Radiohead – Classic Music Review: The King of Limbs

Let me say up front that while I appreciate Radiohead’s ongoing support for once-struggling-now-Grammy-winning artist Stanley Donwood aka Dan Rickwood, I do not like any of the artwork on Radiohead albums. None. Zero. Zip. I will agree to use the neutral word “distinctive” to describe the Radiohead approach to album art, but if you visit me in Nice, don’t expect to see any Radiohead covers plastered on my walls.

When I first saw the album cover for The King of Limbs, I’m sure that my face must have looked like I was sucking on a lemon . . . just like Thom Yorke’s face as he grumbled his way through the OK Computer tour. I was almost afraid to open the sleeve, wondering if some kind of creepy-crawly thing was going to slither its way up my blouse. When I finally managed to overcome my phobia, I placed the record on the turntable, listened to it intently without distraction, and at the end I had absolutely no reaction at all. None. Zero. Zip.

I shrugged my shoulders, placed the record back in the sleeve, may have said something like “You can’t win them all,” and moved on with my life.

I didn’t pull it out of the collection until last summer when I decided to start reviewing all of Radiohead’s studio albums. I thought I’d begin the process by going through the albums in chronological order, from Pablo Honey to the recently-released A Moon Shaped Pool so I could take a fresh look at their progression over the years. I will admit that once I finished listening to In Rainbows, I had little desire to take the next step in the journey, so I decided to put off The King of Limbs for a little while.

That little while turned into a long while. Summer was long gone, autumn had disappeared and we were well into what passes for winter in Nice—February, to be precise. While our winters are still full of sunshine, on that particular day an icy fog had crept into the city, soon to be followed by a burst of heavy rain—the kind of gloomy, miserable day when you just want to snuggle up on the couch with a warm blanket and let the outside world go to hell. Instead of reading, I spent my afternoon listening to The King of Limbs.

“Wow!” I thought when the music had ended. “This is way better than I thought!”

I think two things skewed my initial perception of The King of Limbs (three things, if you count the cover). Mood is always a factor, and I vaguely remember my mood before the first go-round as “trembling with excitement.” What I heard on that first pass of The King of Limbs was “slow and subdued,” offering very little that could accommodate my excitement and sense of anticipation. And though I forever warn against it, the common bias of comparing this album to the last was probably in play. In Rainbows had greater sonic range and plenty of punch, whereas The King of Limbs operates more on the subtle side of the ledger.

Several critics had the same initial reaction of disappointment; some got over it, some still haven’t. I noticed a snippet by Ann Powers (then writing for the Los Angeles Times) that may account for my late embrace of The King of Limbs. ” . . . fans and critics have already been registering wildly divergent reactions: some think it’s one of the band’s best efforts; others find it too low-key or similar to previous work; a few consider it awfully doomy, and a few others wish it were less abstract.”

Awfully doomy. My reunion with The King of Limbs took place in February 2017, one month after Trump’s inauguration. If there was ever a time to feel “doomy,” that was it. The theory that The King of Limbs is at least partially a pre-apocalyptic expression of despair is supported by Neil McCormick’s comments on “Give Up the Ghost” in The Daily Telegraph, where he described it as “A campfire song for the end of the world.” Thom Yorke has long despaired (and rightly so) the continuing destruction of the natural environment by our relentlessly wasteful species, another reason to lend credence to doom theory. Whether it was the relatively subdued music (perfect for a rainy day) or the evocation of feelings that were in sync with mine, my mind was now open to exploring this unusual and fascinating piece of work.

Another complaint lodged against The King of Limbs has to do with Radiohead’s approach to the recording process. Essentially, most of The King of Limbs is built from drum samples, instrumental loops, nature sounds and a whole lot of software manipulation. The boys used the smaller pieces to put together blocks of music, then handed them over to Thom Yorke to write the lyrics and vocal melodies. Musical Legos! The greatest challenge that arose from the building block process was that it took months for the band to figure out how to perform the songs live, delaying the supporting tour. The very idea that good music can be achieved through software code offends many purists, but to imply (as Stephen Erlewine did in his review for AllMusic) that all this newfangled software automatically results in something “cold” and distant is old-fart thinking. Digital technology is as much a creative tool as a piano; recording software is in fact a human product; and whether or not music comes out “cold” has more to do with the skill of the musicians than the tools they used to create and perform the music. The King of Limbs is hardly lacking when it comes to emotional impact, and some of the songs are strikingly beautiful.

Many Radiohead fans have noted that the songs get better as the album progresses, and while I don’t agree with the first-half-weak/second-half-great summation, it is true that most of the impact comes later. The opening songs establish the basic musical premise, as voiced by Ed O’Brien: “Rhythm is the king of limbs.” If you read that and associate “rhythm” and “dance rhythm,” you’ll be sorely disappointed (unless you associate “dance” with Thom Yorke’s heavily-memed, choreographed performance on the “Lotus Flower” video). The first three tracks use rhythm in unique and varied ways—contrasting rhythms to highlight tension, slipping rhythms to communicate a sense of uncertainty, shifting rhythms to draw out disconnection.

“Bloom” opens with a lovely piano loop quickly truncated and overwhelmed by drum and bass loops featuring quick, crowded beats that communicate a state of “busy-ness,” or “hyperactive brain buzz.” Thom Yorke’s vocal, however is heavy on elongated notes, seemingly moving forward at half-speed in comparison to the still-busy beats. The contrast is a perfect aural representation of that feeling you get when you’re dog-tired but drank too much caffeine, and while your body’s ready to crash, your brain is going a hundred miles a minute. Thom Yorke’s comments about the origins of the song describe a similar experience while watching the BBC’s The Blue Planet: “It was me lying on the sofa trying to go to sleep after being up too late with my young son and it was just coming in and out of my subconscious,” and the lyrics capture those semi-conscious images (“A giant turtle’s eyes/As jellyfish float by”). The first verse melts into an extended instrumental passage where the words melt into breaths and vocalizations, fading beautifully into a well-layered cascade of flugelhorns (arranged by Jonny Greenwood), all while the busy rhythm runs unabated. The horns provide additional contrast when the vocal resumes, but we are always drawn to the ever-present rhythm. While “Bloom” isn’t exactly your classic opener, it’s a well-constructed piece of colliding rhythms and textures mirroring real life experience.

“Morning Mr. Magpie” had been lying around in the Radiohead pile for some time. It started out as a raw acoustic number, then apparently went through several transformations, none of which worked. The acoustic version (you can find it on YouTube) has the virtue of chord diversity and clarity, but clearly lacks something, most apparently in the awkward rhythmic shifts. While The King of Limbs version certainly resolves the rhythmic problem—using the nervous rhythm to amplify the narrator’s frustration with his inability to write music—I find this application of a “busy” beat more annoying than insightful. I’m also not sure why Thom Yorke would fall back on the silly myth of the magpie’s penchant for thievery as an explanation for writer’s block. Even more curious is Thom Yorke expressing frustration at losing his gift for melody; after all, he told Q Magazine in a piece on Kid A that “I’d completely had it with melody. I just wanted rhythm. All melodies to me were pure embarrassment.” Oddly enough, the song that bemoans the loss of the melodic touch became a rhythmic playground in its “final” manifestation—and my least favorite song on the album.

My ears do perk up to the opening passages of “Little by Little,” with its reverse acoustic strum and layered guitars climbing the scale with falling note patterns over a salsa-influenced rhythm. My ears shut down as soon as I hear Thom Yorke’s vocal, one seriously lacking in intent, commitment or both. While still not perfect—fundamentally, I don’t think the song is one of their best—the live and televised versions of “Little by Little” feature an edginess that is completely missing from The King of Limbs version.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, this is a favorable review. I made a full consumer-oriented disclosure at the start—it does get better! A lot better!

The good times begin with the instrumental “Feral,” a piece that gets so little attention or respect that there is a Reddit thread called, “Where’s the Love for Feral??” From my perspective, if Radiohead had come out with a 5-song EP that opened with “Feral” and included the last four tracks on The King of Limbs, I would have pronounced it the greatest fucking EP ever released.

I don’t think it’s accurate to say “Feral” has an opening passage, for it feels like we’ve walked into a performance in progress. Without any introductory fanfare, the energetic beats and the simple G-minor pattern (first variation low, second through fourth variations an octave higher) establish the center of the vortex around which the other blocks of sound will revolve. Thom Yorke enters slightly off-center, singing a descending scale-friendly pattern of blurred lyrics, then reappears further off-center on a higher plane, his voice drenched in the kind of natural reverb you might hear in a cathedral. The effect is positively ecclesiastic, giving the piece a ghostly, supernatural tinge. At the end of the next vocal pair, the synthesized bass enters, giving us a brief foretaste of what is to come. The vocal loops then become more scattered, creating a sense of disturbance reinforced by varying levels of loudness. When the beats fade further into the background and the vocal sounds like someone running out of breath, the ominous, sustained sound of a synthesizer slowly fills the background while the bass re-enters the mix, further crowding the soundscape. The pressure becomes quite intense, and the feeling I get is “pleasant claustrophobia,” similar to the weird delight we feel when viewing the scene in the horror flick when the evil monster is closing in on the innocent young lass. When the band backs off and cuts the bass, it’s almost like “whew, that was a close one!” When the basic pattern returns, it feels almost like relief—almost because of the natural melancholy inherent in a minor chord. But like in any decent scary movie, a more frightening manifestation appears when the pressure from the bass returns and Thom goes full ecclesiastic. In the fade, everything disappears except for the sound of a computerized metronome and that something-wicked-this-way-comes bass run. Given the song’s title, it wouldn’t be illogical to connect that wickedness to a wild animal, but personally I find the ecclesiastical vocals much more disturbing. I can deal with wild animals or werewolves, but cathedrals, chapels and churches freak me the fuck out (Sainte-Chapelle excepted). Whatever your personal sensitivities, “Feral” is a thrilling listening experience—and if you love bass as much as I do, check out the even more ferocious manifestation on the From the Basement version.

“Lotus Flower” is better known as a video than a song thanks to a series of satiric video memes. Sadly, none of them made the Top 30 Most Popular YouTube Memes of All Time on Wondershare, losing out to a baby laughing at the sound of ripping paper, a dramatic chipmunk and a couple of World of Warcraft gamers.

Moving on from the Who Gives a Shit? List of Useless Lists, all I’ll say about the video is that Thom Yorke has fantastic control of his body parts.

Here we’re more concerned with the music, and “Lotus Flower” is a sinuous, sexy beauty of a song, and anyone who thinks loop-based musical construction results in cold and abstract music is a fucking idiot. The drum and bass loops form to create a groove I could dance to forever, while the subtle off-beat handclaps shake up the pattern and awaken the listener (or dancer) to rhythmic pockets beyond the obvious. Thom Yorke attacks the song largely at the upper end of the range with perfect dynamic command of his falsetto, occasionally supported by emphasizing loops (on the keyword “heart,” for example). Musically speaking, “Lotus Flower” is as close to perfection as it gets.

The lyrics appear to tell a story of an illicit affair (“We would shrink and then be quiet as mice/And while the cat is away/Do what we want/Do what we want”); what keeps the affair going is the sheer beauty of the sexual connection; what endangers it is a combination of guilt (his) and narcissism (hers). He is willing to shape himself into her pocket, and even shrink and disappear as a human being, but there is a limit to his submissiveness:

There’s an empty space inside my heart
Where the weeds take root
So now I set you free
I’ll set you free

That may be true, but he can’t deny the beauty they create together, and the what “could be”:

Slowly we unfold
As lotus flowers
Cause all I want is the moon upon a stick
Just to see what if

Sadly, reality intrudes in its usual annoying fashion . . . and in the end he’s the Tin Man singing, “If She Only Had a Heart.”

Just to see what is
I can’t kick your habit
Just to feed your fast-ballooning head
Listen to your heart

In the last verse, he still feels the pull of the lotus flower, but the dangers outweigh its attraction  (“I dance around the pit/The darkness is beneath). While sometimes Thom’s lyrics seem like deliberate attempts to befuddle, the lyrics to “Lotus Flower” are spot-on.

Since everyone in the universe has seen the official music video, I will give readers a choice. You can take another look at Thom’s dancing, or you can watch a time-lapse video of a lotus flower unfolding (a wondrous experience).

YouTube player
YouTube player

“Lotus Flower” would be a hard song to follow in almost any circumstance . . . unless you happen to have “Codex” handy, a work of humble majesty and awesome beauty.

The word “codex” refers to ancient manuscripts, often with the implication of ancient wisdom. The sacred act of “washing the filth away” exists in texts as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh. Marcus Aurelius encouraged his audience to “Look round at the courses of the stars, as if thou wert going along with them; and constantly consider the changes of the elements into one another; for such thoughts purge away the filth of the terrene life.” Closer to our times, Picasso claimed that “the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Thom Yorke told Rolling Stone that “Codex” was “about washing yourself clean in a world of dirty water.” The filth that Enkidu washed away was the dirt and dust from a long journey, symbolism grounded in the natural world. Over time the filth we need to remove has become more spiritual and symbolic, whether it’s the Christian preacher ranting about filth of sin that blackens the soul or the modern experience of the grunge that contaminates our beings through the simple act of living in an often dishonest, manipulative world. “Codex” is a quiet celebration of the longed-for moment when we once again feel in touch with our innocent selves.

Opening with an onrushing sound that ends in a truncated human cry, we shift immediately to the dominant piano chord pattern that resolves in D minor. I love this pattern—and it’s not the chords that grab my attention but the touch. The chords feel like they’re floating above the arrangement, with just the right amount of sustain and percussive pressure. And no, I don’t give a rat’s ass whether or not this effect was achieved through human fingers or through software—the sound is simply beautiful, whatever the source. Sometimes when I start to practice, I’ll begin with the “Codex” pattern to work on my touch and pedal skills (which always need work because I have a tendency to overplay when I get excited).

Over that floating pattern, Thom Yorke enters with a vocal that captures the tiredness of the soul gazing longingly at the clean, clear water. His deliberately understated vocal pairs perfectly with the restrained piano and the slow, metronomic beat. A brief flugelhorn passage follows the second verse, combining a touch of melancholy with a splash of clarity. The narrator who has guided our lost soul to the water’s edge offers final words of encouragement, repeating the inviting line, “The water’s clear and innocent.” At this point, the song proper disappears, replaced by a string section courtesy of The London Telefilmonic Orchestra. I’ve always heard this transition as one between the air and the water, the shift from exhaustion to cleansing, and as we reconnect with the dominant pattern, we emerge from the pool to the lovely sounds of singing birds that we probably ignored before the soul cleansing.

The video does a wonderful job of uncovering the filth inherent in the daily experience and the lies we tell ourselves and others in our soul-crushing efforts to survive in a heavily contaminated world.

YouTube player

“Codex” transitions directly into “Give Up the Ghost,” a song notable for its subtle but persistent acoustic strum and its perpetual haunting refrain of “Don’t hurt me.” One interpretive path is to view “Give Up the Ghost” as a continuation of “Codex,” for a person who rediscovers lost innocence becomes extraordinarily vulnerable when re-engaging the living world. Another is to view the message as the result of the enlightenment experience of “Codex” and the emerging awareness that we are one, regardless of station, and that together we can achieve the impossible.

Gather up the lost and sold
In your arms

Gather up the pitiful
In your arms

What seems impossible
In your arms

However, neither interpretation solves the puzzle of the last two verses, which seem to express despair (“I think I have had my fill/In your arms” and “I think I should give up the ghost/In your arms”). The clues in the music are encouraging—a chord structure heavy on sustained chords without a hint of minor or diminished chords supports the more positive interpretation—but all expressions of hope for a better world are by necessity tinged with melancholy because of the unacceptable present that sparks the dream. We wouldn’t hope if the world wasn’t such a mess.

Thom Yorke is again at the top of the game with his lead and background vocals, which come together in completely mesmerizing fashion. The supportive touches of synth and guitar never distract from the core patterns, and as in “Codex,” the beat support is stripped to essentials. Another beauty!

YouTube player

We end with “Separator,” a song that beautifully synthesizes many of the musical and lyrical themes on The King of Limbs. The lyrics revisit the resurrection/cleansing theme of “Codex,” the bonding urge of “Give Up the Ghost” and the challenges of relationships noted in “Lotus Flower.” Here, Thom leaves the world of the waking dead by making an affirmative, assertive choice—the blessed act of liberation par excellence:

It’s like I’ve fallen out of bed from a long and vivid dream
Finally I’m free of all the weight I’ve been carrying

And as that woman blows her cover
In the eye of the beholder
I’m a fish now, out of water
Falling off a giant bird that’s been carrying me

I fell open, I lay under
At the tea parlour
I lost your number
And once it’s over
Hid back under

If you think this is over, then you’re wrong (4)

The glorious ending cry of “Wake me up” is such a delight to hear in a world where it seems there are more and more people yearning to sleep forever with their heads firmly stuck up their asses.

The music is remarkable for the wonderful build, a slow progression where additions accumulate piece by piece over the always steady beat. The orgasmic moment is heralded by four measures of relative stillness leading to the tea parlor verse, when Thom’s vocal receives counterpoint support from sweetly melodic stereo guitars. Those guitars give me the chills every time I hear them, and when you know something is coming but it still gives you the chills, that’s great fucking music, my friends! From this point forward the challenge for the listener is to select a focal point in a smorgasbord of delightful sounds—the guitar patterns, Thom’s lead vocal, Thom’s background vocals, the suddenly assertive bass—the collective sound is so captivating it’s almost overwhelming. “Separator” provides both a satisfying sense of completion and ringing confirmation that “Videotape” wasn’t just luck, but definitive proof that Radiohead had finally mastered the art of the album closer.

I’ve pointed out in other reviews that sometimes Radiohead’s seeming obsession with slow songs drives me to distraction, but after indulging myself in the wonderful slow-tempo songs that dominate The King of Limbs, I have—what is that bullshit line politicians use? Oh, yes—my position has EVOLVED. Now I see that the earlier attempts at slow-song perfection demonstrated just how difficult it is to achieve, and given the overwhelmingly successful results on The King of Limbs, we should be very thankful that Radiohead continued on their quest. The King of Limbs may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re in the mood for rich, reflective and evocative music featuring marvelous rhythms at relaxed tempos, I guarantee you a beautiful experience.

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Independent music reviewer appearing on altrockchick.com and 50thirdand3rd.com. Originally from San Francisco, I am now a French/EU citizen living in Nice. And I look great in leather.

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