“Open your mouth wide…”
That’s right. It’s examination time.
It’s been almost three months since the release of The King of Limbs. Heck, it’s been three months and change since the entire world (sans Radiohead) were even aware of it’s possible existence. As divisive an album as any so far- if one casually scoured the infinite realm of cyberspace to determine society’s collective opinion on the band’s eighth LP, you would probably end up right where you started.
So, what is The King of Limbs really about? Who was it written for? What was the recording process actually like (because it sure feels like this whole thing was mixed in the magical tree trunk from the “There, There” video)? How can a brief eight-track, 37 minute album get clouded in this much intrigue? Other albums boast enigmatic qualities. But The King of Limbs seems to exist, first and foremost, above and beyond, as purely a mystery- the music itself is a seemingly endless trail of clues and suggestions. From purely a knee-jerk scenario- some may label this as a misfire. However, if you take a few steps back and examine the band’s entire catalogue- it seems that the majority of worldwide listeners were spoiled rotten from the glowy warmth of 2007’s In Rainbows. Let it be known that this writer feels In Rainbows was a necessary coddle after 2003 pummeled us with the angry beast called Hail to the Thief- if Limbs had followed Thief in 2007, there would be no listeners left for Rainbows in 2011. Taking Radiohead’s catalogue into perspective, In Rainbows comes across as the obvious outlier- the light at the end of the tunnel ultimately signaling another journey entirely. One needs to look no further than Rainbows' haunting final track- “Videotape”- to ascertain that one adventure is giving birth to another (“No matter what happens now, you shouldn’t be afraid..”). More of this catalogue business in a moment though.
“It’s what keeps me alive…”
So if The King of Limbs is not technically a misfire, that still does not answer what the album truly is. As much as I wanted to believe otherwise, Limbs is not simply a masterpiece ahead of its time- ala Kid A. While it is undoubtedly a member of the experimental subgenre (electro-jazz-folk?), the sound itself is hardly experimental for Radiohead. If anything, it can be argued that each of these songs has a “sibling track” scattered somewhere among the other seven LPs, EPs, and B-sides. I think this would make a nifty discussion post in and of itself. Try listening to "Bloom/Life in a Glasshouse", "Feral/PushPulk", or my personal favorite- the good and evil twin of "Separator/In Limbo".
But if this is the case and the band is truly venturing down a well-worn path, the path feels curiously unfamiliar. Once again, the knee-jerk reaction tends to translate this as an uncomfortably creative speed bump by a group of musical geniuses merely treading water. This is an understandable reaction- the artistic world is littered with frustrating and indulgent attempts at expression from profoundly gifted artists (look no further than Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell). But every time I feel as if I am ready to put Limbs to bed- it lures me back. Furthermore- Limbs is that rare type of album where I find myself listening to it more and more intently with each spin. The freaking thing is like begging Lassie for an answer about what exactly happened to Timmy down by the ravine. I know it’s trying to communicate with me, but what is it saying? After almost three months…
"Why does it still hurt?"
It’s a good thing I believe I have the answer- or else this whole article would be more frustrating than the album itself.
In essence, every Radiohead fan is blessed with that moment of enlightened clarity. And it is never on the first spin. Certain parts of an individual record are jaw-dropping - such as the climax of “Reckoner” or the sleigh bells in “Airbag”. But it is widely accepted that from The Bends on (as underrated as I find Pablo Honey to be- it is what it is), the albums require time to systematically consume the listener like some type of rhythmic boa constrictor. All of this inevitably precedes a moment akin to when an LSD-addled Tony Soprano stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon shouting at the sunset, “I GET IT!!”
It’s a glorious feeling. And many listeners were no doubt puzzled this moment of clarity did not occur as naturally with Limbs as it did with the rest of the catalogue. But in order to unlock the mysteries of Limbs, one should look no further than the very beginning. The time is 1993, the album is Pablo Honey- the opening track is an infectiously harmless ditty called “You". Jonny Greenwood begins things with a delicate strumming before this gentle opening gives way to a cascade of noise as Thom Yorke croons: “You are the sun and moon and stars are you…”. And just like that, Radiohead’s first album is born to the organic imagery of nature and the role it plays with “You”, the listener- imagery that it seemed the band had no doubt abandoned forever until Limbs snuck up out of the soil almost eighteen years later.
One of the main arguments concerning Limbs is how it has seemingly disregarded the band’s logical progression of music. I understand where this vitriol is coming from because I partially agree with it- but only the stance, not the vitriol. From Pablo Honey to In Rainbows, Radiohead’s output perfectly followed a creative arc in almost every method in which a thematic curvature can be equated to a group of artists (growth, development, expression, profundity, etc.). As mentioned before, Rainbows’ “Videotape” brings the entire enterprise to such a natural and effective close that I half-expected the band to get beamed up to their home planet following the conclusion of their 2008 tour. To be perfectly honest, for the very first time, I was mildly apprehensive about what Radiohead could possibly bring to the table when they announced Limbs' impending release this past Valentine’s Day. Luckily, I only had four days to be apprehensive.
Re-examining the details of this arc brings the true nature of Limbs into much sharper focus. With Pablo Honey, the band exhibited a fresh-faced idealism that was running rampant through the alternative rock scene during the early 90’s. If anyone ever argued that Radiohead always knew what they were doing, take a gander at this clip- www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXUBE_wiPtU (I have to admit- it has started to grow on me). We all know the story of “Creep”, it’s chart-topping success, and how it became so huge and overbearing that mature gems from Honey, such as “Blow Out”, were all but overlooked by the casual fan. However, it was the popularity of “Creep” as Radiohead’s signature, definitive ballad that ignited the aforementioned curvature. Pablo Honey gave way to 1995’s The Bends, a practically flawless examination of the angst that dwells within the success of rock. With The Bends, the band displayed the anxiety that accompanied the notoriety and romanticism born from Pablo Honey. Tracks such as “Planet Telex”, “Fake Plastic Trees”, and “Nice Dream”, among others, all underline the notion that what was once promised is now merely a façade. This theme of anxious cynicism reached a masterpiece-level crescendo in 1997 with the release of OK Computer – an emotionally claustrophobic odyssey across a landscape ravaged by bastardized idealism. In the world of Computer, the Orwellian pulse of humanity is still beating, only to a much more socially prescribed tune. Most of the social resistance that was evident on The Bends is largely quelled here. By the time Computer closes with the tragically epic “The Tourist”, it has become clear that the collective human body is still twitching- but just barely. In 2000, Kid A chronicles the journey of the offspring born from the union of man and those ideals present on Computer. If the previous album was concerned with ultimate resignation, Kid A is the existential result of that particular submission- between man and the entity which evolution has allowed man to create. More than any of their other albums, Kid A reflects an out-of-body experience for the listener (“I’m not here… this isn’t happening…," Yorke sings on “How to Disappear Completely”). Following on the heels of Kid A is 2001’s Amnesiac – which is arguably the most overlooked gem in any band’s catalogue ever. Here we are drawn into a world where the offspring of Kid A has not only begun to mature- but is growing increasingly self-aware. Songs such as “I Might Be Wrong” question the validity of absolutist thinking (“I could have sworn I saw a light coming on…”) while “Knives Out” further demonstrates the futility of taking any form of stance (“So knives out… catch the mouse… don’t look down… shove it in your mouth..”). The beauty of that statement is heightened by the song’s preceding declaration, “I want you to know… I’m not coming back…” In 2003, the unusually expansive Hail to the Thief deals with the angry aftermath of self-awareness. If we are still viewing life through the eyes of Kid A- Thief is undoubtedly an account of youthful protest caused by the previous two albums. Like the angry youth it seemingly portrays, Thief is jarring and purposefully lacking in subtlety. “You are not paying attention!” Yorke shouts on the album’s opener, “2+2=5”. Just as the thematic tone seems to be growing increasingly heavy, 2007’s In Rainbows effectively airs out the room. If every Radiohead album guarantees the listener a moment of clarity, this is the entry in the band’s canon where that clarity is crystallized and delivered as an accessible whole. In essence, In Rainbows is one big “I GET IT!” moment from beginning to end. Here Radiohead finally make peace with their sound. Sure, there are still frantic tracks like “Bodysnatchers” where Yorke murmurs, “I have no idea what I am talking about”. But as we reach the finish line, there is a definite sense of impending comfort and enlightenment (i.e.- a peaceful segue into eternal sleep- i.e.again- death). But is that enlightenment supposed to transfer to The King of Limbs? Perhaps the end of In Rainbows itself is the enlightenment the listener is searching for.
Once again, we have ended up where we started.
Earlier, it was mentioned that the comforting light at the end of In Rainbows' tunnel possibly pertained to a signifier of another journey beginning. Figuring out this new journey we are embarking upon is the key to interpreting Limbs. If death is the resolution to In Rainbows, then Limbs is the narrative of a metaphorical rebirth- a dirty, grimy, organic rebirth. This would lend added credibility to the symbolism of a growing tree and the various branches springing forth from its foundation. Interesting, I suppose. But what does that say about the music itself? Or better yet- what does the music itself say about a natural rebirth? For one- it has a lot in common with the tone of the opening track on their first album. Let's return to “You”- which sang of “the sun, the moon, the stars”- imagery that was conspicuously absent from that point forward for the band. Well, Limbs is here to breathe life into that defunct motif- this time, with added weight, grit, and experience. Like most things, the evolution of Radiohead is indeed cyclical. In that regard, The King of Limbs may be the first metafluential album ever.
Radiohead has long been regarded as an increasingly influential band over the span of almost the last twenty years. But their eighth album is indicative of Radiohead finally lapping themselves by surpassing mere artistic influence and now branching into meta-influence. Basically- the band has become an actual king of limbs itself because of their influence on both the industry and the artistic medium. Now Radiohead is reinventing established genres that are a result of their own sway. Tracks like “Bloom”, “LittleByLittle”, “Feral”, “GiveUptheGhost”, etc. are Radiohead adding their personal spin on genres currently dominated by Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, Burial, and Fleet Foxes- among others. After all, these genres were born from the progressive expressionism Radiohead exhibited at the turn of the decade.
All of this can possibly render The King of Limbs the I Heart Huckabees of music- an album that exists but does not require a listener. Initially, when pondering the album’s metafluential possibilities, I had resigned myself to the belief that Limbs existed as an effective diversion. For all intents and purposes, it was an interesting and ultimately wonderful album- but a device of sorts nonetheless.
But then I listened to it again. And again. Closer each time.
And here I am, nearing the end of this article and all I can think about is the graceful opening chords of “Bloom”, the drone-like intensity of “MorningMrMagpie”, the conundrum of sound that is “LittleByLittle”, the relentless percussion of “Feral”- and that is all before the second half of the album seemingly guides us through a woodsy soundscape before “Separator” puts us to bed.
Why am I still intrigued by something that I was certain I had figured out?
And of course, the appropriate advice arrives in the form of Yorke's trademark wail:
“Don’t blow your mind with why...”
As it turns out- they were one step ahead of me again.