by Seth Colter Walls
The new Radiohead album, “The King of Limbs,” is available this morning to anyone who pre-ordered any sort of version earlier this week. We were told this would be a Saturday download, but now it’s a today thing. (Their press release says that the website was ready so the band just decided to push it live. Hmm!) There’s also a video for lead “single,” “Lotus Flower.” At any rate: don’t be waiting for an individualized link in your inbox, people! (That may still come Saturday?) If you go here, you’ll be asked to put in your site-registration info that you used to pre-order, and then: BAM! You can download the mp3s if you bought the mp3s or the wav files if you … for some reason wanted wav files. If you didn’t pre-order but would like to do so now, it looks like you’ll be able to access that same download page more or less instantaneously after you get your confirmation email.
Time to decide: How insane are we going to be about Radiohead (a band that means many different things to many different people) and this new album today, the last day of the Internet’s workweek?
1. Let’s not be upset with people posting insta-reactions (sez a guy who will ultimately offer some). We can’t stop it anyway; it’s natural — and moreover, it seems to be what Radiohead kinda wants. Here we are, many people listening to something largely at the same time — the commentary playing field leveled among critics and also music connoisseurs who have discovered other ways to make money and live in the world. (Good for y’all, seriously!) That’s a fine thing. Let’s enjoy it, even if some of us happen to hate the album.
2. Let’s not give any of these insta-reactions (including our own) disproportionate weight. It’s of course possible to have immediate reactions to art that remain true for you over the decades-long uber-haul. But usually, our assessments go up and down over time as we, you know, discover all the merits and demerits to be found in a piece of art. Maura Johnston wrote the “insta-reaction” le sigh, years ago, when “In Rainbows” dropped. And Vice already posted their preemptive “first review” of “The King of Limbs” the other day. Touche! And yet, and yet….
3. Quick reaction discussions needn’t, by nature, be stupid — or otherwise naively over-enthusiastic / overly jaundiced. We can own up to the fact that we’ll need to listen to this some more, figure out what the hell Yorke is mumbling via message board debates, while still asking: What are we hearing here, on first go ‘round?
This album is 8 songs long and clocks in at 37 minutes and 29 seconds long in my iTunes playlist. That’s going to anger some of the people who paid $48 for the double 10″ vinyl version that will be sent to them months from now. (They will hopefully have fun with the 625 pieces of small artwork that come in the vinyl edition?) Some people will assuredly think $9 for 8 songs totaling under 40 minutes in length a bit much, as well. But most of y’all who like Radiohead probably got “a deal” on the “pay-what-you-wish” pricing of “In
Rainbows” — so try to be reasonable about your outrage level here. Me, I’ve paid for subscriptions to Prince websites, so my tolerance threshold for expectations-not-met is pretty high.
Anyway: “Bloom” has some cool rhythmic misdirection going on. There’s the piano loop and opening boop-bleating that gets overrun at the 15-second mark by that strict percussion that you can almost-but-not-quite swing to. (In my head I’m able to count it in both 4/4 and triple meter “oom-pah-pah / oom-pah-pah.” Fun!) There’s not a ton of what you’d call “development” after the second vocal line comes in at 2:17 — in fact the first four songs all sort of seem content with throwing us one big compositional variation around the midway point, before looping back to do the beginning part again. The manic strut of “Morning Mr Magpie” settles down for just a bit in minute two, allows for a brief “oooh-oooh-oooh” Yorke thing for a minute, and then gets back to stepping. “Feral” introduces its bass line about halfway through during a lull, and then re-introduces the main business.
Radiohead has threatened to stop making albums and just release EPs, which is what made this album’s announcement something of a surprise. But maybe it’s an album in name only? Here it feels like they’ve grouped two four-song EPs and sold it as an album. “Lotus Flower” kicks off what I assume is Side B (on the single LP version) with what amounts to the album’s most proper “pop” song. It also prepares us for what happens on the Side B EP, which is: singing some more straightforward melodies. Here’s what I think some of the lyrics are:
There’s an empty space inside my heart ….
there’s a waste in you / I’ll set you free….
slowly we offer / cuz mfdadsfaadaaaeyyyy /
Just to see what happens / Just to see what is /
Just to feel my face balloon in hand.
Oh, and the “darkness is beneath” — so some pretty standard Radiohead-isms there. But evocative nonetheless. And look at Yorke’s dancing in the video! They actually give the choreographer credit! It’s some silent-film mugging mixed with post-MJ posture and Yorke being Yorke. Best Radiohead video in a while, I’d say.
“Codex” and “Give Up the Ghost” see Yorke delivering more instantly-repeatable/memorable vocal lines than the keeping-our-secrets-to-ourselves, mercurial creations on Side A’s EP. This feels like stuff that’s slightly more familiar sonic territory — think “Videotape” off “In Rainbows” (though “Give Up the Ghost” relies on acoustic guitar instead of piano, which I think is neat).
“Separator” brings the “Yorke singing more discernible melodies” EP to a close with an uptempo beat, no less. But it’s still pretty calm stuff. There are some really gorgeous filigree notes from Greenwood’s guitar in the last minutes, while Yorke softly instructs someone to “wake me up.” Nothing really rocks or knocks very hard on this record. Plenty of nice touches — though perhaps it’s too early to say whether they’ll sustain the many repeated listens that Radiohead fans demand of new Radiohead albums. People are going to compare the first four songs to “Amnesiac,” because they’re not immediately ingratiating on a songcraft level, but I think that’s slightly wrong. There’s a more organic and less programmed quality even to the mysterious stuff on “The King of Limbs” that seems to shoot straight out of the “In Rainbows” sound, developmentally.
But don’t trust me too much about any of that. It’s a first reaction.