The King of Limbs, though, was the grower to end all growers- filled to its thirty-seven minute brim with eight smaller growers. In it’s aftermath, I have taken much solace in The King of Limbs. For a collection of music that I initially found so deliciously isolating, it now somehow exudes a cozy warmth- while of course still maintaining that defining griminess. The whole thing is like a melodic contradiction (comfortable isolation?) that few bands could pull off- let alone attempt.
Earlier this month, I wrote a somewhat brief in-depth analysis on The King of Limbs detailing what the album meant for the listener, the band, and the overall trajectory in relation to both. In that analysis, I determined that not only was Limbs an extremely metafluential album- but I also proposed that each Limbs tune boasted a “sibling track” hidden somewhere within the Radiohead discography. The King of Limbs: FAMILY TREE will be an ongoing column where I find these yins and yangs and discuss their thematic similarities. Considering we are essentially dealing with long-lost siblings, I feel that “Separator” would be a fitting place to begin. Ready? Here we go.
One of the most openly whimsical songs in Radiohead’s catalogue, “Separator” closes Limbs as a recollection of a particularly lucid dream. Taking this fantastical tone into account, the song feels oddly appropriate- especially considering the band’s tendency to end their albums with a sweeping sense of morbid grandeur. The bizarre, organic soundscape of Limbs lends itself to an illusory interpretation and this final track is an effective transition for the listener from one reality to the next. “Separator” ’s layered production adds to this otherworldly quality. What begins as Thom gently singing over a percussive loop evolves into scattered backup audio samples riddled with feedback and echoed distortion coinciding with what sounds like an electric mandolin. Things start simple on “Separator”- but, by the end, it feels as if at least three songs are fighting to escape from an impending eternal slumber. Usually, Radiohead’s album closers are resigned to their fate- here though we fight for our awareness to the bitter
end (“Wake me up!/Wake me up!”).
“Separator” find its kin with Kid A’s “In Limbo- a haunting Siren song of a track that substitutes forbidden detachment for anything ethereal. Whereas “Separator” is rising to the surface of reality, “Limbo” sounds helplessly lost in a dark, uncompromising void (“Trapdoors that open/I spiral down.”). Not only is this song not waking up anytime soon, it is rapidly approaching the abyss of the nightmare. The chord progression mimics the undulating rise and fall of the ocean while Thom’s bellowed echoes sound less and less human as the volume increases. We have been lead hopelessly astray by the promise of discovery- a promise that only reveals itself as a tantalizing mirage the deeper we sink into this void (“Another message I can’t read.”).
Like many siblings, “Separator” and “In Limbo” discover kinship through their environment- in this case, that eternal moment between sleep and consciousness. However, as is also true with most siblings, the individual response to the unknown pushes the two in drastically opposite directions. Whereas “Separator” strives to emerge from the other side with a renewed sense of purpose (“Finally, I’m free from all the weight I’ve been carrying”), “In Limbo” submissively plays the black sheep in the scenario- enabling the personal demons as they seduce the song from the path to true awakening (“You’re living in a fantasy world”). We will never truly know what caused “Separator” and “In Limbo” to take such different paths- perhaps there was a sibling rivalry predicated on jealousy, perhaps one song was favored by its parents (Radiohead Parent Tracks- now there would be an interesting post). For all intents and purposes, through the lyrical imagery and song structure, Radiohead has provided us with a musical myth. However, the listener is the one who dictates whether or not this myth is a tragedy.
If you really want to tumble further down the rabbit hole, play both tracks on top of each other. It is more of an astounding auditory experience, as opposed to conventional music. But it undoubtedly conveys the divergent experiences of both siblings while still maintaining an overtly dreamlike essence. It’s frankly a little haunting to hear Thom’s “In Limbo” in the background of “Separator” 's enlightenment.
Plus, take note as to what “Separator” is telling us as “In Limbo” fades into the darkness around the three-minute mark. Apparently, the enlightenment always wins.