The King of Limbs
The typical dichotomy of any band’s career generally takes one of two forms: One, the band continues to create newer and better music, expanding their boundaries, pushing the limits imposed by whoever is in charge, etc., or Two, they play the same old crap that sold records to a faceless public that thrives on unoriginality (aka: Nickelback). King of Limbs, Radiohead’s eighth studio album of their nearly twenty-year career is a perfect example of the former. But how the hell did we get here? Things seemed to be going along quite well for the Oxford quintet; the release of In Rainbows, the band’s seventh studio release was met with critical acclaim, scoring two Grammy awards in 2009 (Including Best Alternative Music Album). In Rainbows features some of the most raw and pure-sounding tracks that a Radiohead album has seen since The Bends, all while still sounding as original as back in 1992. So the next logical step from Rainbows should be more of the same, just tweaked enough to still be Radiohead, right?
Enter King of Limbs.
From the first track we can tell that something’s not entirely right with our reasoning. This should be more like Rainbows, but it sounds more like Aphex Twin or Thom’s The Eraser. Is this a joke? Did they forget what they’d done two years ago?
Nope. It’s the Theory of a Dual-Universe Radiohead. Keep in mind that this is just my working theory, but it seems pretty solid. Let me run something by you.
1993 sees the release of an album from a small group from Oxford called Radiohead. The album, Pablo Honey, gave us the group’s first single “Creep”, as well as “Anyone Can Play Guitar” and “Stop Whispering”. The album draws inspiration from early alternative and grunge sources, but barely stands up on its own. Its saving grace is “Creep” which seems at the time to be Radiohead’s one big single. In 1995, their sophomore album The Bends is released. What comes out of the speakers is a cleaner, more polished Radiohead, much more able to hold their own in a musical climate with the likes of U2, Elton John, and Madonna. Riddled with angst and their frustration over their debut album, The Bends takes the band to triple platinum success. What follows is what many critics consider one of the greatest albums ever released: OK Computer. In 1997, Radiohead is ready to test some boundaries, and this is where the division in the band begins. Not between the members, but a division of their physical sound. OK Computer gave fans a completely different Radiohead than they were used to. The typical “verse, verse, chorus” format had been scrapped and the band started experimenting with different sounds and instruments. Songs like “Karma Police” and “Paranoid Android” turned from traditional angst-driven Radiohead and leaned more towards alienation and anti-dystopian Radiohead. In 1999, Kid A is released, again to critical acclaim. The band seems to have taken everything that had made them famous and thrown it out the window. The synth-driven electronic sounds the band produced were still popular, but began to throw people off, wondering, “what happened to Radiohead?” 2001’s, Amnesiac throws listeners for another loop as the electronic sounds just seem to be getting stranger. Amid rumors of the band breaking up, 2003’s Hail to the Thief conveys a dark image that fans still can’t decide whether it was a desperate attempt at finishing a final masterpiece, or just another rushed work by a band that was losing steam. After years of murmurs as to whether the band was finished or not, finally, in 2007, our speculation was answered. In Rainbows was clearly an album that had been worth the wait. The dark subjects that make Thief so spooky to listen to, were answered in the beautifully crafted sounds and hooks that we love so dearly from Radiohead. Once again, they had sunk their teeth into us, and would not let go. Two years later, after supposedly scrapping an entire album of work, we got another early release that shocked us yet again. King of Limbs was almost entirely unannounced, other than a posting on the band’s website mere weeks before the album was released.
Then we listened to it.
It’s new. It’s different. It’s… Radiohead. Let me explain.
Remember earlier? About the division? The Theory of a Dual-Universe Radiohead? In 1995, when we were treated to OK Computer we were given a fork in the road. Radiohead said, without saying, this is us. These will be our two paths. One of these paths you’re familiar with, the alt-rock and grunge-influenced sound that you heard before, and the other is… Different. From this point in 1995, Radiohead split into two distinct groups, the duality of the band is demonstrated in the sharp angles made between albums. Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows are solidly Radiohead. Every member has their part and performs it exceedingly well. Kid A and Amnesiac are largely free-form albums, with almost no reason to believe that the entire group put them together, other than the fact that they all did. King of Limbs is where this album comes from. The decidedly outside, free-form songs made up mostly of blips and drum machine sounding beats that still has all the experimentalism of Radiohead that we all love. The album itself is relatively shorter than any previous release, and almost seems to serve as a small treat of what we have to come. The only question we have to ask is this:
Which Radiohead do we get next?