Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Radiohead — The King of Limbs
As if the rest of the world doesn't even exist, Radiohead have released another surprise album, announced just a few days before the world was able to hear it for the first time. The fact that the band has reached a point where they are able to operate in this manner is awesome enough in and of itself, but the secondary fact that they continue to successfully and simultaneously straddle the fence of accessibility and envelope pushing in the actual music they make is the reason why they are who they are.
I went into the Ok Computer and Kid A hype kicking and screaming, but the fact remains that those records won me over on pure quality and by the time Amnesiac was released, I was clearly a fan. I've never been one to blindly co-sign anything the band has done just because they created it, but I guess I consider myself part of their worldwide cult that exists because they —generally speaking— make fantastic records.
The quality of In Rainbows was unfortunately overshadowed by its revolutionary 'pay what you want' download distribution. But when the proper ten song, fourty-two minute album is revisited now, you can hear the band's most perfect synthesis on record of their arty pretensions crashing head-on with pure melodic accessibility. It was easily their most streamlined effort since the Bends and yet it had all of the space rock and post-post-punk sounds that made the band so interesting in the first place. Songs like 'Bodysnatchers' and 'Weird Fishes/Arpeggi' were like mini-masterpieces that felt like, somewhere in the band's vaults, there were twenty or thirty minute versions floating around. And yet, here were these four or five minute paraphrased versions that not only accomplished the end goal brilliantly, they showcased a band that seemed to be at the apex of their songcraft. And that's a good analogy for the rest of that album as well.
The King of Limbs, however, feels like a vanity project in comparison. Like they already proved that their new creation and distribution work ethic was already a fruitful endeavour and this new album is just a victory lap of arty pretensions being taken to their logical and respective extremes.
If one song were a perfect pre-cursor to the sound they tackle on the King of Limbs, it would be 'Reckoner' from In Rainbows. Strange, polyrhytmic textures blending head-on with Krautrock repetition and a nearly bursting sense of melody.
It feels like the band is just having fun this time around.
Of course, 'fun' in the Radiohead sense does not equal happy.
This is tense, highly rhythmic, labyrinthine, paranoid music.
Not very many corridors of lightness to be found here.
Maybe it's because of where I'm at in my life right now, but it makes me feel like nothing will ever get better. Like I'm stuck. Almost like mental prison.
Jesus christ, just the tone of this music is unspeakably bleak.
For all of its complex rhythms, densely buried melodies and paranoia, it's actually very calm. Like restrained doom.
And maybe that's why I like it so much. The music on this album often feels like Andy Dufresne in the Shawshank Redemption angrily grunting, 'Get busy living or get busy dying.'
And while they are definitely wallowing away in some sort of bleakness, they're also having a laugh. Just listen to that middle eight on 'Lotus Flower' where Thom states, 'There's an empty space inside my heart where the wings take root, so now I'll set you free' in his soprano monotone only to come back a second time to turn into Marvin Gaye and repeat the same thing. The video for the song only seems to further enhance the feeling that the band is just fucking with all of us.
That is, if the song weren't totally brilliant.
(which it clearly is)
As far as specifics:
This is Thom's best vocal performance ever. Who would have guessed that the guy would've developed into such a wonderful soprano crooner? Truly, on songs like 'Lotus Flower' and 'Codex,' his voice sounds downright gorgeous.
Rhythms and polyrhythms EVERYWHERE. The whole initial shock of this thing mostly rests on just how complex the time signatures are.
Thirty eight minutes and mission accomplished. Fuckin' a.
I'm a little surprised that 'These Are My Twisted Words' didn't show up. Granted, the song is over a year old by this point, but it would've sounded awesome coming right after 'Feral.'
After spending a half an hour wallowing away in pure gloom, 'Separator' is quite possibly the prettiest thing they've ever done. Makes me think of the Durutti Column. Fantastic.
Overall, I am quite certainly in total awe. A week's worth of constant listens and I like it better than half of their catalogue. In fact, right now, I'd say the only things topping it are Kid A and Amnesiac.
It will probably go down as one of the band's most divisive moves, but I am a self-professed fan of 'mess' albums, so it makes perfect sense that I would love such a beautiful monstrosity.
PS— This is not the proper return of Redundant Chicanery. But that may happen a lot sooner than I anticipated. I make no promises.