Monday, March 7, 2011

Radiohead, Limbs, and Mind

One of my deluded daydreams revolves around me, in the near future, being commissioned to write articles, essays, or stories for actual payment. I suppose that, to make such a fantasy a reality, I need to be more assertive and resourceful in my queries and research, as well as continuing to better myself as a writer. However, this latest post is, in a roundabout way, being done as a request. My best friend Edward is arguably the biggest Radiohead fan that I know, and with the recent digital release of their eighth album The King Of Limbs, he found himself torn, at least initially, between varying opinions. He enjoyed the album on his first listens, grew to appreciate the song distinctions with even more time, and likened said feelings to his initial response to their previous album, In Rainbows. After the novelty of Radiohead releasing In Rainbows as a "pay what you want" deal wore off, fans and critics heaped immediate praise, but even then, it was an album that took a little getting used to, and while the payment option highlighted how most record companies simply charged too much for most albums, I couldn't help but think that most people praised the album merely because of the release method. The King Of Limbs was released via the band's website with virtually no announcement, and Edward asked me to review the album as a way to see a second opinion. He's long expressed admiration for my opinion-based writings and reviews, and while my self-deprecating side resists praise, I respect his views on everything else, and I looked at writing about The King Of Limbs as a challenge.

The album is less than forty minutes long, making it Radiohead's shortest album to date. Therefore, I was curious to see how much Thom Yorke and company could work an actual album into such a condensed space, especially given that their lyrics and musical textures almost demand longer running times. The opening track, "Bloom," is not bad by any stretch, but doesn't immediately hook the listener, either. The words "electronic" and "experimental" are too easy and too vague to work as labels, especially for such a talented group, but they can often be used as quick standbys. These designations immediately popped into my head upon hearing "Bloom," but with repeated plays, the song proves to be neither. The lyrics are bare, and the beats are repetitive, with the only decipherable instrumentation coming from Phil Selway's scattered drumbeats. The opening tracks of 2003's Hail To the Thief contained the same thematic foundation, but quickly meshed with some incredible lyrics, thereby making the repetition work as a balance to the words. Even "15 Step," the opening to In Rainbows, worked better as a Radiohead imagining of funk.

However, by the second track, there's a definite sense of something building. "Morning Mr. Magpie" ups the tempo, maintains the repetition, but is immediately catching. The lyrics aren't anymore advanced than the beginning, but are intangibly more effective.

You've got some nerve coming here....
You stole it all, give it back
You stole it all, give it back

By the time "Lotus Flower" rolls around, my aforementioned remarks can happily be tossed aside. It's arguably the best track of the lot, and feels more like a "Radiohead song." There's a much stronger melody and cohesive structure, yet doesn't feel restricted at all; it's a combination of great songwriting, with discernible contributions from Colin and Jonny Greenwood, and Yorke's voice seamlessly glides between low and high ranges. The band puts in a little bit of everything, and the mix of sounds that open the album are now used as nearly flawless background sounds. Returning to Edward's thoughts, he initially wondered if one of the lyrics in "Separator," the album's final song--"if you think this is over, you're wrong..."--was a possible hint to more to come, even a newer release with more cohesion. For the time being, this album stands on its own. But does it? A lot of comparisons are being made to their previous effort, Kid A, an album that was either loved or hated upon release. I've listened to Kid A the fewest times of any Radiohead release, yet another non-musical idea follows the comparison between that album and The King Of Limbs: Kid A was the follow-up to OK Computer, Radiohead's best album; The King Of Limbs is the follow-up to In Rainbows, which was well-received as well as revolutionary for its optional payment plan.

This may end up being a ridiculous stretch, but I couldn't help but wonder if essayist Curtis White's thoughts on Kid A would be applicable to The King Of Limbs, since both are musically similar and coming on the heels of drastic expectations. In his excellent 2003 book The Middle Mind (which I've cited in a much different fashion before), White took exception to novelist Nick Hornby's critiques of Kid A, specifically Hornby's claims that all art needs a message, and that, as a band, Radiohead is a commodity. In the eight years that have passed between the publication of White's book and Radiohead's penchant for releasing albums on their own, the questions that were originally posed now have possible answers.

"And Radiohead asks, What does it mean to be artists opposed to technical rationality when we are obliged not only to create our art through computers, in highly technical and utterly engineered recording studios, but also in cooperation with international mega-corporations (White 58)?"

Obviously, the technological effects are still present in The King Of Limbs, but the beauty is that the band has now moved beyond being reliant on a label to promote and release their music. They can do it on their own (even if the albums are eventually released in CD format). As far as a message goes, I couldn't immediate place one in the new album, but perhaps its best to let the songs stand alone, even if a few of them aren't as strong as the band is capable of producing. In various interviews, the band members have tried to distance themselves from explicit themes or messages in their work, and The King Of Limbs doesn't offer any answers, even if fans and critics will attempt to find the questions. It isn't their best album, but for such a short work, it still demands attention, even if it's not as immediate as their previous works. Radiohead is not a band that deals in novelties or gimmicks, but a small batch of songs that are this thought-provoking, even if done based on their musical history, is something to be applauded.

I was worried that citing Curtis White would be veering into Pitchfork territory (that is, wildly speculative and unnecessary comparisons that tend to get away from the actual album). I never read other music reviews before writing my own, but for some odd reason, I happened to glance at Pitchfork's take on The King Of Limbs, and found this curious passage:

"A trawl through message boards and social networks leaves the impression that many disappointed fans are still struggling to make sense of the gap between the greatness of the thing they got and the genius of the thing they thought they might get. It's in that gap, when assessing the album overall, that it's easy to get tangled up. This is well-worn terrain for Radiohead, and while it continues to yield rewarding results, the band's signature game-changing ambition is missed."

Could this be the point? Could this be what the band was actually aiming for?

Work Cited:
White, Curtis. The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think For Themselves. Copyright 2003 by Curtis White.

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