RADIOHEAD | The King of Limbs

By David D. Robbins Jr. | Their Bated Breath
Radiohead “The King of Limbs”
Illustration by David D. Robbins Jr.
(Composite uses photos, public domain images)

I read the early review of Radiohead’s “The King of Limbs” in the UK Guardian, which said the album wasn’t breaking any new ground. Well, that’s not a great barometer for how good a record is. Let’s face it, if you want a record to be memorable, often you need melodies, familiarities, and touchstones amid all the ‘newness’. And that means sounding, er, like yourself. It’s what makes great albums part of the collective consciousness. I remember once reading a critic who wrote that Led Zeppelin sounded too much like Led Zeppelin on a record. How silly is that? This record is a progression from “In Rainbows” and even “Hail to the Thief” (the first is not one of my favorites, outside of the stellar “15 Steps”, and the latter felt good but incomplete). “The King of Limbs”, at a quick 38 minutes total, isn’t old territory at all. In fact, it begins with a rather eccentric track, “Bloom”, which seems to do just that — carrying on the flowery theme that also finds a place on “Lotus Flowers” and in the lyricism of “Separator”. The first new track is glitchy and modern, with a touch of soul. Thom Yorke has definitely been listening to his Flying Lotus “Cosmogramma”. The track blossoms into a heavy marching percussion, looped piano, scratchy interruptions, warm-liquid horns — all with an orchestral feel.

But it’s with “Morning Mr. Magpie” that I really start getting excited about this record. Frenetically powerful bass-guitar thumps mix with atmospheric lead guitar, into a chorus melody that reminds me of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s” track, “Within You Without You”. (Seriously, listen to both, you’ll hear it.) It’s gorgeous. It’s a menacing song, with Yorke singing in cryptic Radiohead fashion, “You got some nerve coming here / You got some nerve coming here / You stolen it all / Give it back / You stole it all / Give it back / Good Morning Mr. Magpie … / You know you should, but you don’t … / Good morning Mr. Magpie / How are you today? / They have stolen all the magic / Took my melody.” It sounds like a missive aimed at those lacking the ability to understand real self-expression and ultimately art. “Little By Little”, is a haunting song built on creepy guitar lines that snake into beautifully sinister notes, flamenco, and interplay between the Greenwoods and Ed O’Brien. At about the three-minute mark the song begins to unravel into guitar forays mimicked by Yorke’s high-pitched, fairytale-gone-wrong chanting.

Heading into “Feral”, the method-to-the-madness behind this album gets clearer. It’s a wild and intense instrumental track, outside of Yorke’s occasional cooing. This is Radiohead at their most cohesive. All the band members show off their instrumental prowess, melding the dub of “Feral” into the deep-bass beginning of “Lotus Flower” — which appears to be the lead single judging by the release of a new video.

The mood of this record is a sign of the times — an acceleration into the void, an electronic labyrinth wrapped around a looming uncertainty,  and a need to fight against an imminent sense of doom and decline. You can hear it in the languid sliding piano, wailing groan of brass, and shakily neurotic strings in “Codex”, a piano ballad that lyrically eases into personal annihilation: “Slide your hand / Jump off the end / The water’s clear / And innocent / The water’s clear / And innocent.”

The end of the record, appropriately, feels like coming down off a high, gliding itself into the drift of “Codex” and the easy sway of “Give Up the Ghost”. The latter begins with Yorke’s looped vocal as background, “Don’t hurt/haunt me.” This song is a spiritual spreading of wings, about finding refuge somewhere, anywhere: “Gather up the lost and sold / In your arms, in your arms / Gather up the pitiful / In your arms, In your arms / What seems impossible / In your arms, in your arms.” It’s a song about empathy, love, sorrow, and death.

The record ends with the downtempo “Separator”, a drowsily drifting bit of exquisiteness. It’s Radiohead at its prettiest and most expressive. It’s the band in dreamscape, sliding into lush melodies and luxurious guitar splays — Yorke singing of reveries in fairytale sensory-stream: “It’s like I’m falling out of bed / From a long, weary dream / The sweetest flowers and fruits hang from trees / Falling off the giant bird that’s been carrying me / It’s like I’m falling out of bed.” It’s one of the more odd, and dazzling endings to a Radiohead record since “Life in a Glasshouse” off “Amnesiac”. This is a majestic record that Radiohead fans will fall in love with. It’s a codex binding together so many disparate elements. “The King of Limbs” brings together old and new styles, the highs of love and the lows of despair, lullabies and nightmares — ultimately showing a band hitting on all cylinders.

Note: All lyrics are unofficial. Bear with me a little, this is a review written while listening to the album, and re-listening in some cases, to songs as I go. Enjoy it for what it is. Thanks.

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