Radiohead return with characteristically satisfying results.
Radiohead has a hard time staying still. Throughout the band’s eight studio albums, aesthetic focuses are short–lived, rendered as spastic and inscrutable as the consumer technology they regularly lampoon. Commercially, the band peaked on 1997’s OK Computer — spawning imitators as pathetic as Coldplay and Muse — but since then they have found new life as mainstream poster boys for the avant–garde underground.
Kid A, their left–field masterpiece, was praised for stripping everything that was immediately enticing about its predecessor. The band’s latest, The King of Limbs, operates in the same manner. Gone are the slow–burning hooks and pent–up sentimentality of In Rainbows; Radiohead’s new LP plays like a jagged, succinct answer to the hype.
And succinct it definitely is. At 37 minutes, TKOL is the band’s shortest record, which may seem like a bit of a letdown at first. But true Radiohead fans should abandon this criticism before their first listen: King is powerful because it’s precise.
The instrumentation is always understated — there are no big riffs and no epic crescendos. The most noticeable use of electric guitar comes on “Morning Mr Magpie” as a thin line floating through a soup of electronica. Thom Yorke and Co. are masters of craft, and they don’t need songs as monumentally complex as “Paranoid Android” to prove it anymore.
That said, Radiohead’s latest is still a gorgeously layered affair. Opener “Bloom” washes a stumbling drumbeat with a string line, birthing one of the album’s most immediate hooks in the process. “Give Up The Ghost” contains haunting traces of new age folksters Fleet Foxes, its build–up slow but never static. Even the most traditional cuts — the piano-driven “Codex” and first single “Lotus Flower” — are constructed entirely apart from traditional song structures. More so than any other Radiohead album, TKOL’s charms lie in the persistent addition and subtraction of elements, and the band negotiates this exchange with typical expertise.
But craft can only get a songwriter so far. Radiohead’s first seven albums are hard acts to follow, and many fans may find TKOL to be initially underwhelming, lacking the transcendence of some of their earlier work. For them, I write this: Radiohead albums are growers and The King of Limbs — with its endlessly gorgeous layers — may take even longer to reveal the full breadth of its elements. But until that day comes, Radiohead’s latest is evidence that the band is still striving to write perfect albums — and they’re creating work that is unquestionably good along the way.
Sounds Like: The most notoriously weird band gets weirder.
99–Cent Download: “Separator”
Good For: People who already like Radiohead.