Two important questions: what the fuck is a “newspaper album” and did anyone who spent $50 on one actually get 50 dollars worth?
People like to berate Pitchfork for their arbitrary decimal system, but those people don’t realize that Pitchfork has a tertiary system, which is as follows: 8.0 = 10.0 = this is really good; 7.0 = 8.0 = unfortunately this isn’t very good, but we really like this artist and don’t want to be mean to them; 0.0 = 6.0 = varying shades of bad. So yeah, a 7.9 is pretty on-point for The King of Limbs.
Firstly, kudos to Radiohead. I mean, seriously, kudos, you guys deserve it. In the digital age of the 21st century where albums are leaked days to weeks in advance, Radiohead manages to create a universal listening experience by keeping everything under wraps as much as possible. Then, on Valentines Day of 2011, Radiohead announced that it would be available on five days later – the first we heard about it. Perhaps the best Valentine’s Day gift I’ve ever received (How sad is that? Well, at the very least, it’s better than what the Flaming Lips gave us the previous year), and then on the 18th, Radiohead surprised everyone by making the album immediately available. Sure, it’s not as exciting as the way they released In Rainbows, but that’s beside the point. I remember when we first received news that it was available – my co-worker and I sat beside each other and thought about how we wanted to be home and listening to the album right then and there (damn you, 9-to-5 jobs, and damn you, jobs who block certain websites), and eagerly thought about how good it was.
As it turns out … not very. I mean, it’s fair, but for an artist who had been consistently impressing me since 1995’s The Bends, “fair” isn’t an adjective to jump about. I count two good songs (“Bloom,” “Separator”). After that, there’s one song that’s a decent impression of what the UK garage people are doing (“Feral”), but once you’ve heard what the UK garage people are doing, there’s no need for it to exist; two songs that feature Thom Yorke in ultra-falsetto mode that’s grating instead of endearing (“Little by Little,” “Lotus Flower”) – though I did like “Lotus Flower” the first time I heard it since Thom Yorke sings an okayish melody; one that’s a decent Can imitation (“Morning Mr. Magpie”); and two by the number ballads that forego any sort of melody or emotion that ballads require so that the band had an excuse to incorporate the London Telefimonic Orchestra or Jonny Greenwood could explore every inch of the acoustic guitar (“Codex” and “Give Up the Ghost,” respectively). Oh, that’s it. No shit? This is 8 songs long? Yup.
As with every other Radiohead album, you can’t really talk about The King of Limbs without having to talk about what it signifies in their discography. Radiohead believers would have you believe that The King of Limbs sounds nothing like their discography, but really, this thing sounds like a Thom Yorke album instead of a Radiohead one. Unsurprisingly, the better parts are when the rest of the band get some form of input in: the non-chorus parts of “Little by Little” features some audible (!!!) bass from Colin Greenwood and some nice acoustic slides later on; as previously stated, “Morning Mr. Magpie” is a decent Can imitation and you can’t sound like Can without having a democratic band setup – great bridge also; the Motown handclaps of “Lotus Flower” make the track danceable (though hopefully not in the way Thom Yorke was dancing in his failed So You Think You Can Dance audition of a music video). “Bloom” might have Jonny Greenwood on drums instead of contributing a guitar solo, but I’d guess the arrangement is his idea (I’m guessing he directs the strings and horns where they need to go). The bubbling keyboards and bass contribute to the atmosphere that Thom Yorke’s singing about (“Jellyfish swim by,” “A giant turtle’s eyes”) – it sounds like you’re underwater, it really does. And for the only time on the album, Thom Yorke demonstrates the full range of his voice (as opposed to being permanently stuck in falsetto), bellowing out phrases as if it were still the 90s and he hadn’t aged a bit. Elsewhere, impressively, Phil Selway takes an active role on “Separator” – on previous album closers, he was either absent (“Motion Picture Soundtrack”), unnoticeable (most of them) or added a useless loop that detracted from the overall experience (“Videotape”). And as opposed to their previous closers, this one isn’t sad, it’s hopeful – “Wake me up,” “If you think this is over, you’re wrong.” So hopeful, in fact, that people were convinced there was a second part of the album to be released.
You know what bothers me the most about The King of Limbs though? It’s the fucking length. In little tidbits about the album that surfaced during the making of, the band mentioned their trepidation with the album format – a sentiment, which, I can assure you, I agree completely. The sooner this format fucks off, the better, because I’m sick of artists making bad albums because they’re pigeonholed into stretching 20 minutes’ worth of ideas into twice that. They toyed with the idea of releasing EPs instead, but then went the half-assed route of making something that’s sort of in-between both. The worst part? The worst part is they had three additional songs that are frankly better than a lot of stuff that’s on here (“Supercollider” is the only one of the four non-album tracks released after The King of Limbs, and that’s only because it doesn’t deserve to be 7 minute slong. At the very least, that one has a memorable riff and is spacious instead ofoverstuffed, like most of the stuff here. But in particular, “The Daily Mail” is probably the most technically impressive Radiohead track in a decade – if not more – complete with a huge, sweeping dynamic shift from ballad to rawk and a use of orchestra (tubas!) that we haven’t heard the likes of since “Life in a Glasshouse”). 37 minutes of material? 37 minutes of material after four years of waiting? That’s not going to win you guys any hearts – especially when you had already won them before.