Announcing a new album on a Monday, setting the release date to Saturday and then bringing it forward to Friday – Radiohead sure know what they’re doing. On Friday 18th February, the internet was a tornado of activity with bloggers and journalists alike all desperate to be the first to hear and judge The King of Limbs. For Europeans, a hilarious afternoon followed with people waking up on the other side of the Atlantic, heading online and exclaiming, “Radiohead did WHAT?!”
It’s unlikely a band has ever been so good at promoting their output under their own steam, but there are two sides to this coin. Sales-wise, Radiohead couldn’t fail, but as for critical reception, they couldn’t win. The hype surrounding The King of Limbs – which the band were more than partially responsible for – had snowballed to such an extent that anything less than a genre-defining masterpiece would be seen as a disappointment.
So, now we’ve lived with the record for a while, we can see through the white noise that characterised the unleashing of the record and assess it in context properly. And you know what? It’s a disappointment.
Or, at least, it’s a disappointment coming from the band that brought us Kid A, In Rainbows et al, if not an outright bad record. While the willingness to go off-piste and experiment happily remains, Radiohead seem to be going through a fallow period for ideas.
The King of Limbs is very much a rhythm-driven album; skittering, off-kilter beats underpin the majority of the songs on show. While this is all very intriguing – as well as being the kind of thing most hugely popular and successful bands aren’t going to attempt in a hurry – it doesn’t always equate to “good”. Many of the cuts appear half-finished, as if the band have spent so much time and effort on the percussion that they’ve forgotten to write a proper song. Feral is the prime offender here, with snatches of chords and the odd vocal phrase, but little to actually enjoy.
However, Radiohead have never put out a terrible record and they’re not about to start now. They masterfully conjure an unsettling mood on Morning Mr. Magpie, leaving the listener constantly on edge, and the haunting theme also makes an appearance on opener, Bloom. Interestingly, the best song on the album is the most atypical of The King of Limbs sound: Codex. With most of the other tracks so sparse and drama-free, the warm, reverb-drenched piano of Codex is a revelation. Easily the most compelling and melodic cut on the record, the human, emotional side of the band really shines through.
Otherwise, it’s largely cerebral music to appreciate rather than adore; music for the head rather than for the heart or feet. Sadly, The King of Limbs – while a brave side-step – is a case of style over substance. It’s still superior to a lot of the material currently being released, but we know they’re better than this. They’ve enough goodwill in the bank for this to simply be a blip rather than a disaster, but with The King of Limbs, Radiohead have taken their eye off the ball.