I can’t count how many conversations regarding Radiohead I have been in that resulted in arguments leaning in one of two directions. The first and least optimal is when I hear someone utter the words, “I don’t get what people like about that band…” All the things I learned about respecting someone else’s opinion fly out that proverbial window and my “Who Shaped [Nearly] the Last Two Decades” speech ensues with references to unidentifiable parts of my teenage years and a Chuck Klosterman article. The latter is when we simply can’t agree on which record was “the best” or which one defines the “direction of Radiohead.” Those quotes…they’re necessary. After all, what is “the best record that defines Radiohead?” It’s time we stopped evaluating this near-institution of masterminds by their artistic progression and look at things empirically.
Each Radiohead album, with the exception of the paired and equally intrinsic Amnesiac and Kid A recordings, has been a unique perceptual dive into what is undoubtedly the union of two great minds: Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood. Nevertheless, when I first found out about The King of Limbs, I was too busy to listen to it. After hearing a friend say he had listened to it nine times that day, I knew I was in for it. Another exhaustive dwelling period that would result in existential meanderings of the mind and lethargic phone calls to a friend were my destiny for that day. But that wasn’t the case. For the first time, I felt maturity emerge through my headphones. Eight records later, Radiohead had given me something that led me to reminisce on not only my past, but also my past in relation to those records. This is my journey through The King of Limbs.
“Bloom.” There is a rambling. It isn’t too unlike every conversation we’ve had about the guild that is Radiohead. Then, like rain and lightening, there is a synthesis of natural and tribal percussive elements reminiscent of Glastonbury with the digital array of patchwork samples and glimmering lyrical melodies. Slowing down into a more attainable sequence, reaching for black-bird trees, we enter into “Morning Mr. Magpie.” Can we reference Amnesiac’s omniscient lyric “I’m a reasonable man / get off my case?” It’s a true union of parallels to hear Thom sing with such enunciated conviction, “You stole it all away, give it back.”
After this, the record takes a drastic turn, both lyrically and musically. In an age ridden with the unspoken fear of the post-apocalyptic, “Little By Little” sucks with a fury into a world of undead gypsies dancing to a cascade of sonic bliss. Isn’t that an overbearing metaphor? If that isn’t enough for you, “Feral” only expounds on all that the former track teaches you about limitless artistry.
The most infatuating and revealing track on The King of Limbs is “Lotus Flower.” Amnesiac, Kid A, Hail to the Thief, and In Rainbows do something that is so phenomenal it is nearly impossible to describe without being stereotypical. The albums all collide into one album. Stuttering fills and transitions allude to “Idioteque,” choral pads to the entire feeling of In Rainbows, and the bass-riff to “I Might Be Wrong. If these colossal similarities are insufficient in my case for Radiohead’s maturity, then listen carefully to “Codex.” “Jump off the edge into a clear lake.” The gorgeous piano surrounded with chorus and light backed only by a kick is an eerie reflection of “Pyramid Song” if Thom Yorke had written it…now. Does it seem so odd that we see a songwriter mature with a band united behind him only to create something so elusive but mirroring of his past?
It is true that Radiohead has a very distinct and sometimes seemingly unoriginal style when we talk about their discography as a whole. The vocal and low-octave melodies and drum samples reference their post-The Bends era. In “Give Up the Ghost,” the most suffering track on the album, it seems like there is a weak cry to stop this trend of evasive creation. We have been swerving for years in the footsteps of Thom Yorke and his mysterious crew and for the first time as an avid listener, I feel like this was effortless, the entire process, creation, etc. According to Phil Selway, the band’s percussionist, “I don’t know what we’ll be doing but the process of making In Rainbows — so much came about through what we were doing live — has been quite the opposite so far.”
I’m going to leave what I think of the last track to the imagination. I’ll summarize by telling you it honestly gives me closure on my past with Radiohead. Growing up with “High and Dry” and “Street Spirit,” contemplating the beady eyes Thom was experiencing, trying to peer into his head, I learned so much about music, the maturing process, and how we can communicate with that paradoxical effortless desperation so many have missed in the creation of their music.