All Limbs, No Body
Eighteen years ago, Radiohead launched their career by banding together around a musical mistake, Jonny Greenwood’s frustrated guitar punches heralding the chorus of “Creep.” They’ve come full circle on The King of Limbs, or maybe it’s more like a Mobius strip. Long ago and far away, Pablo Honey was full of post-Nirvana theatrics often too contrived for their own good. Now Radiohead construct, coordinate, and especially computer-generate music meant to sound messy and organic. The question is, should they?
Since the turn of the century, Thom Yorke and company have aligned their complex rock with sounds and production promoted by electronic-music mad scientists from Autechre to Flying Lotus; actual collaborations like remixes and mashups have grown more common, too. And from the dramatic atmospheres on OK Computer all the way through dubstep’s fluttering and deflating low synths in The King of Limbs‘ big single “Lotus Flower,” Radiohead’s collective skill proves this was not a bad creative direction to take.
Yet where the spaces and shadows of OK Computer represent technology used to create beautiful and imposing rock architecture, now they seem to represent areas left unfinished, projects either unrewarding or unexciting. Nothing here seems particularly inspired or important: “Separator” comes off as a brittle Portishead knockoff, and “Codex” repeats imagery and moody piano from the far superior Amnesiac track “Pyramid Song.”
Worse, let’s say you’re the musically adventurous type hunting down some college radio station or streaming audio channel, and in the middle of a mix of broken beats and woozy neo-hip-hop loops you hear The King of Limbs‘ opener “Bloom,” a cracked march so orchestral and dense as to make Yorke’s lyrics inconsequential. Or maybe the DJ sneaks in “Feral,” where Yorke does his own work and reduces himself to plaintive nonsense syllables against Phil Selway’s clipped percussion.
Therein lies the biggest issue with The King of Limbs. Many times it sounds less like it was made by Radiohead the five-piece rock band, and more like a Thom Yorke-led trio or duo in the studio—sometimes, even just DJ Radiohead in the bedroom. Only the tribal “Little by Little” seems like it could have been made by Yorke, Selway, Jonny and Colin Greenwood, and Ed O’Brien using not much more than their basic musical strengths.
Granted, big art bands from The Beatles on down have added and removed instruments, production methods, and performers in the mix. That doesn’t mean it’s a comfortable process, nor does it guarantee success. The King of Limbs has some wonderful sounds on it, and nobody’s asking for it to sound like a Radiohead album, whatever that is. But when Radiohead as a unit sound less like growing artists and more like a shrinking resource—down to the size of a James Blake, Daedelus, or The xx—is it a development we’re supposed to welcome?