Album Review: Radiohead, “King Of Limbs” (2011)

When Radiohead released their eighth album, King of Limbs, in 2011, I was SO excited.  I still remember waking up on Valentine’s Day and finding out that the first single, “Lotus Flower”, had dropped with a music video.  It was the best V-day present I had gotten to date (which is either a big testament to my love for Radiohead, or a sad reflection on the dismal state of my previous Valentine’s Day celebrations).

Of course when the album came out, I bought it the day it was released. And upon my first listen, my excitement immediately crashed down to disappointment.

What was this?  I waited four years for a new Radiohead album, and this was the result?  40 minutes and eight songs, half of which sounded like awkward filler tracks for some experimental-electro-indie-rock-something-or-the-other band?!  Where was the Radiohead I had known and loved?  Hell, where was the Radiohead that had released that (far better) first single?!

It’s been two years since the album was first released, and while I don’t feel as angry and as let down as I initially did, I will say that King of Limbs is still a disappointment.  It feels as though the band didn’t know what to do, so they just released a handful of songs- some that were good and cohesive, and some that were bad and unfinished.  The result is an unsteady, unexciting album, and something that I honestly wish they would’ve just shelved until they had some better work to throw together.

A skittering synth line, keyboards and galloping drums introduce the disc’s first song, Bloom.  Lead singer, Thom Yorke, is back with his best falsetto and though his dulcet tones are pleasing to the ear, the busy instrumentation in the background is far too distracting to focus on his singing or anything else, really.  The drum loop hammers its way through the song and into your subconscious, and I swear, I can still hear those stuttering drums even when the song is over.  Still, this isn’t a bad thing- the frenetic excitement of the song is a nice start for the album- at the very least, things don’t start off on a dull note.

Morning Mr. Magpie
follows and is a far more understated track than its predecessor. The looping digitized sounds are back, though this time in the form of a repetitive electric guitar riff.  Despite having a more recognizable chorus amongst all the hectic production, the track is still a bit of a bore, which is especially disappointing with how early it arrives on the album.  Little By Little is an upbeat song, with clattering maracas and sparkling percussion, set off perfectly by Yorke’s seductive refrain in the chorus (“Little by little by hook or by crook/I’m such a tease/And you’re such a flirt”).  However, all those things considered, the song still lacks that extra something that’d have really made it a memorable entry in Radiohead’s discography.

The dizzying percussion in instrumental number, Feral, actually makes me long for the music Radiohead released prior to this album- you know, the Radiohead that actually played live instruments and didn’t rely on computerized production and frenzied drum loops for their music.  I’m by no means an old-school Radiohead purist (you know the ones- the guys that angrily proclaim that Pablo Honey and The Bends were the band’s best albums and that’s when they made REAL rock music, and anything afterwards is craptastic). I mean, In Rainbows is my favourite Radiohead album and it’s filled with synthesizers and electric instruments, but at this point in the disc, I’m really wondering if Colin and Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway are even there playing instruments, or if Yorke is just sitting behind his iMac, pushing a bunch of buttons and “making music”.

Radiohead in amsterdam

Thankfully, the album’s lead, and only, single arrives next with Lotus Flower.  I mentioned earlier that I loved this song from first listen and it’s definitely one of the best tracks on the album.  Synthesized blips and beeps are a plenty, but there’s also handclapping in the background, and a record scratching and just a bit of a more organic sound than some of the other tracks.  But really, the best part of the song is that there’s an actual focus on the singing and lyrics!  The other tracks prior to this one have been heavy on the production and sound, with little room left to hear any lyrics, but Lotus Flower takes Yorke’s piercing falsetto and puts it to the forefront.  Finally, there’s a song that I can actually sing along to, a song where I actually feel a connection to the lyrics (“There’s an empty space inside my heart/Where the weeds take root/And now I’ll set you free/I’ll set you free”).  The song also gets extra points for the black and white music video, which features Yorke awkwardly dancing around in a very endearing sort of way.

has an actual piano in it…no, not keyboards, but a real piano!  The song ends up being a mellow piano ballad, and the change of musical direction is extremely nice.  Yorke’s voice takes on a slightly raspy tone as he sings the slightly depressing lyrics (“Sleight of hand/Jump off the end/Into a clear lake/No one around”), and though the melancholy sound doesn’t change much throughout the track, it’s still nice to hear a pretty ballad (with the flugelhorn in it, to boot!) after all of the louder tracks on the disc. The appropriately ghostly refrain of “Don’t hurt me, don’t haunt me,” introduces the next track, Give Up The Ghost.  Again, the production is stripped back completely in this sparse, atmospheric song, with most of the emphasis falling on Yorke’s echo-y vocals.  I’m honestly not sure if this is actually a great song, or if it’s only great because it comes after so many not-so-great tracks, but I enjoy it either way.

The album comes to close with Separator, which is definitely my favourite song on the album. Musically, the song continues on with the vibe of the second half of the album- stripped back production, less synths and electric instruments, and not much else than a simplistic drum loop and a bit of an electric guitar riff.  The sound works well, and again, leaves more room for the lyrics (“Like I’m falling out of bed from a long and weary dream/Finally I’m free of all the weight I’ve been carryin/When I ask you again/When I ask you again/Wake me up, wake me up”).  I remember laughing over fans obsessing online over the repetition of the line, “if you think this over, then you’re wrong…” saying that the band was dropping a subtle hint that there would be a sequel to the album, with new songs, released in the fall.  Of course, that never happened, and just further proves that all Radiohead fans were in denial about how disappointing the album was and were clinging to any miniscule hope that there would be something…anything…more.

And so there you have it: all eight songs and 37 minutes which make up The King of Limbs.  Sometimes, I feel bad for bands like Radiohead– there’s so much hype and expectation for everything they release, and of course there’s going to be a time when they fail to live up to the world’s expectations.  This is one of those times, but I don’t feel too bad for the band, simply because the last half of the albumis good and proves that they still have it in them to release good songs.  The rest of the album just seems lazy and uninspired, which there’s no excuse for, really.  I’ll always be a Radiohead fan, but I know they can do far better, and hope to hear something better in the future.

Rating: 3_stars.svg

Track List
1. Bloom
2. Morning Mr. Magpie
3. Little By Little
4. Feral
5. Lotus Flower
6. Codex
7. Give Up The Ghost
8. Separator


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