Radiohead has never been a band that can be accurately judged on the first listen. Sometimes it even takes years for a Radiohead album to fully reveal itself. When Kid A was first released in 2000, it was met with plenty of scathing reviews, but by the end of the ‘00s, it was being placed at the top of several Best of the Decade lists. The King of Limbs, likewise, may seem disappointing at first, but reveals secrets with each new spin. Let’s at least take a moment to applaud a band that still creates difficult records that require serious listening.
The King of Limbs is definitely not In Rainbows, but it’s not really trying to be. Although this is the closest the band has come to returning to the sounds of Kid A and Amnesiac, it’s a far cry from those albums, as well. With Kid A, we have this sort of overarching connectivity between the tracks that seems to run throughout the course of the album. Amnesiac is more disjointed, presenting itself almost as a recollection of what has occurred in her sister album, perhaps from a third-party perspective. The King of Limbs feels more like it’s actually split into two halves: one that’s much more experimental and electronic and one that is fairly straightforward. If Kid A and Amenesiac are “twins separated at birth,” as Thom Yorke has suggested, then The King of Limbs is their cousin who comes to visit from out of town. He’s kind of odd, and no one really likes him at first, but once you get to know him, he’s actually a pretty cool guy.
The first half of the album is composed of anti-songs, rebelling against any notion of typical songwriting in favor of a showcase of technique and engineering skill. Even “Morning Mr Magpie,” an older song that was first played on an acoustic guitar by Yorke during the 2002 webcast in support of Hail to the Thief, has been reworked to challenge what a song is supposed to be. This isn’t new at all for a band that constantly attempts to re-invent standard musical practices.
Once the album starts to resemble something familiar, we’re presented with some truly gorgeous ballads. The jump is sharp, however. As “Codex” begins, we hear Yorke’s voice begin a note before being swiftly cut off and replaced with piano that sounds as if it’s been submerged in water, drifting in the undertow. In “Give Up the Ghost” an acoustic guitar wakes up to the sounds of early morning birds chatting with the earth while a church choir of Thom Yorkes pleads the mantra, “Don’t haunt me. / Don’t hurt me.”
Rather than ending the album on a note of finality as with Kid A’s funeral hymn “Motion Picture Soundtrack” and In Rainbow’s suicide note “Videotape,” Radiohead chose to leave us hanging. “Separator” swells around Phil Selway’s machine-like precision drum beat. “It’s like I’ve fallen out of bed from a long and vivid dream,” Yorke says at the beginning of the song, which is exactly how the listener feels after the album reaches its conclusion. Like a dream, we wake up from the album with no clear indication of how the story began, where it ended or what it means.
The King of Limbs might not be Radiohead’s best or most revolutionary album, but it’s still adventurous and fresh. This is definitely not an album for people who want to hear “Fake Plastic Trees,” but then again, what Radiohead album since The Bends has been? The King of Limbs demands some deep immersion for comprehension, just as a traveler from a foreign land must lose himself in the culture to understand where they are.