The King Of Limbs: A First ListenThe following are my first impressions after one listen through Radiohead’s eighth LP, The King Of Limbs.
Clearly inspired by drum ‘n bass and the experimental electronica stuff Thom Yorke is in to, there’s a tribal groove to this opener. It’s atmospheric, complete with jazzy horns and a sassy bass line. It comes across like an album opener perhaps should, setting the mood for later developments.
02. Morning Mr Magpie
This one picks up somewhere where In Rainbows’ “Weird Fishes” left off. Radiohead tracks like this are the type that make for outstanding live interpretations. It’s subdued and feels like it’s building to something but never quite gets there. Giving it the old “year 2000” try Thom self-impersonates with some Kid A “Ooo” vocals to perfection.
03. Little By Little
In a restrained vocal Yorke squeaks out, “Little by little, by hook or by crook, I’m such a tease,” befitting the mood of the album so far. Nothing is over the top as we’re teased with subtlety. There’s some great guitar work here but everything is revealing itself little by little. The bridge smells of “I Might Be Wrong” in the way that it strips down into oddly syncopated guitar lines and a vocal. An early winner for me, I see this one as a grower that has the capability of shedding multiple layers.
Here we have more electronica inspired beats and dubstep experimenting. It’s like “Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors” and “The Gloaming” stumbled into a trippy UK dance basement. There’s not much to this one, included likely for its mood-inducing effect.
05. Lotus Flower
The return of melody. Clearly the single off the album it’s the only one that’s genuinely catchy on first listen.
Like a Thom solo piece it’s melodramatic and mournful, but beautiful in the way only he is capable. With some wonderful horn work, this is one of the highlights for sure.
07. Give Up The Ghost
Another sad and lovely tune. It’s refreshing to hear the acoustic guitar and some melodic electric guitar lines. Some powerful layering gives this song its presence. Mood is the game and Radiohead’s playing to win. Their commitment to this aesthetic has been the story of the album so far.
Some nice bass work and a funky beat position this track as one of the more positive songs. In upbeat fashion complete with major chords it maintains the second half album feel that the clouds are beginning to part. As the album comes to a close I think I’m starting to see the forest for the trees and Thom Yorke is singing: “If you think this is over, then you’re wrong.”
On first listen The King Of Limbs could come across as a collection of mellow Radiohead b-sides with no stand out tracks, much like many initially received Amnesiac. And at eight songs there aren’t as many chances for Radiohead to “redeem” themselves from this impression, or from their own weirdness for that matter. But as the album develops it becomes more direct. Front-loaded with electronic ambient fantasies, they’ve set the groundwork for the “calm after the storm” of tracks like “Codex” and “Give Up The Ghost.” I suspect the album will continue to unfold upon further listens and will need some digesting.
Thematically, The King Of Limbs has a reactive feel, much like Kid A did to the successes of OK Computer. Yet with this 37-minute LP Radiohead appear to be reacting to an ever-sprawling social media environment by “bringing it in”, so to speak. Going minimal. Constantly on the hunt for reinvention, Radiohead is prone to erraticism and even Yorke-driven whimsy, but it seems like a natural progression for the band at this juncture. Electronica has always been where Thom Yorke’s heart is and he’s been dragging the band with him deep into its forest for years. It’s only now that they’ve awakened surrounded by the minimalism of its cover.
In this context, it’s quite a valuable work. Outside of this context it’s significance can be lost. And who knows, maybe Radiohead shocks the world and releases a companion piece that finds the band emerging from their backwoods sojourn and bursting from this slumbering tale (Thom Yorke’s crying “Wake me up” and lines like “If you think this is over, you’re wrong” sharpen suspicions to such surprises.) But the worst mistake we Radioheaders could make would be to misunderstand its voice. As a categorically subdued album it needs permission to grow its treefingers. I like it. Maybe I’ll love it. In either case, as an atmospheric and moody walk through a damp undergound it’s quite beautiful.