It’s time to appreciate Radiohead’s ‘The King of Limbs’
By the time Radiohead go on their massive summer tour (including four sold out shows at NYC's Madison Square Garden) in continued support of A Moon Shaped Pool, it will have been over two years since it came out. That's a long time for a band with a 25-year career to be able to support a new album -- compare them to, say, fellow '90s alt-rock band Smashing Pumpkins, who are promising to only play old stuff on tour this summer and still selling less tickets that Radiohead -- but for Radiohead, it feels normal. They never look backwards and they always make great albums. They don't need to do a nostalgia thing like the Pumpkins, they don't need to make comeback attempt after comeback attempt like Weezer, and they don't stir things up with endless updates on possibly non-existent albums like Tool. You can't call A Moon Shaped Pool a "comeback" because Radiohead never went anywhere, and it's not some "best album since the '90s" situation like a lot of bands their age go for. They've put out plenty of great albums since the '90s, and A Moon Shaped Pool isn't even their best album released this decade.
Yep, you read it right and no I'm not talking about the From the Basement version. Now that the initial impact of A Moon Shaped Pool has worn off, it's a good time to look at the two albums Radiohead released this decade and realize that 2011's The King of Limbs is the superior one. A Moon Shaped Pool is a great album (we named it the 24th best album of 2016), but it was kind of a safe album for Radiohead to make. There are some out-there moments, but the album is full of big-sounding, instantly likable songs (including "True Love Waits" which had already been a fan favorite for years) and easy-to-listen-to acoustic ballads. It's still Radiohead so it's still weird and complex and breathtaking, but it's the kind of an album that Radiohead fans are predetermined to like. It's an OK Computer; The King of Limbs is a Kid A. OK Computer and Kid A are two of the finest rock albums released ever, but Kid A challenged listeners, was harder to imitate, and remains an ever-so-slightly more interesting album than its predecessor today. There's still not much that sounds like it, and likewise, there still hasn't been much music like The King of Limbs in the seven years since it came out. (It actually just turned seven last week.) The King of Limbs is not as good as Kid A, but it's also far from the worst Radiohead album and it is regularly considered their worst or second worst (to Pablo Honey), which is a major disservice to such an interesting album.
TKOL is like Kid A not just because it was Radiohead following a hugely beloved milestone album with something more challenging (in TKOL's case, it was following In Rainbows), but also because of the approach to the songwriting and the way it interacted with the other music of the time. By the late '90s, a lot of rock musicians saw that rock was on its way out and electronic music and hip hop were continuing to rise, and some of the more forward-thinking rock musicians were trying to get ahead of the curve and bridge the gap between those things. Radiohead were of course no exception. You could already feel it beginning on OK Computer, but it really crystallized the following year when Thom Yorke hopped on trip-hop group UNKLE's "Rabbit In Your Headlights." If that song doesn't sound like the catalyst for Kid A, I don't know what does. Kid A isn't exactly trip-hop, but that was one of the prevailing trends in electronic music at the time and you could hear Radiohead interacting with that sound and re-purposing it in the context of a live rock band. That same thing happened with The King of Limbs. A month after Radiohead released In Rainbows, Burial released the groundbreaking Untrue and sort of wrote the blueprint for the post-dubstep/future garage boom that would happen over the next few years. Thom Yorke noticed, and had Burial remix a song off his solo album The Eraser, as well as Four Tet, who was dipping his toes in a similar sound and would go on to collaborate with Burial. Around the same time Radiohead dropped TKOL, Thom Yorke, Burial, and Four Tet put out the collaborative "Ego" / "Mirror" single, and like with Kid A and UNKLE, it's hard to imagine that "Ego" / "Mirror" and TKOL weren't coming from a similar headspace.
On six of the eight songs on The King of Limbs, Radiohead's complex rhythm section sounds like it's aiming to re-create Burial's stuttering rhythms with a rock band's setup -- it made sense that Radiohead added a second touring drummer before playing these songs live (longtime Portishead contributor Clive Deamer). Like he was doing on Kid A, Thom Yorke was often manipulating his voice and using it as an instrument the way electronic musicians who work with or sample vocalists often do, and guitars and pianos were often used for repetition and atmosphere, similar to the way producers like Burial layer sounds. The only song that really sounds at all like a traditional rock band is the acoustic ballad "Give Up The Ghost," and even that song has a minimal drum beat and a repeated backing vocal that mimic post-dubstep. (It's also as beautiful as nearly any acoustic Radiohead song this side of "Karma Police.") And it's still admirable to think this was all coming from one of the biggest rock bands in existence. Radiohead surely have the ability to write a whole bunch of "Paranoid Android" knockoffs if they want to, but instead they fully embraced a gorgeous yet experimental style of underground electronic music -- a sound that still never got that popular -- and made it work in the context of mainstream rock. It's not easy to find a band that was dominating radio and MTV in the '90s, and that today is still getting nominated for Grammys, still cracking the top 3 on Billboard album charts, still headlining arenas and festivals, and making songs as tripped-out and futuristic as "Feral." Tons of modern bands that call themselves "psychedelic" have learned to imitate The Beatles, but "Feral" channels the spirit of what The Beatles were actually doing in the late '60s: looking anywhere for interesting sounds and bringing them to the masses in memorable, exciting ways.
"Feral" is probably the most out-there moment on TKOL, but the album succeeds in ways besides just pure weirdness. Opener "Bloom" is one of the most lush-sounding moments in Radiohead's discography, and the acid-washed "open your mouth wiiiii-ahh-ahh-iiiiide" lyric that begins both the song and album puts you in a daze immediately. Following it with "Morning Mr. Magpie" makes for a fantastic one-two punch. It's one of the most memorable and accessible songs on the album, and may have been a better choice for lead single. The actual single was "Lotus Flower," a groovy, bass-heavy, perfectly fine song with an awesome falsetto-fueled chorus that seems to get a bad rap just because of its silly music video. "Little By Little" is another one, like "Morning Mr. Magpie," where there's a real-deal pop song trying to pop its head out from under the experimentation, and it's one of the album's best. The quieter "Codex" and "Separator" bookend "Give Up The Ghost," and together, the three songs make for a nice comedown from the album's dizzying first half.
There's really not a weak moment on the album, and there's not another album in the band's discography that sounds like this one. It's got some of their most experimental music, and it still finds ways to be accessible. If it was another band's debut, the music community would probably be freaking out about how good it was. I know expectations are higher when you're Radiohead, but at the same time, being Radiohead is arguably what makes an album as unique as TKOL even more interesting. It wouldn't be as radical if, say, Mount Kimbie made this album, because we expect experimental live band/electronic music crossover from them (but it may have been received more positively if they did). But Radiohead are putting this music in the hands of thousands of people who may go their entire lives without hearing a band like Mount Kimbie (or Burial). TKOL is like David Bowie introducing the mainstream to ambient music on Low. It’s a risky move for such a popular act, and it’s major exposure for a type of underground music that deserves it. Even some of the more universally loved Radiohead albums can't say they do that.