In Defense Of The King Of Limbs
If you look at the numbers, The King Of Limbs was a success. Its Metacritic score rests at a robust 80, ranking it above 2001’s Amnesiac and tying it with Kid A. (Of course part of Kid A’s legend is specifically attributable to the fact that it took a moment for many listeners and critics alike to come around to it, and some of the reviews aggregated here are rooted in opinions doled out before Kid A ascended to the status it currently occupies as one of the most important records of the last 20 years.) Announced on Valentine’s Day 2011 and surprise-released through the band’s site just a few days later on February 18, The King Of Limbs supposedly sold around almost 400,000 copies through the band’s site alone. Even given Radiohead’s still arena-sized stature, those were big numbers for a rock band in 2011. Having entranced a new generation of listeners and riding high on critical goodwill for the game-changing release and overall excellence of 2007’s In Rainbows, Radiohead dropped The King Of Limbs to fevered anticipation, the kind that results in a “drop whatever you’re doing this afternoon, there’s a new goddamn Radiohead album on the internet” reaction. And then … everything was a bit more muted.
Again, there were solid-to-great reviews. But I remember the days, then weeks, then months, following the release of The King Of Limbs. There was an overwhelming sense of a hesitant shrug. After the uneven bloat of Hail To The Thief, In Rainbows was a strong return to form. In Rainbows was just a hell of an album, the kind of thing that had immediate moments of beauty in “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” or “Reckoner” or “House Of Cards,” but also absorbed you, the sort of album that wouldn’t let you go for a few months, at least. Those are the best kinds of albums, the sort Radiohead excels at making. As much as Radiohead have been defined by their grappling with and adapting to the 21st century and its technological developments, there is still a classicist element in how they conveyed all these ideas in works that were steadfastly representative of that “album-as-artwork” ideal. Leading up to The King Of Limbs, Thom Yorke voiced doubt in the format, suggesting the band might just start releasing singles and EPs. And, ultimately, that is sort of what it felt like we received — deep in the throes of my diehard Radiohead phase and deeply loyal to the idea that an album should be some cohesive, thematic whole, I spent a few months in 2011 justifying the album as two EPs stitched together, two four-song arcs that played off of one another.
Because there just felt like there was something missing, that there should’ve been more. Three and a half years had passed since the last Radiohead album, and this was their next big statement? Some fans simply didn’t like the music, a criticism leveled primarily at the first album’s half. Others, like me, were underwhelmed by the notion that after this wait — and, presumably, before a similarly long wait for the next Radiohead album — the band thought it made sense to release an eight-song album that, despite that wait, felt relatively dashed together. Nothing against short albums: Born To Run is eight songs and one of the most perfect representations ever of that album-as-artwork ideal. But The King Of Limbs didn’t hang together like that. (And I’m never going to buy the argument that “Feral” had any business being on that album, considering the other material from those sessions, more on which soon.) It wasn’t just me. There were enough Radiohead fans left confused by the non-event of The King Of Limbs that conspiracy theories proliferated about the idea that the album was merely the first entry in a larger arc, potentially of two sister projects or, even, the first of four seasonal EPs that would come together in some massive masterwork. People went crazy with this stuff, analyzing nonexistent clues in the music and images associated with the album, much of it springing from and collected on a site called The King Of Limbs Part 2, which now seems to live on as a general Radiohead fansite. (I’ll admit, I descended down this theorizing rabbithole a bit myself, but I remember being more “I want to believe” than “I drank the Kool-Aid.”)
Outside of all that, The King Of Limbs popped up here and there come end-of-year list season, but often in more of a “Because it’s Radiohead” way than “This lit the year on fire” way. Now we’re four years along, and Radiohead is just now working on a follow-up, and The King Of Limbs — combined with the good-but-getting-repetitive nature of Atoms For Peaces’ AMOK and the total non-entity of Yorke’s solo record last year — has seemingly been detrimental to the band’s standing. Sure, there’s still a ton of anticipation for whatever this new record winds up being, but we’re approaching the decade mark since Radiohead blew everyone’s minds with In Rainbows. A lot of people don’t seem to care about this band anymore. It’s a lot easier to say, “I don’t get the big deal with Radiohead” without a swarm of music geeks descending from the frozen hellscape sky of Kid A’s cover to eviscerate you on the spot. Sometimes I’m worried that the band has disappeared too far up its own collective ass, has become too comfortable with “pushing boundaries” with 10-year-old ideas, and that The King Of Limbs marks the beginning of a stale middle age. I hope it’s not true. I hope this next record proves that theory wrong.
But, until then, I’m here to convince you — and, maybe, myself — that The King Of Limbs isn’t as weak a link in Radiohead’s chain as it has come to be considered in the years since its release. As all the background above might suggest, any defense of The King Of Limbs has to come with some caveats. You’d be hard-pressed to find a fan who’d call it his or her favorite of the band’s work. And if we’re talking about the band that released some of the all-time high-watermark albums-as-artwork like OK Computer and Kid A, there’s little room to argue that The King Of Limbs can hold up as an album. It feels too brief, too small for the gravity Radiohead have accrued, and the gravity with which they like to carry themselves and attach to their music, even in their lighter, jokier latter-’00s days of Thom Yorke “Lotus Flower” dance moves. (There was a time when the idea of a Radiohead video synced to “Surfin’ Bird” would’ve been unimaginable.)
There are, in my mind, two ways to look at The King Of Limbs in a more positive light, the first being on a song-by-song basis. As an extension of that, there’s the bigger picture, looking at The King Of Limbs as an unfinished project that, yeah, didn’t come to completion via more EPs or something, but was fleshed out by a few singles, a second and still incredible From The Basement session, and the band’s live show in general.
First, the songs. Radiohead have a way with openers, and “Bloom” continues that trend — it’s all haunting, otherworldly build with no true release, a cinematic entry into the chillingly autumnal world of The King Of Limbs. “Little By Little” and “Lotus Flower” are solid; “Good Morning Mr. Magpie” is a bit of a weaker moment, true, and like I said before, I still think “Feral” doesn’t have any right to be on an eight-song album. What I really want to talk about here is that last three-song run: “Codex” into “Give Up The Ghost” into “Separator.” That’s one of the greatest collections of songs in Radiohead’s catalog. Chris DeVille and I were talking about this recently and he characterized it as such: “Codex” and “Give Up The Ghost” are some “real dark night of the soul shit,” with “Separator” being the sunrise. And it’s true — those two songs are some of the saddest in the Radiohead canon. “Give Up The Ghost” has a reverie element to it, but it sounds like a distant, echoing voice from the afterlife. And “Separator” right afterward is a bright left turn of the sort the band has hardly ever recorded. Catchy, pretty, hopeful-sounding, “Separator” is an epilogue that sounds like an entirely different band, building on the steady layering of simple parts to reach the quiet euphoria of its conclusion. The way these songs flow, the way they play off each other, combines to become one of the most beautiful 15-minute stretches of music Radiohead have ever put together.
And then there were all the other songs that so many fans probably didn’t even notice: “Supercollider,” “The Butcher,” “The Daily Mail,” “Staircase.” Here’s the problem with the idea of just putting out an eight-song album and a trickle of singles: It belies a certain kind of detachment or arrogance, assuming that people are going to just keep up with you through all the frenetic activity of their daily lives. I paid close attention because I love Radiohead, but it’ll never stop bothering me that The King Of Limbs wasn’t fleshed out with these songs, because these are some great songs. “Supercollider” has become one of my absolute favorite Radiohead songs, and it angers me that there are people out there who might not have ever been exposed to it because they were underwhelmed by the album itself and didn’t keep paying attention, or the fact that it has a de facto “leftover” feel being released as a non-album single right on the heels of the actual album. On my iPod, I have a playlist called “TKOL Complete,” where I’ve filed these songs amongst the existing record, and it plays amazingly well. “Supercollider” and “Staircase,” in particular, fit in perfectly, fill out the story, give the whole listening experience an expansiveness that the album suggests but largely denies. I know that might not come off as a ringing endorsement of the album as a discrete work, and it’s not. The King Of Limbs will always fail on that level for me. But as a project, some of my favorite Radiohead music came out of it — some of the songs I’m still going back to on a semi-frequent basis. The band, at least, still has the goods.
You’d be forgiven for walking away from The King Of Limbs not thinking the songs were on the band’s usual level, though, especially after songwriting was front and center on In Rainbows following some of the more experimental, textural years. The album was recorded in a strange way — the band members would play their parts, then cut and sample them, editing and looping the songs into existence in a process Yorke compared to that of editing a film. That, like the process of editing jams into songs for AMOK, is more interesting philosophically than it is musically. This is why people find the music on The King Of Limbs compressed, flat, inert for all its hyperactive movement.
There’s no question, the band made a curious album that way, but one that did a disservice to these songs. While I might be more of a 21st century Radiohead fan than anything, these songs still strike me as being amongst the band’s best, and that’s almost entirely rooted in the fact that I got to see them play this stuff live, with Portishead’s Clive Deamer filling in on a second drumkit. That experience, to me, is the real King Of Limbs. Those choppy, 2D loops become these polyrhythmic monsters live. Melodic flourishes come to the fore where they were buried on the recording. Grooves become paramount — these really become dance songs, of a sort, when you see them onstage, and suddenly Yorke’s crazy “Lotus Flower” flailing doesn’t seem so crazy after all. A band in the studio and a band live might be two entirely different animals, but the same problem that plagued the Atoms For Peace record first plagued The King Of Limbs. Dedicated instead to some neat recording trick instead of the music, the band didn’t let this stuff breathe properly. Live, you hear their love of the Talking Heads, you hear a funkiness and a looseness even within the darker songs. You hear muscle and movement and bodies existing where the now tapped-out ingenuity of Radiohead’s electronic impulses has begun to make their recorded music brittle. I still wish they’d let themselves sound like this in the studio, but it also gives me some hope: It suggests possibilities for their music that I didn’t think were there.
And that’s sort of where I’ve landed with The King Of Limbs as a whole in recent times. It’s very good, occasionally great music by a pivotal band that nevertheless felt like something of a letdown because it wasn’t, ultimately, some genius stroke none of us expected. You can get into a whole other thing about how it’s impossible for almost any artist to exist and continue to impress under that kind of expectation, but the whole thing about Radiohead is that they are — and hopefully not were — one of those artists. So I look at The King Of Limbs as something of a transitional moment, which might be a tad generous when we’re going four years between albums, but nonetheless. There are eight songs on the album, and a handful of them suggest whole other worlds for Radiohead, even before you get to the live versions. Could you imagine a whole record of soul-crushing, spectral folk along the lines of “Give Up The Ghost?” (Considering the live versions Yorke once played of “Lotus Flower” and “Separator” — then called “Mouse Dog Bird” — this is actually what I thought The King Of Limbs might’ve been before it came out.) Could you imagine a whole record of sensuous, infectious Radiohead like “Separator?” I’m still willing to believe in The King Of Limbs because of these things.
Check out more from Radiohead Week on Stereogum here.
[Artwork by Travis Braun.]