Saturday, February 19, 2011

Radiohead's The King of Limbs: A Raging Fire Peters Out

In their 19th year together, Radiohead have outlasted most of their contemporaries that emerged in the 1990s. The Noughties was the decade of Radiohead. Their first 3 releases starting in the year 2000 were some of the best music ever written and recorded. Indeed, I ranked their 2003 release Hail To The Thief  as album of the decade. Though In Rainbows was a solid record, it fell short of their previous album. 4 years had elapsed between Hail To The Thief and In Rainbows. In turn The King of Limbs follows 4 years after In Rainbows.

To be sure, at this stage of their existence as an ensemble, Radiohead remain advanced than other bands which were still together after nearly 20 years. The Rolling Stones, U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are the most obvious examples of bands staying too long on the shelf after the expiration date. Nine Inch Nails is another band which should have retired after producing its best release in 15 years. Depeche Mode is also a group whose staleness is evident. Radiohead isn't stale but their age is showing. At 42 front man Thom Yorke is middle-aged. Unfortunately, The King of Limbs shows it.
The King of Limbs starts out raging. The opening track "Bloom" shows advanced musicianship. As with most of their albums, the opening track sets the tone for the album. The epitome of psychedelic sound, "Bloom" puts to rest the notion that psychedelia must be filed under "Nostalgia". Phil Selway continues to show he is the best technical drummer in pop music today. Colin Greenwood has the best moments in his career as a bassist on "Bloom" In fact, the rhythm section comes to the fore on The King of Limbs more than any other Radiohead record.
The King of Limbs is Radiohead's first post Bush and Blair era record and it shows. The album is short on social and political commentary However, Yorke still has piercing political commentary. "Morning Mr Magpie" is Yorke's rebuke against Tony Blair's recent book publishing and speaking tour. The audacious unrepentance of Blair for his war crimes and crimes against humanity raises Yorke's ire. The song contains the best lyrics on the album: "You've got some nerve coming here/You stole it all/Give it back." "Morning Mr Magpie" is the second strongest track of the album.

"Little by Little" is the first Radiohead track that sounds most like Talking Heads. Radiohead took its name from a song off the 1986 Talking Heads album True Stories. Sounding like a combination of late Talking Heads and solo David Bryne, "Little by Little" contains elements of Latin American and other World Music sounds uncharacteristic for Radiohead. Also for the first time, Yorke emulates the sensibility of David Byrne. One of the strange things about Radiohead is that they have never sounded close or similar to either Talking Heads or David Bryne.

"Feral" is by far the best track on the album. Though I don't know their entire repertoire, "Feral" is Radiohead's best written and executed song in years, if not ever. A snappy and quirky track combining trance and other forms of electronic ambient music. Colin Greenwood's fingers tickle the bass strings backed up with a driving electronic bass line. Oxford meets Detroit on "Feral". One could conclude that it's a Radiohead song re-mixed by Jeff Mills or Juan Atkins.

Unfortunately, the second half of The King of Limbs goes downhill fast. Listening to the first 4 tracks, I was certain that Radiohead had outdone themselves yet again. I really believed that it was going to be their best album. Furthermore, I thought it was a shoe-in for the album of the year and that they might have two consecutive albums of the decade. "Lotus Flower" is vintage Radiohead. By itself it's a strong track but unlike the previous four, it lacks originality. "Lotus Flower" is nothing other than a conventional Radiohead song.

What had surprised me about the album at first was how upbeat it was. None of the songs had the depressing and heavy tracks which typify Radiohead. I had spoken too soon. "Codex" is exactly that. It is also another conventional Yorke piano score. "Codex" becomes a very unfortunate track as it exposes the limitations of Yorke as a composer. "Pyramid Song", "We Suck Young Blood" and "Videotape" are his best original piano compositions. However, the influence of Pink Floyd's Richard Wright never fails to be part of the basic structure of his piano compositions. This is most evident on "Sail To The Moon". Yorke always falls into the same pattern of chords, riffs and arrangements in nearly all of his piano playing. It's a pity because Yorke is obviously a talented pianist. For some reason, he appears to always have 1970s era Pink Floyd on his mind. If he is limited with original piano composition, perhaps he might do better to emulate Talking Heads' Jerry Harrison.

"Give Up The Ghost" is almost painful to listen to. Longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich saves the day. Once again, good production almost always makes up for lacklustre songwriting. Godrich takes a very limited song and makes it something extraordinary. Indeed, the production techniques retain the listener's attention. The subtlety of the textural layers and the clever utilization of individual instrument track panning pulls "Give Up The Ghost" back from the brink of disaster.

The final track, "Seperator" starts off with a catchy beat with tight drumming by Selway. However, it gets repetitive. Selway plays awkward beat patterns throughout the album throwing the listener off balance. It works only because he keeps the listener glued wondering which direction the song will take. This time, it sounds as if Selway played 8 measures of beats, recorded them and then inserted in the track as an endless loop. Keenly aware of this, the rest of the band throws everything including the kitchen sink instrumentally. Alas, to no avail.

These criticisms are harsh but the songs are still light years ahead of anything else out there today. Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga are pure rubbish. Without doubt, The King of Limbs is and will probably remain the best release in rock and pop music for 2011. However, knowing the depth and talent of Radiohead's repertoire, the album disappoints. What makes it saddest is that the first half of the album roars. The King of Limbs begins as a raging inferno but peters out rather quickly. It starts on a bang and ends with a whimper. Also this is a review after one listen. One can never underestimate Radiohead. They are the masters of subtlety. Perhaps after the tenth listen, I will come to realise the depth of the album's genius.

Notwithstanding this, it's an album worth adding to your collection. Radiohead fans will enjoy it. New listeners repulsed by the mainstream music selection will also appreciate The King of Limbs.  Radiohead will probably be hitting the summer concert circuit to support the album. Make sure not miss Radiohead this year. This may very well be their last album.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

you definatley dropped the ball on your criticism of codex, it is one of the most beautiful things evr to exist. not just my opinion either it is widely regarded as the best thing on the album.

Saturday, April 02, 2011  

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