Radiohead’s The King Of Limbs: A Minor Masterwork

Band releases their darkly atmospheric eighth studio album Friday, a day ahead of schedule.

Radiohead’s last album, 2007′s In Rainbows , was a very major affair. From its pay-as-you-wish, set-the-industry-ablaze rush release to its scattershot sonics — all clicky drum tracks and doomy guitars and keening electronics — it was exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from arguably the best (and certainly the most mercurial) band on the planet. It was an event.

Their new album, The King of Limbs , which was announced Monday and then showed up unexpectedly in fans’ in-boxes on Friday (February 18) morning — one day ahead of schedule — is, by comparison, a decidedly minor effort. It was not preceded by a single “Death of the Music Industry” think piece , instead, it just sort of came out early, for reasons that, at the time of this writing, have yet to really be explained. (A press release states simply, “With everything ready on their Web site, the band decided to bring forward the release, rather than wait.” Oh, OK then.) Even a planned stunt set to take place in Tokyo’s Hachiko Square was scrapped at the last minute, due to security fears.

And perhaps all of that is fitting, especially when you consider that sonically, Limbs is assuredly the most minor thing Radiohead have ever done, a dour, insular, downright atmospheric thing that, from the skittering, jazzy fractals of opening track “Bloom” to the slowly decaying guitars and pitter-pat drums of closer “Separator,” works very hard at creating a mood … one that is part amniotic, part pastoral, yet all washed over in a gauzy, dreamlike haze. It is not an immediately gratifying listen, and it most certainly does not rock. Rather, it reveals itself to you gradually, in layers, at it’s own deliberate pace.

Like the early parts of Kid A, Limbs makes a conscious decision to bury the guitar work of Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien deep in the mix, slowly building steam instead on a pastiche of wavy electronic pulses, the clicking drum work of Phil Selway and the ominous bass playing of Colin Greenwood (especially on “Morning Mr. Magpie” and the roiling, dank “Little by Little”). The thing is, those guitars never really show up — to the best of my knowledge, there’s not a single solo on the whole album — or when they do, they’re of the ringing acoustic type (the genuinely pretty “Give Up the Ghost”). Instead, large portions of the record are dedicated to crystalline, echoing tracks like “Feral” and “Lotus Flower,” which, when coupled with Thom Yorke’s still-lithe (though heavily coated) voice, create the effect of standing alone in a forest clearing at midnight as the fog begins to roll in.

And in a lot of ways, I suspect that’s probably exactly what Radiohead were going for on The King of Limbs, which takes its name (in part at least) from the oldest tree in Europe, a knotty, slightly terrifying thing deep in England’s Savernake Forest. From the snippets of recorded birdsong that show up repeatedly (and provide the backbone to “Give Up the Ghost”) to the mossy, wet atmospherics that drip off nearly every song, it is about as close as Radiohead will ever come to releasing genuine field recordings. There is a damp musk to the album, a foreboding sense of inevitability. Like being lost in a dense forest, the light slowly fading, the path becoming increasingly choked. It is a claustrophobia that previously only existed in nature, a kind that is becoming rarer and rarer as we humans carry our ugly sprawl to each corner of the globe. And that idea is just as terrifying as being stranded in a forest — if not more so. Which is why, though it’s a minor album, The King of Limbs is still a major accomplishment — evoking emotions that powerful and primal isn’t exactly easy to do.