no wonder it took them so long and then they just threw together some platitudes
It’s difficult to write concisely about this band. Radiohead is almost a bad joke at this point- the entire circus of frothing mouth debate amongst fans about whether the new direction is a good thing coupled with critical anxiety about scoring it right for the record. The aura of historicity, along with the band’s usual attendant ambivalence further obfuscate the only thing that matters;
It’s irrelevant whether the record is “great” the way Kid A was when it supposedly changed the world. The comical proportions of the band’s place in whatever nebulous canon of music one wants to idolize are a holdover from the days of major label dictated agendas.
With millions invested in recording and marketing, advertising agencies and music magazines have been complicit in creating a culture of biblical narration surrounding albums from golden geese bands that could be critical darlings furthering the boundaries of art without compromising customer satisfaction.
The awed reverence for the band’s output from OK Computer through In Rainbows is therefore, whether we like to admit it or not, partially informed how much money was involved. For the labels, for the arena concert promoters, for the magazines that were reviewing the music alongside the likes of Oasis and Coldplay, furthering the impression that we’re dealing with gods amongst men, supreme beings that only grace this world with their presence once in a generation. The idea of hierarchies in art, and the petulant instinct to prescribe value akin to consumer guide reviews of electronics or cars work to further fan the flames.
Inevitably, first impressions of music tend to focus on the sound, and we initially gravitate towards comparisons with previous albums. But all these checklists are particularly meaningless with this band; the reason academics write dissertations on Kid A has nothing to do with “innovating” and “expanding the horizons of rock”- these, again, are sales pitches more than anything else. The only real reason for the band’s enduring reputation is the depth of nuance in the albums as complete artistic statements in and of themselves; for example, Amnesiac repeatedly evokes the cognitive experience of forgotten memories; You and Whose Army makes use of vintage aesthetics, instrumentation and sound engineering, while the vocal delivery of the call-to-arms lyrics undercuts their meaning with its affect of exhaustion and impotence, implying that the person singing has already been defeated and rides in knowing it will happen again. The track culminates in a declaration that “we ride tonight” before edifying that their horses happen to be ghosts, thereby imbuing the track with an eerie supernatural feeling akin to an “echo” of the cyclical bloodshed and evil in our history that seemingly repeats itself indefinitely. It plays on the listener’s association of antique recording equipment and its characteristic vinyl hiss and low fidelity crackling with the nebulous idea of “the past” lending the impression of simultaneous familiarity and uneasiness much like a deja vu. Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining explores a very similar concept. The point is that attempting to approach that album with baggage from previous experiences only obscures what it actually sets out to do
Understanding any album for what it is therefore requires understanding what it is not, and seeing it in its own light. While The King of Limbs is comparatively unambitious if compared to the exploration of psychosocial angst or emphasis on sheer beauty and ideal proportion that marked previous records, it isn’t without reason for existence; It is an organically unified artistic statement with original ideas, compellingly executed and austere in its succinctness.
Praise is well and good, but it’s the how and why that are relevant. The sonic modality here is comprised of simple instrumental parts that take on a considerably different purpose when stitched into a sequenced, syncopated tapestry of sound. In a sense Radiohead is playing like a digital jam band, taking miniature, crystallized moments spontaneous expression and recontextualizing them in the manner of sample based music. It’s a crucial difference, given that all their previous work that carries the “electronica” stamp actually used electronic instrumentation in compositions that were still fundamentally traditional rock in terms of structure.
But if they were simply content to be the 21st century Phish, they would release tracks for free, which they can and have done, without bothering to call it an “album” with its own name and artwork.
As much as the word is unwieldy and carries tacky connotations, “spiritual” is the best description of the album's sensibilitlties. Which has nothing to do with religion or Yoga, and everything to do with the band's interest in binaural recording, pulsating rythyms and the way the human body physiologically processes sound with corresponding muscular response. Spirituality is fundamentally about mind-body awareness, and the intersection between physicality and cognition; the totality of human perception and the way it informs our experience of the world. Yorke gets straight to the point in the opening lines of Bloom, the first track:
Open your mouth wide
and while the ocean blooms
it's what keeps me alive
He stops just short of saying “take a deep breath”, but the agenda becomes clear. You hear him audibly taking in air between lines. At the beginning of “Little by Little” his voice hides low in the track mumbling the chorus in abbreviated form, stressing the consonants before the song proper starts. The music pulls and prods at you incessantly, from all directions, and the bottling up of echoes and white noise is used to chilling effect on Give Up The Ghost, where it feels like the listener is standing in front of Yorke singing while disembodied ghost voices sing back and float around behind the listener’s back and to the sides.
The guitar work towards the end of closer gives the minimalism of The xx a run for its money- the notes played are simple and unremarkable but incorporated into the mix, it serves to stimulate a neural response that dovetails perfectly with the closing refrain- “wake me up”.
The record is steeped in three dimensional movements of sounds of varhly variable texture and fidelity.
This approach was also present on In Rainbows, most notably in the sound engineering on All I Need, which makes use of white noise to simulate the way the human ear perceives the noise a band makes when playing loudly in a room, and House of Cards, which buried various recorded echoes and resonant frequencies into the mix. This studio technique could be argued to be the main instrument on the album, and more than ever before, producer Nigel Godrich is singularly responsible. On this record, he is effectively a member of the band, seeing as there is no feasible way these tracks could be put together otherwise and sound even remotely compelling.
The key to listening to this record is to not visualize the instrumentation or anything resembling a live band. A song like Bodysnatchers can still be understood while visualizing the band playing, since traditional instruments evoke similar neurological responses in the motor areas of the brain used to physically play them. But this mindset goes nowhere on The King of Limbs- Radiohead has stripped itself down, and asks the same of the listener, to only listen to the sounds as though the entire thing was synthesized on a laptop.
It’s in keeping with the title, The King of Limbs brings together simple ideas that don’t sound like much on their own, but sequenced together, form a sensual and organic whole- not unlike the way the brain brings the four limbs together to generate the music of a living, breathing human being.
© almost there productions 2011
don't steal this shit bitch xo