Radiohead's Royal Return
We knew they were up to something, but it was still a surprise when Radiohead suddenly sprung new album 'The King of Limbs' last Friday. Here's how it happened, followed by NME's definitive review...
Surprised? Maybe a little but not quite shocked. That was most fans‘ reactions last Monday (Feb 14) when Radiohead announced that they would be releasing their eighth album. ‘The King Of Limbs‘. five days later.
Ever since they sprung 2007's ‘In Rainbows‘ on us as an unannounced pay-what-you-like download we'd know we'd get little notice for a follow-up. It was eventually delivered in a plot that would have had the 24 scriptwriters in a tizz.
Initially, the plan was tor a Saturday release as a paid-for download, with fans able to pre-order a ‘newspaper album featuring art prints, to be released in May with the normal CD and vinyl hitting the shops on March 23. Then Radiohead tweeted a message in Japanese referencing a time on Friday and a location: Tokyo’s Hachiko Square. Shibuva, 18:59 local time. .Thousands (including NME's man in Japan) duly descended on the site expecting anything from a full gig to a video broadcast. only to be greeted with a lot traffic and some neon adverts - as is usual there. The fans hadn't got the message in time - the plan was for the band to broadcast a video announcing the album on the squares huge screens, scrapped at the 11th hour due to security fears.
Then, suddenly, it arrived. Radiohead announced that the album would be released that day. 24 hours earlier than previously thought. The confusion was forgotten as we finally got to hear Radiohead’s eighth album - and see Thom Yorkes gloriously freaky dancing in the ‘Lotus Flower‘ video, of course. See below for NME's review and overleaf tor a track-by-track guide, fan and band reactions, and more. No translating, code-breaking or flights to Asia required.
RADIOHEAD - THE KING OF LIMBS (XL)
NME’s verdict on Yorke and the gang’s eighth
You’ll read a lot in these pages about the method of “The King of Limbs” release. But let’s face it: the moment it actually arrived should be the moment when all those digi-debates faded into background chatter… just as long as the album was any good. Thom Yorke could come goose-stepping down your driveway, barking, “Roll up! Roll up!” through a megaphone, before forcibly poking the CD through your letterbox with a lightsabre, and it’d still create a “social media buzz”. That’s because people just bloody love Radiohead, with a deathless devotion that time cannot wither, nor free jazz saxophone stale.
Actually, that’s not quite true. Some Radiohead fans found their passion waning a little in the wake of 2003’s “Hail to the Thief”, their second hard-to-really-love album in a row. But then “In Rainbows” came along in 2007 and reset everyone’s enthusiasm. Miraculously well produced, and sonically gorgeous in a velveteen, red wine kind of way, songs such as “Reckoner” reintroduced the gut-lever human element that had been missing post-”Kid A”.
Hence the high level of expectation attending “The King of Limbs”. As soon as the title was revealed – it’s a reference to an ancient tree in Savernake Forest, Wiltshire – Radiohead nerds began puzzling over hidden meanings. One indie website even went as far as tracking down the mighty oak itself (conclusion: it looks, er, really old and stuff). Some speculated that the album might finally unearth such lost “OK Computer”-era anthems as “Lift”, others that it would feature a more organic, pastoral sound than previous releases.
All wrong, as it turns out. “The King of Limbs” has the same relation to “In Rainbows” as “Amnesiac” did to “Kid A”: ie. Stylistically similar but not as good. It is Radiohead’s most ambient album to date, with thick layers of echo and reverb creating a watery, dreamlike feel that is further evoked by the various marine images- the oceans, lakes and fish – that recur throughout.
It’s also bracingly avant-garde in places, with rhythms seemingly designed to throw you off balance: on “Bloom” and “Little By Little” the effect is disorientating, like you can’t quite find your place in the groove. In fact, you’d hesitate to describe “The King of Limbs” as a rock album at all. There’s very little guitar. Beyond some Sigur Ros-style atmospherics on “Give up the Ghost”, Jonny Greenwood as a guitarist is the real ghost on this record.
Highlights? “Codex” would slot neatly onto any playlist of Radiohead’s most beautiful songs. It’s a close relation to “Pyramid Song” – same reference to jumping into water, same looking piano chords- but where that track sounded ominous and troubled, “Codex” is shimmering and full of light. “Lotus Flower” is a marvel, too. A frictionless slab of robo-funk, sung with a Prince-like falsetto croon, it’s a powerfully… sexy song by a band not exactly known for their hip-swivelling lasciviousness. It’s also the only track on the album that you could describe as having an actual chorus.
None of which would be a problem if “The King of Limbs” could be said to be about anything. Admittedly, there does seem to be a theme of technology in conflict with the natural world – we hear bird song juxtaposed with electronic static in at least two songs – but those ideas don’t bleed into the lyrics. In fact, there’s so much reverb covering everything that Yorke’s words are sometimes indecipherable. What’s that he’s singing in “Lotus Flower”? Something about a “monk of honesty”? He wants to feel “your fast-ballooning head”? It’s impossible to tell.
This matters, because the brilliance of Radiohead has never just been about their sound; it was always about the words too. In the early days (“Creep”), Yorke sang about personal anguish. Then, on “The Bends” and “Ok Computer”, he articulated the shared psychic pain of modernity. From “Kid A” onwards he turned his anger outwards towards politics (“You and Whose Army”). But now what is he singing about? Nothing – he’s floating around in bucolic fantasy land of flowers and magpies. What happened to the paranoia, the finger-pointing rage?
It’s actually kind of chillwave, this muzzy-headed sense of disconnectedness. Towards the end of the album, there’s a feeling of hearing sounds while slipping between sleep and wakefulness – birdsong, snatches of lyrics, instruments fading lazily in and out. It’s telling that the album ends with Yorke singing “wake me up” over and over again. This is, in the end, a sleepy-sounding record.
For that reason, “The King of Limbs” is more an “Amnesiac” than an “In Rainbows” or an “OK Computer”: a record to respect for its craft, rather than worship for its greatness. Listen to it enough times and you may convince yourself you love it. But let’s not kid ourselves that it’s up there with their best work. It just isn’t.
One of the many Radiohead rumours is that “The King of Limbs” is merely the first instalment of a larger body of work – and considering how long they worked on it for, it’s a possibility. Let’s hope so. Because by this band’s standards, these eight tracks feel like a thin return after over three years away. 7
ALBUM BY ALBUM
The other seven - and their original NME review scores
The creeping debut
Pablo Honey (1993)
Most bands have to find their feet, and this US-influenced, slightly whiney selection saw Radiohead doing just that. Although, of course, it does feature a little song called “Creep”…7
The rock stormer
The Bends (1995)
A surprise to many at the time, the band’s second album saw them remould guitar rock into their own ambitious shape. Highlights include the otherworldly “Planet Telex” and the blistering “Just”. 9
OK Computer (1997)
Shifting into noir-ish widescreen, this haunting dystopian epic, aka “the best album of all time”, saw the band flirt with prog, embrace the avant-garde, but retain big choruses and rock’n’roll thrills. 10
The left-field return
Kid A (2000)
It was a long time coming, but the band’s deconstructed fourth, now seen as a classic, confused many fans at the time. With guitars mainly absent, electronics, techno and ambient came to the fore. 7
The companion piece
Being off-cuts from the previous album, “Amnesiac” certainly sounds like a grab-bag – but, with tracks including “I Might Be Wrong”, “Pyramid Song” and “Dollars and Cents”, what a bag. 8
The conflicted epic
Hail to the Thief (2003)
The band’s attempt to synthesise their rock and experimental leanings led to mixed results. That said, the recordings contain some of their best work, in “There There” and “2+2=5”. 7
The melodic classic
In Rainbows (2007)
News might have focused on its unusual release, but Radiohead’s seventh was one of their finest albums, injecting a new tenderness and warmth into its stately, orchestral grooves. 8
9 STEP: HOW RADIOHEAD GOT FROM "RAINBOWS" TO "LIMBS"
June 2008: “In rainbows” tour
Radiohead play huge shows around the UK. A new song, “Super Collider” doesn’t end up on “The King of Limbs”
2009 onwards: Ed becomes talking head
Well, sort of. Ed O’Brien becomes a key figure in the fights against illegal downloading, helping form the Featured Artists Coalition.
May 2009: New sessions
The band work on new tracks – including “These Are My Twisted Words” – with Nigel Godrich. Yorke says they want to release music as EPs rather than albums.
July 2009: Thom lats it up
Yorke performs a range of songs at a solo Latitude set, including never-before-heard “The Present Tense”, “The King of Limbs” Give up the Ghost” is featured on the planned setlist but not performed.
August 2009: New songs
The band release two fruits from their recent sessions: “These Are My Twisted Words” and “Harry Patch (In Memory OF)”. The former is a droney rocker and the latter a heartfelt orchestral paean to the late World War I veteran. Neither appear on “The King of Limbs”.
August 2009: Reading (and Leeds) Material
Thom and co bring out the hits for their headline sets at the festivals, even dropping in “Creep” at the start of their southern leg set.
October 2009: Atoms for Peace
Teaming up with Godrich and Flea, Thom debuts a four-piece band to help him perform songs from his solo album “The Eraser”.
January 2010: Proper sessions begin
New recordings in LA with Godrich, believed to be those that spawned the new album, “The vibe is fantastic, “ O’Brien says.
August 2010: Phil Selway goes solo
The drummer puts out his debut “Familial”, telling NME that the band reinvented themselves with their new material.