important on this album, as the songs come together as more of a mood piece than anything else.
That mood is very subdued, as shown on songs such as "Morning Mr. Magpie" and the album’s finale, "Separator." Guitars and live drums only make brief appearances but they make their mark when they do. The track "Little by Little" has a funk rhythm similar to early-era Talking Heads releases, with acoustic guitars, a backward loop of horns and some downright amazing drumming from Selway. This song, like some of the others on the album, is deceptively minimalist. Only after a few listens does the listener really hear everything going on musically within each of the songs. It is this kind of density that makes Radiohead’s music so rewarding.
The two best songs come right at the halfway point; "Lotus Flower," the album’s first single, is the closest thing here to a dance song, with the throbbing synth and Yorke’s delicate falsetto. Yet the finest song on the album is "Codex," a stunningly beautiful piano ballad that has Yorke singing abstract lyrics about longing for affection, or maybe a lost love. But again, this album is all about mood, and the piano and string section combine to give emotional impacts even if it is unclear what it really is about.
If "The King of Limbs" has a fault, then it is its lack of accessibility. People who have never listened to Radiohead before will likely wonder what the big deal is, and will not be able to understand what the band hopes to accomplish with this album. Others may find it frustratingly abstract, and wish that the band would return to the guitar-heavy melodic songs that defined their earlier work. Still, others will be able to tune in to the album’s ghostly power.
Overall, "The King of Limbs" is a worthy addition to Radiohead’s discography and is a must for fans of the band. But for the uninitiated, go listen to "The Bends" and "OK Computer," experiences that allow one to truly delve into this band. It will be interesting to see if Radiohead continues in this musical direction maybe one day they will return to the style of their early albums. But the great thing about the band is that no one will know for sure what they do next, just like they’ve been doing for nearly 20 years. Instead of becoming the next U2 or the next Pink Floyd, they went down a different route: they became the first Radiohead.