Radiohead – The King Of Limbs

It’s been a long week, so no blogging. I’ve driven 700 miles up and down the country, to Loughborough, to Cornwall, for work, spent three evenings apart from my wife in a row (the most since long before we were married), and explained to dozens of people how to use the internet without actually having time to use it myself much at all.

So now, Radiohead, The King Of Limbs, named after an ancient oak tree. In 1996 I had my brain squeegeed clean by Orbital’s In Sides album, my first encounter with full-on techno. One day I’ll write about that experience here in depth, but for now I’ll just say that it altered by relationship with “rock” music forever.

In 1997 I had my brain squeegeed clean once again, this time by Spiritualized’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, which further cemented that change in my relationship with “rock”. I heard it way before I heard OK Computer, and as a result, when I did hear OK Computer, despite the ravings of my friends and the music press, I was pretty much nonplussed. At the end of the year I was surprised that people were talking about the Radiohead album more than the Spiritualized one (albeit only just), as it was the latter that seemed to me to be both more tuneful, more human, more emotional, more experimental, more radical, and more of an artistic achievement.

I’ve remained nonplussed by Radiohead ever since. I like, perhaps even love, the sporadic song – Paranoid Android, Reckoner, The National Anthem, 15 Steps, Where I End And You Begin, Airbag – but I’ve never been able to fully embrace an album and I’ve never understood the hyperbole, the greatest, most important band in the world claims. Kid A was only radical if you were a Pearl Jam fan to my ears, but I guess that most people being radicalised by it were more likely into Pearl Jam than Squarepusher. Crucially, it didn’t, to my ears, ally that experimentalism to songwriting or to… something, some indefinable thing that I feel I know when I hear it but cannot extract or isolate, something that I feel lacks in a lot of Radiohead. In 2000 I got all the experimentation and radicalism promised in Kid A from XTRMNTR, perhaps, and Kid A seemed mathematical, cold, unexciting, and wan by comparison.

But I think a lot of my antipathy towards Radiohead is kicking too hard against the tide. What they do, have done, for a mainstream “rock” band, is pretty incredible. They have taken avant-garde influences and, if not popularised the source, fully integrated them into their music and made them accessible via their own music to millions of people. They’ve made “weird art”, to steal a phrase from Noel Gallagher, into a mainstream rock concern, and they’ve done it by and large on their own terms. I just wish they moved me more.

There was much discussion at Devon Record Club on Thursday night about how they’ve brought the communal listening experience back for a great deal of people through the release tactics for In Rainbows and The King Of Limbs. This is something to be admired too; I’m not sure if it’s an ironic juxtaposition that the music inciting these communal experiences is so isolationist, so cold. Last night I picked my wife up from a gathering of friends and colleagues, wine, olives, chit chat around a dining table like young professionals do, and they were playing the best of Blur. I don’t imagine people choosing a Radiohead album or playlist for an equivalent gathering.

So, The King Of Limbs. At this stage in their career, 20 years from debuting (if not quite debut album), Radiohead have been arch, frosty experimental isolationists rather than a rock band (if we take Kid A as a turning point) for more than half of the length of their career and for the considerable bulk of their recorded output. That The King Of Limbs features skittering rhythms, echoing, strangulated vocals compressing and corrupting a formerly strong melodic influence, thrumming, oppressive bass, mournful, uncomfortable brass, interwoven layers of electronic noise, and pointillist, beautiful, but shy patinas of guitar, should be of no surprise to anyone. It sounds entirely of a lineage with Hail To The Thief (but blessedly more concise) and In Rainbows (but cursedly less approachable). There is a song (Feral) that could be construed as post-James-Blake (how accelerant is our culture now that we are “post” an album released less than two weeks ago). There is less of the organic swing that made much of In Rainbows pleasurable, more cutting, more glitching, but not so much as on Amnesiac. There is nothing quite so absent as the most absent moments of Kid A but also nothing quite so strident as the most strident moments of Kid A. If you heard These Are My Twisted Words then you will know the aesthetic that runs through The King Of Limbs; rhythmic, kraut-y, subdued… the sound of Radiohead in the 21st century. I’d suggest, if you find The King Of Limbs too short at 38 minutes, that you append this stand-alone song somehow.

Tellingly, on the penultimate song (Give Up The Ghost) Yorke reinforces his main vocal with a tired sounding backing vocal requesting, “don’t mourn for me”; immediately afterwards, in the beatific, laconic Separator, he croons, “if you think this is over then you’re wrong”.

I have listened to The King Of Limbs once. I enjoyed it.

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