Your first reaction to the latest Radiohead album will be based almost entirely on what you expected from it. This is true to some extent for every album (and every movie, television show, novel, meal, etc.), but it’s particularly the case for Radiohead. The band has built a reputation as the most daring and innovative band on the planet, and it has now gone over three years between albums twice in a row. In other words, these guys have a lot to live up to.
I suspect that Radiohead knows this, and that it at least partially motivated the quick release of The King of Limbs. Just over a week ago the album had no official name or release date; then last Monday the band announced not only that the album was complete, but that it would be released in five days. To top all that off, the band released the album on Friday, a day before they had initially planned.
The general effect of this was both to preempt any long, anticipatory buildup to the album, as well as to shift focus from The King of Limbs itself to the manner of its release (something Radiohead has done before).
Not that fans need or ought to be “distracted” from The King of Limbs: The album is quite good. But as the first album in over three years from the greatest band in the world, it comes off as a little disappointing. It’s the band’s shortest album to date: The mere eight tracks come in at just under 37 ½ minutes. Ever since Hail to the Thief, Radiohead has trafficked in its own unique blend of electronic music and rock, and The King of Limbs is no different. But whereas Kid A, Hail to the Thief, and In Rainbows all began with stunning, aggressive tracks that demanded your attention, the first track on the new record, “Bloom,” is a loose and simple affair that eases us into the record.
In fact, most of the album is made up of the atmospheric sounds that have become Radiohead’s playthings over the last decade. Other than “Little by Little,” which sounds like a duel between a folk song and a dance song, the album features almost no guitar at all. Each song quickly settles into a smooth, spectral melody and stays there as Thom Yorke sings his latest lines of cryptically arranged bromides (this album includes such repeated lyrics as “You know you should / but you don’t,” “There’s an empty space inside my heart” and “In your arms…”).
Basically, The King of Limbs sounds like the kind of album that Radiohead could have done in a long weekend, so it’s a little puzzling that it took them over three years to release it. The album has been variously described as “understated,” “simple,” and in some particularly harsh cases “boring.” As usual, the band is garnering comparisons to the farthest corners of the musical landscape, but all of that disguises the fact that what The King of Limbs sounds like most of all is another Radiohead album.
The second half of the short album includes two tracks—“Codex” and “Give Up the Ghost”—that are delicately arranged in the same way that previous album closers like “Morning Bell” and “Videotape” have been. But while those songs served as poignant ends to challenging albums, the second half of The King of Limbs plays like Radiohead practicing something they’ve already mastered.
I suspect that, like all Radiohead albums, it will take me a few months to truly appreciate The King of Limbs, and that any initial reservations will seem silly. After all, Radiohead’s latest album as good as any fan can reasonably expect it to be. It’s just that Radiohead has conditioned us to expect even more than that.