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Complacence Hampers 'King of Limbs'

Radiohead -- 'The King of Limbs' -- Self-Released -- 3.5 STARS

By Ryan J. Meehan, Crimson Staff Writer

Announced and released in rapid succession last week, Radiohead’s eighth studio album “The King of Limbs” consolidates the phase-change inaugurated in the lush, melodic pop of its 2007 predecessor “In Rainbows.” Following through on that album’s organic production style, Radiohead has crafted its most sonically rich effort to date by building tracks from within dense, rhythmic worlds whose warmth rejects any confusion with the spare, lunar soundscapes of “Kid A.” Gone, too, is the self-conscious eccentricity—in lyrics and arrangement—of the band’s middle period, whose weight so troubled the overlong “Hail to the Thief.”

Amidst forward motion so thorough, however, Radiohead has mistaken leanness for fitness. Beyond mere thematic vestiges, “The King of Limbs” sheds something more local and altogether more crucial to Radiohead’s generation-spanning success as a premiere creative force in mainstream music: pop sensibility. The labored quality of the album’s songwriting relinquishes any aural leap forward to more of a source of reverent curiosity than real engagement, and at a brisk 37 minutes—their shortest long-player to date—excessive drag leaves the record feeling consequently slight.

The problem becomes apparent on the album’s two most overt attempts at pop songcraft within the band’s new, more rhythmic songwriting structure. The deftness of arrangement on “Little By Little”—led by Colin Greenwood’s bass and restrained sitar flourishes, presumably by brother Jonny—doesn’t prevent the song from stalling out on Thom Yorke’s repetitious, fairly procedural vocals. There’s also the problem of lyrics—“I am such a tease and you are such a flirt,” etc.—and Yorke’s stunted insight when it comes to writing love songs, a holdover from “All I Need” and “House of Cards” on “In Rainbows.”

On “Lotus Flower,” the album’s first single and the track on “The King of Limbs” that most encapsulates the album’s aspirations, most of the lyrics are rendered superfluous by Yorke’s in-form falsetto. Once again, bassist Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway are in the foreground, constructing an intricate and infectious beat, while the rest of the band lays down guitar textures and handclaps. But as happens too often on “The King of Limbs,” the band becomes complacent: Yorke repeats chorus and verse, and the beat marches on in the absence of any dynamic tension, leaving the song feeling like something of an exercise.

It’s this static quality that hampers the promising opener “Bloom,” which begins with a shimmering array of percussive and electronic samples, fit to build towards the kind of crescendo with which “In Rainbows” positively bristled. Instead, Yorke’s voice enters at a low register, and the song never lifts off. Plodding repetition wouldn’t be sufficient to torpedo the beautiful piano dirge “Codex,” if Yorke’s vocals—put to good use here driving the melody—didn’t leave the song sounding altogether perversely like a Coldplay ballad.

These criticisms are, of course, all relative. A weak album by Radiohead—which “The King of Limbs” is, the weakest in quite a while—compares favorably to the strongest efforts by most bands in this or any other decade. What’s troubling, however, is the prospect that this is not a misstep but simply a next step; that Radiohead, taking longer to write less, is low on ideas. But something brilliant stirs in the album’s final act. “Give Up The Ghost,” a forlorn acoustic fragment blended masterfully with layered samples of Yorke singing his own backup, lends the album a fragile loveliness that’s been rare since Radiohead’s first releases. The song’s bare aesthetic serves as a reminder that despite Radiohead’s renewed emphasis on collaborative composition—an emphasis perhaps responsible for what might be construed as underachievement on “The King of Limbs”—the burden of songwriting is left to bear on Yorke.

He earns that faith on “Separator,” the solitary classic on this latest endeavor. Here, Selway’s intricate drumwork serves as an anchor for Yorke’s vocals in the fullness of their range as well as, happily, the full brightness of Jonny Greenwood’s guitar later on. The extra jolt that the lead guitarist can provide is one of the band’s finest weapons, and it’s woefully underused on the album until now. The simplicity, the sheer joy of the track is out of place on the record—or any other Radiohead record, really—but the ease of this seeming harmony is undeniable. A soulfulness that has eluded the Oxfordshire quintet for four decades is strangely, for a moment, in view. “If you think this is over then you’re wrong,” Yorke almost teases. For a band whose relationship with celebrity has been often ambivalent, it’s a rare gesture of contentment with their place and with their art. More than one generation considers a new Radiohead album a cause for celebration—a phenomenon that’s become increasingly scarce in an industry where stardom has become more fleeting. Distribution strategies aside, “The King of Limbs” was just that: a celebration, and an event. If its music hasn’t measured up, then the fans will wait for the next one. And if it takes 10 years, they’ll still be waiting.

—Staff writer Ryan J. Meehan can be reached at rmeehan@fas.harvard.edu.

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