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CD review: Radiohead’s ‘The King of Limbs’

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Illustration: Chris Morris
Annie Zaleski

True to form, Radiohead announced on Valentine’s Day that its new album, The King of Limbs, would be released just five days later. Then the British quintet unleashed the digital version of the album one day earlier than planned. The sneak attack seems appropriate for music released in the Internet age; the move is calibrated for instant buzz and immediate gratification. But the element of surprise is also an intrinsic part of Radiohead’s identity: Its chameleonic ways are a given, two decades into its career.

The Details

Radiohead
The King of Limbs
Three stars

Limbs feels like a natural progression from the twitching electronics and hollowed-out soul of the band’s last album, In Rainbows. But it’s also Radiohead’s most abstract release; the eight songs largely emphasize textures over vocals, melodies or structure. Thom Yorke’s falsetto melts into percussion that sounds like rain bouncing off tin (“Bloom”), EKG-monitor funk basslines and insistent guitar (“Morning Mr. Magpie”) and gauzy piano (“Codex”). Other sounds only start to appear upon close attention. Gulping electro programming, chirping animal noises, alien keyboard drone, squiggly strings, rhythms reminiscent of scratching mice—all form a lush bed of noise just underneath the surface. In fact, Limbs sounds like background wallpaper until repeated listens, a stereogram finally giving up its hidden 3D image.

Yorke’s muffled vocals, which are murkier and less distinct than ever before, make the album’s lyrics difficult to decipher. Though disappointing, perhaps that’s for a reason. The anger, alienation and even violence found on previous Radiohead albums is largely absent, replaced by delicate descriptions of intimate personal experiences. Imagery involving ghosts, whimsical wildlife (dragonflies, jellyfish) and empty space dominates. “Lotus Flower” and “Separator” take a mournful tone to discuss letting go of past entanglements; “Codex” could be a metaphorical suicide by drowning. Only “Morning Mr. Magpie,” which might be read as a thinly veiled condemnation of record-label greed, touches on vitriol.

In the end, Limbs isn’t deserving of the snap-judgments it’s so far received, especially because it almost feels half-finished. (Perhaps there’s a reason for that, too: It’s been rumored that the band will release more music soon.) The goose bump-inducing moments are present, particularly on “Give Up the Ghost,” with its repeated vocal drones and spare guitar plucks, and the sad, lovely trudge “Codex.” But overall, Limbs’ emotional transparency—and resonant songwriting—isn’t quite up to Radiohead’s high standards.

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