At this time two weeks ago, nobody really even knew a new Radiohead album was going to exist, and yet here it is. The band stealthily dropped their new album The King of Limbs (named after a spooky tree in Wiltshire’s Savernake Forest) only five days after announcing it (and then released it a day early). The Internet snapped it up and responded to it just as efficiently, with many critics breathlessly posting their reactions only hours after hearing it for the first time. But Radiohead albums are dense affairs, and The King of Limbs is no exception. Slightly warmer and more melodic than their previous effort In Rainbows, the new album is another dark exploration of the line between man and machine (and the limits of the band’s electronic gizmos).
But what do the critics say about the album that is certainly going to be discussed for most of the rest of 2011? The reviews are enthusiastic, if a little bit guarded, as though nobody wants to over-commit one way or another. “There is much here that will please the ’Head faithful, who will delight in the claustrophobic likes of ’Morning Mr. Magpie’ and ’Little By Little,'” wrote The Guardian’s Tim Jonze, noting that the band’s release schedule has wreaked havoc with the way journalists have been processing The King of Limbs. “But you don’t have to be a diehard fan to see the worth in ’Codex,’ a beautiful melody brought into focus by the band’s decision to dispense of the usual trimmings in favour of piano and ghostlike effects.”
Few seem to be denying the album’s beauty, though some have questioned Radiohead’s focus. “This is not Radiohead’s dance album. It is an album of spaciousness and claustrophobia, possibility and inhibition; at its best it feels fidgety and unstable, at its worst downcast and a bit predictable,” wrote the Chicago Tribune’s venerable critic Greg Kot. “[The King of Limbs is] more like an invitation to what’s next with a handful of ear-opening tracks that hint at how Radiohead might evolve. Even the band seems uncertain of the destination, but it will get there with hips shimmying.”
More than one critic gravitated toward the album’s more dance-oriented tendencies, including the Los Angeles Times writer Ann Powers. “’Morning Mr. Magpie’ and ’Little by Little’ both bear the mark of Flea, whose bass contributions got Yorke dancing madly in the solo sets he performed in Los Angeles last fall, and a hint of Timbaland’s influence sneaks in on a few tracks,” she wrote. “The music’s enveloping resonance, the unalloyed pleasure it brings, colors Yorke’s lyrics; even when they go morbid, they seem less concerned with demons than with ghosts who might be tamed.”
Mike Diver of the BBC declared Radiohead “Britain’s most consistently brilliant band” and noted that album centerpiece track “Codex” is “a piece of rarefied beauty. Thom says something about dragonflies, something else about nobody getting hurt; the words blur and blend, though, as beneath them the simplest, most strikingly gorgeous piano motif bores its way into the heart.” Rolling Stone writer Will Hermes also noted that “Codex” was one of the album’s highlights. “A somber, gorgeous piano ballad with muffled beats and some beautiful string arrangements performed by the London Telefilmonic Orchestra,” he wrote. “A song about washing yourself clean in a world of dirty water.”
Still, the somber tone didn’t wash well for everybody. “The King of Limbs is a somber album, full of moments that are trying to out-low-key one another,” critic Maura Johnston wrote for Esquire. “It’s a fine record for a rainy day, although it’s hard not to wonder if it would be received as well as it has been had it come under the imprimatur of, say, a band releasing its second or third album.”
Steven Hyden of the A.V. Club seemed to sum up the zeitgeist’s opinion best. “While The King Of Limbs always sounds great, the actual songs prove elusive — perhaps too elusive at times,” he wrote. “The album’s relatively skimpy 37-minute running time might suggest to some that this is Radiohead’s slightest effort yet, but there’s more to The Kings of Limbs than revealed on first listen, and even well after that.”
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