Radiohead's The King of Limbs: Instant reaction
As you may have heard, Radiohead's eighth album, The King of Limbs, was released today, a day earlier than expected, and only four days after it was announced. The complicated release strategy the band has devised is no longer the novelty it was when the band suprised us all with In Rainbows in 2007, which means this time around, we can focus less on the business and more on the music. Is it good? Is it worth the $9 for a download today, or $48 for the deluxe edition due in May? Kyle Smith and Kiernan Maletsky communed earlier today via instant messaging to discuss their initial reactions.
The King of Limbs is also streaming at KROQ -- if you haven't already heard it, go take a listen and let us know what you think.
Kyle Smith: So, as mentioned, these are just initial reactions. I've only listened to the album twice. But the sentence that keeps popping into my brain is that The King of Limbs is the sound of Radiohead entering middle age. There's really nothing new here -- the band sounds more or less like it has since Amnesiac -- and, from a production standpoint, the music sounds as good as it ever has, but the vibe is pretty subtle, which may just be a nice way of saying that the songs are kind of weak.
Kiernan Maletsky: I know this is unreasonable, but I keep hoping Radiohead will just ditch all the computers and just play some damn guitar riffs again. And with every release, they get farther away from that. Is there even a song you could qualify as a jam on The King of Limbs?
KS: No, definitely not. And this is the first album for which we can say that.
KM: I agree completely.
KS: Most of it reminds me of the middling interior of Hail to the Thief -- midtempo songs, anchored by glitchy drum loops, that just sort of chug along, interrupted by the occasional big string or vocal gesture.
KM: Yeah. This is some doozy shit. It took me three tries just to get through the thing. It will sound just fine in headphones when the weather is miserable, but I can't imagine ever listening to this as anything other than background music.
KS: "Background music" is the other phrase that kept coming to me.
KM: I guess "Little by Little" is the closest this album gets to heft. And that song wouldn't have even made the B-sides of OK Computer.
KS: Yeah. Yeah, I kept thinking, "Yep, put this on in the coffee shop, people hear the moaning and the drum loops, think, 'Oh, this must be the new Radiohead album,' and then tune it out."
KS: Which I say as a fan, by the way.
KM: I would have liked it better had they released it a different way, ironically. They did the surprise announcement, built the anticipation for five days and BAM! 37 minutes of nebulous blips and moaning.
KS: Yeah, I'm not sure what to say about the release strategy. I mean, I guess it would have seemed weird to go back to just releasing it the old-fashioned way, but, well, I certainly wouldn't buy the deluxe "Newspaper" edition.
KM: I think In Rainbows worked so well because there was still a sense that Radiohead was this looming titan of "indie" music. And now...shit, Kid A sounds downright pedestrian compared to the current landscape.
Radiohead just isn't a band that people are flipping out about anymore. I don't know about you, but the conversations I had this week about the release were all pretty much along the lines of, "Yeah, that's cool. I'll probably give it a listen."
KS: Yeah, I'd say the same. Like I said, the band's entering middle age. As listeners, we seem to only have so long of a time to devote to fandom of a band, if that makes any sense, and bands also seem to have only so many really good years in them. I've actually been wondering for a long time how long Radiohead could keep it up.
They have one of the best track records in the history of rock, and even In Rainbows stands with the best of the band's work, I think. But there seems to be a point at which every single band settles into a state of middling comfort, and perhaps Radiohead has reached that point.
I also would be curious to know how long they've been working on these songs. I know that some songs on In Rainbows had been in development for years.
KM: That's a really good point. I would feel a lot better about The King of Limbs if it turned out they decided to start it two weeks ago.
KM: Somehow, though, I doubt that. And to your point, I think Radiohead has always been a band that tried to be continually evolving. But they definitely seem to have reached the end of their ideas.
KS: Honestly, I'm surprised they put out even two good albums after Amnesiac; after that and Kid A, they would have had to become a ska band or something to reinvent themselves as thoroughly again.
KS: For me, the one song that sticks out on The King of Limbs is closer "Separator." It's the only song with a more or less major-key tonality, and it's the one place where you get a glimmer of the band's signature soaring beauty, which is the other reason we listen to Radiohead (besides the guitar jams).
KM: Yeah, that's actually the song I was just listening to.
KM: And while I agree that it's got the peaks, I couldn't stop thinking about how it would make the perfect soundtrack to my next nap.
KS: Haha. Well, is this the end for Radiohead? Do you think they'll call it after this one? The one thing I hoped for from Radiohead is that we wouldn't have to watch them go the way of New Order, the Cure, R.E.M., the Rolling Stones, et al. -- releasing a decent-but-boring new album every few years to increasingly less interest from the public. They could still go out with some dignity if they went out now. I've been saying "middle age," which would imply many years left, but I guess I was hoping that Radiohead wouldn't ever hit middle age.
KM: I think they just might be able to pull a next-generation Sonic Youth type thing. Where they occasionally release albums that cause everyone to reminisce about the good old days, but mostly they act as elder statesmen/kingmakers for up and comers. Though Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon have always been happy to engage the public, and the Radiohead boys have maintained a sort of weird recluse image.
KM: What seems certain at this point is that we'll never again be blown away by this band.
KS: I'd agree that's pretty unlikely. Your Sonic Youth comment also made me think of Trent Reznor, who, after we'd all but dismissed him, suddenly became everybody's cool uncle. So, yes, I think it'd be interesting to see Radiohead in that role, though who knows if they would. Well, disappointed but not hugely surprised seems to be the consensus -- and cautiously hopeful for a graceful old age for the band.
And, of course, there's still a chance that The King of Limbs could turn out to be a grower -- we have spent all of an afternoon with it, after all.
Oh, my. This is 74 different kinds of awesome...
More dancing Thom, if you're so inclined.