I’ve noticed some rumbling in the site’s comments sections about The King Of Limbs, maybe the first time I’ve seen packs of Radiohead fans disgruntled, or at least underwhelmed, about a Radiohead album. Some of you have even suggested The Universal Sigh newspaper is no more than a gimmick to distract folks from the underwhelming record. (Not to mention Liam Gallagher’s take.) Or as Billboard put it: “Last time around, on 2007’s In Rainbows, the music was just as interesting as all of the hoopla surrounding the album’s impromptu, pay-what-you-will release. The King of Limbs cannot boast the same.” Even in positive reviews, like Pitchfork’s 7.9 assessment, there’s a sort of ho-hum vibe: There we’re told, “the band’s signature game-changing ambition is missed.” And Nitsuh Abebe writes for New York Magazine: “The whole album’s very, very understated, to the point where it leaves you with two main options: Either you find it gorgeous or you don’t much notice it at all.” What if you notice it, but don’t really care? Entertainment Weekly seems to hit the nail on the head for what most lukewarm or chilly reviewers are critiquing:
Like all Radiohead records, Limbs mutates and shifts in clever, unexpected ways; somehow, the band makes verse-chorus-verse structures seem embarrassingly outmoded. But it’s also tricky to find (or feel) an emotional center here, and the obvious hazard of focusing on atmospherics — and deliberately referencing other, less accessible genres, like dubstep and house — is that it can leave listeners feeling a bit like The King has no clothes: It’s mood over melody, intellect over gut.
Incisive enough, but you get the sense critics would be even, well, more critical if it weren’t Radiohead. Why’s everyone game to grin and bear it? Or point toward a lack of ambition as an afterthought to their attempts to accentuate the positive? Most reviews — positive or negative or somewhere stuck between the two — include a disclaimer of some sort, suggesting that maybe it’s the reviewer who’s at fault, not the game-changing band the reviewer hasn’t quite caught up with … Basically, people are very polite when it comes to Thom Yorke & Co.
More important than the journalists, though, are those commenters/fans I mentioned at the beginning. It doesn’t matter what I think about King Of Limbs, it matters that more than a few Radiohead diehards seem put-off, confused, and worst of all, bored. Of course, there are the people who want Radiohead to sound like the Radiohead they first fell in love with because they’ll always feel like alienated creeps, or whatever, but it also seems like fans of the exploratory band that refuses to stand still are also yawning a bit.
I’m not just interested in whether or not people like King Of Limbs. What’s interesting to me is if this rumble of non-excitement and half-asleep compliments means we’ll see a shift in the kid glove approach the band receives in the press. And, the bigger question: What does Radiohead’s quiet, less crowd-pleasing post-In Rainbows songwriting (and “gimmick” marketing) mean for the future of the band and its seemingly less and less 100% loyal fanbase? Like, is it possible for Radiohead to release a “dud”?
There are certain universal truths I’ve come to accept and rely upon to make sure the world’s in order and that I’ll live to see another day: That the first sip of coffee in the morning is better than subsequent sips, that people will be under-dressed but happy on the first warm day of Spring, that Law & Order manages to tie-up all the lose ends just when you’re losing faith, and that Radiohead fans follow the band with an almost blind adoration. What’s up?
If you haven’t listened to King Of Limbs yet, here’s a stream. As everyone suggests, your best bet’s putting on a pair of headphones first:
King Of Limbs is out now.