I was planning a whole day on Saturday for Radiohead’s “The King of Limbs,” but since it arrived early, it claimed most of my morning. I took a run with it, and because New York isn’t Godless after all, the weather allowed for a walk with it; I headphoned and looped it after lunch.
What I should do next is take a train ride with it: despite the excess of atmospherics and intricate tricks of the studio, the British band’s eighth full-length is surprisingly uncomplicated and a head-clearing brain-eraser, for its listener and, I suspect, for the band.
“The King of Limbs” is Radiohead’s first release since 2007’s magnificently moody “In Rainbows,” and in that time, Yorke’s made more strides as a solo artist, Jonny Greenwood has scored some films, “Harry Patch” and “These Are My Twisted Words” were released as standalones, Phil Selway released his first solo set, and so forth.
Reconvening after a period of separation clearly demanded some recalibration or unfurling. While Yorke’s coo and ambiguous lyrical codes haven’t seemed to change much, the band on the whole structurally threw a lot out the window; rather, they don’t lack structure, but their structures remain remarkably simple.
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Opener "Bloom" goes and goes with the same five notes, the repeating maneuverings, until it crescendos to a natural exhale. The one-two punch of the album’s only real rockers – “Morning Mr Magpie” and “Little by Little" – rev with similar fervor, though slight alterations in their percussive, machine-like core.
The former uses a reminiscent device, the nah-nah-nahs and quick breaths of “Kid A” cut "Everything in Its Right Place," as guitars loop and build. "Good morning Mr. Magpie / How are we today?” Yorke greets his omen. “Now you stole it / all the magic / took my melody.” That melody doesn’t really change chords, but wavers between major and minor. On the latter, it’s mostly the constant chugging of drum machines, bright cymbals, hand percussion and kit built around a “complication” of guitar ascents. Little by little the volume is pushed up, the girth of noise starts exploding through its third minute, Yorke’s high-register voice helpless in battling the static.
"Feral" hardly qualifies as a rocker, despite the higher tempo and scuttling beat. Its an almost-experiment in trance, really, poking and prodding at the keys and other typical dancefloor elements but keeping an air of untested waters, a series of happy accidents, with notes falling over on themselves, starting too late or too early, uncomfortably leashed.
To me, it’s a palate cleanser before the album’s real triumphs, the sequencing and execution of the final four tracks. Beginning with “Lotus Flower,” which flourishes conceptually in the band’s first music video from the album, we start with a new canvas, Yorke “empty inside my heart.” There’s a letting go in “Codex”: “Jump off the end / into a clear lake / no one around… the water’s clear / and innocent ” Yorke encourages, the piano and strings cool against its dragging pulse like a late-night stoner anthem. Birds chirp into the abandon of “Giving Up the Ghost” – even in its title, a death to the sound of bat’s wings; and closure, the end with “Separator.” “Wake me up,” Yorke demands on the latter, contrasting the easy-going refrain “Don’t worry / don’t hurry” is sleepily panned on the other side. The acoustic-thumping track has a distinctly uplifting sound, as straightforward of a song as the band's allowed itself in some time.
Whether its with a bird or a flower, a clear lake that acts as the start of life or death, there’s ciphers in the lyrics, as well as in the expert collaboration within the rhythm section or the weird backtracking of a six-string. Outside of the mixing, Godrich has continued his ability to make a stereo album, using the front and the back of the room, as it were. There’s plenty of familiar ground covered in “The King of Limbs,” so nothing’s going to shove a Radiohead fan off his tracks; maybe that, too, is a reason to take it on the train.