(p.s. 2021: Well, that last bit turned out to be wishful thinking. But I still really like that Phil Selway album.)
Welcome to a good minor Radiohead album. King Of Limbs is smaller in size — eight songs in 37:29 — but it’s also smaller in ambition. Even in comparison to the last release, there’s no “Nude” or “Reckoner” or “15 Steps”. To be fair, I’d guess that’s the point: you don’t find that level of sonic grandeur or pugilism in The King Of Limbs because they weren’t trying to put it there.
If so, then good on Radiohead. I’d rather get an album that’s minor by design and size than one that backs into the adjective through overextended, underfulfilled aims (e.g., Hail To The Thief). Related, the restraint in the arrangements show how amazingly comfortable these guys appear to be (for a real band) in working toward an ultimate effect, even if that often involves someone sitting out.
More Simmer Than Boil
“Open your mouth wide,” Yorke instructs on the well-chosen opener, “Bloom”. Proceedings commence with some by-now trademark elements: a little keyboard riff that blurs and cycles around, alongside a typically semi-contorted drum loop. Where we’ve been trained to expect an explosion of guitar, there is none, but some processed trumpet gives the track some added distinction. Nice.
If there is a naturalistic theme running through the set (going by various titles and occasional lyrics), a hint of it runs through “Bloom”. Loops and echoes built to create an overall effect, reminiscent of how much of nature is diligent repetition and variation of a basic DNA instruction to make a flower, or tree, or coat of fur.
Colin Greenwood and Philip Selway stand out on “Morning Mr. Magpie”. I hear this drum part, and I either have heightened respect for Selway as a guy who could make this and also make his much different self-titled debut from last year … or I feel sorry for him as the guy who’ll have to someday try to replicate two tracks of high-hat by himself onstage. On a disc with very little conspicuous guitar, “Magpie” does get a lithe, prodding guitar figure, but the percussion and the various riffs from Colin Greenwood carry the day as the song progresses.
Where we’ve been trained to expect an explosion of guitar, there is none, but some processed trumpet gives the track some added distinction. Nice.
Speaking of Hail To The Thief, “Little By Little” does recall that slinky riff of “There There”. And aside from a buildup of click-clackish percussion as the end nears, its the third track in a row that opts for the simmer or low boil over anything close to a full-on assault.
Even at a svelte eight songs, The King Of Limbs does (like many of us) sag a bit in the middle. There’s just not much in “Feral” beyond a nice piece of atmosphere, while “Codex” is a piano-based piece that gets an assist from some horns but doesn’t set itself apart from (or above) its few cousins in the Radiohead songbook. In between those, “Lotus Flower” does approach more of a conventional sound than most of the album, and both the more structured melody and more consistently intelligible lyrics make it an obvious candidate for that video.
And Then …?
An unfutzed-with six-string acoustic gives what is for this disc a radically organic sense to “Give Up The Ghost”. That soon becomes a typically expertly layered yet still quiet Radiohead track, getting its message across more with sound than articulation. Real nature sounds begin the track, while manmade ones approximate bird tweets and flaps of wings at its end.
Maybe it’s just me, but they use that maneuver again in the closing “Separator”, which feels more like a beginning or a fresh start, rather than the end of the day for this set. Its mix is less dense, with guitars warbling grace notes to limn some set of branches where birds are in casual conversation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s anywhere close to Mary Poppins all in here. However, with Yorke’s “if you think this is over, then you’re wrong” and then “wake me up, wake me up,” repeated with a minimum of angst at the close, you can’t avoid the feeling that sights are already set on what’s next.
So to take that and run with it, is this perhaps the first in a pair? I could buy it as a part one, or even a sort of prelude to something within the next year, given its size and the aforementioned lack of world-conquering riffs and dynamics. Its charms, such as they are, are more subtle; even “Codex” has grown on me a bit with a couple more listens. But if this is the album for another two or three years, then it’s no masterpiece, but it’s decent, well crafted, and an effective change of pace.