Radiohead’s most divisive album came out 10 years ago today. At one point that title might have gone to Kid A, which was extremely polarizing when it dropped back in 2000. But by now most people have either recognized Kid A‘s genius or weeded themselves out of the fan base. It’s just not that controversial anymore. Meanwhile the conflict surrounding The King Of Limbs is still going strong a decade later. Even among the faithful, some dismiss Radiohead’s eighth album as a massive disappointment, while others call it a misunderstood masterpiece.
The King Of Limbs had a lot of factors working against it. For one thing, after making fans wait three and a half years between albums, Radiohead had returned with just eight tracks totaling 37 minutes — not exactly a generous bounty. The brevity might have been overlooked if TKOL had not contained the fussiest, most greyscale music of the band’s career. In 2007, after more than four years, the band had rewarded the public’s patience with the warm, approachable In Rainbows, the closest thing to fan service they’ve ever released. By comparison, these songs were frigid and elusive. Many of them prioritized rhythm and texture over melody — “Rhythm is the king of limbs!” Ed O’Brien once explained, although the album is allegedly named for an ancient oak tree — yet they were too muted to be described as bangers. Certainly none of them smacked like they eventually would on stage, leading some fans to embrace the album later on and others to think of Radiohead’s Live From The Basement performances as the definitive versions of these songs.
On release day, Radiohead promoted The King Of Limbs with a music video for “Lotus Flower” featuring Thom Yorke doing some of his then-bizarre-now-trademark zany dancing in a buttondown shirt and a bowler hat, seemingly dead serious despite the hilarity of it all. It’s hard to say whether this instant meme fodder undermined The King Of Limbs for some listeners, but it definitely didn’t counteract the notion that Radiohead were finally as far up their own asses as their haters had always believed. And then there’s the sequencing. Limbs is largely backloaded, piling up its most cerebral material at the start and saving its most accessible songs for the end. I have to wonder how many listeners gave up trying to persevere through the first half’s skittering tundra before they even made it to the second half’s tender finale. It’s no wonder fan conspiracies about a sister album soon emerged, inspired by alleged clues such as Yorke singing, “If you think this is over, then you’re wrong,” on closing track “Separator.”
Radiohead did release more music later that year, though nothing resembling an album. Compounding the confusion over the tracklist were four songs released separately on a pair of double A-side singles, which represent some of the most thrilling and dynamic music of the TKOL era. “The Daily Mail” deserves a place among Yorke’s most powerful piano rockers — I gasped at that impeccable needle drop in Ozark last season — while “The Butcher” combines dance beats with Radiohead’s most dirge-like tendencies in fascinating ways. The breathless smeared-lens freakout “Staircase” is like a Hot Chip song descending into purgatory (in the best way). And the seven-minute slow-build “Supercollider” is the kind of epic that can work as an album’s centerpiece and spine. It’s easy to imagine a version of The King Of Limbs with some or all of these songs becoming a fan favorite.
Clearly, Radiohead had other intentions. Experimenting in the studio, including a three-week stint at Drew Barrymore’s house, they came up with an album about, in Yorke’s words, “wildness” and “mutating.” As their in-house artist Stanley Donwood explained to Pitchfork, “The whole idea of this album was to have something that was almost not existing.” In contrast to the “big, heavy, substantial” In Rainbows, The King Of Limbs was to sound “transitory” — here today, gone tomorrow, like a newspaper — hence the newsprint that was included with some limited edition vinyl editions of the album. “This album shows where Radiohead are at the moment the record was released,” Donwood said. “The music is a continuing thing. And we wanted to make the album representative of that.” The newspaper metaphor is helpful for understanding why the album seemed to have been recorded in black and white, and why so many of its songs sounded so flimsy compared to their live counterparts. Yet if anything, The King Of Limbs has improved with age rather than withered away.
At the time, given how rare new Radiohead albums had become, it was hard not to be disappointed with such a meager, willfully difficult collection of songs. With the benefit of hindsight, having come to know these tracks inside and out, it’s easier to appreciate that the band was willing to challenge its listeners. This involved challenging themselves as well. Smitten with their experience DJing at Los Angeles clubs at the height of the EDM era — in the thick of the experimental beat scene surrounding the Eastside club night Low End Theory — Yorke and the group’s longtime producer Nigel Godrich sought to more fully incorporate dance music into the band’s DNA. But Radiohead being Radiohead, it could never be as simple as dropping a dance beat over a guitar riff or cranking out umpteen variations on “Idioteque.” Instead, guitar wizard-turned-Hollywood composer Jonny Greenwood wrote his own sampling software, which he described as a “wonky, rubbish version” of Ableton Live. The band used this program to sample their own playing, creating loops that became the basis for Yorke’s songwriting.
The result is a bleary tangle of electronic and organic rhythms, one that briefly gives way to spare, transcendent beauty near the end. It begins with “Bloom,” the album’s most visceral track, which envisions the oceanic expanse as a cure for “a universal sigh.” Built from a heaving, sputtering drum loop that reminds me of Liars at their most confrontational, the song is eventually consumed by a ghostly orchestral swirl, building tension toward some central point and then finally exploding back outward. It’s a promising start, yet soon enough TKOL is piling on jittery, often tuneless tracks that represent their most challenging stretch of music to date. The brisk “Morning Mr. Magpie” is like Talking Heads (whose “Radio Head” gave this band its name) with the blood drained out. “Little By Little” matches a busily clattering rhythm with a guitar-based track that otherwise sounds like an unfinished demo. The mostly instrumental “Feral” barrels ahead with purpose but never seems to get anywhere.
By the time the second half kicks off with “Lotus Flower,” Yorke singing one of his sweet falsetto hooks is a salve, even if the song itself is not one of the group’s most fully realized. Then the lights go out, and The King Of Limbs trades dystopian club music hybrids for a dark night of the soul. The pairing of the transcendent piano ballad “Codex” and the acoustic “Give Up The Ghost” — the most artful open-mic-night looping-pedal exercise known to man — represent the beating heart of the album, the moment Radiohead abandon the forced experimentation and let themselves be gorgeous. The desolation that hangs over the album remains, particularly on “Codex,” which essentially sounds like a trudge through a snowstorm at night. I’d be kidding you if I claimed to grasp some kind of narrative thread, but within the arc of the album, “Give Up The Ghost” feels like finally achieving some kind of peace and intimacy after so much tumult. There’s a purifying, redemptive quality to hearing Yorke’s in conversation with himself, conjuring a supernatural lullaby over a bed of gentle guitar chords. For the listener, at least, it is the shelter from the storm.
After all that, “Separator” hits like a new day dawning, a notion underlined by Yorke’s lyrics: “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.” Setting delicate melodies atop a crisp backbeat and an unthreatening hum, the track is light, airy, and hopeful. Radiohead sound like they’ve purged whatever darkness haunted the rest of the album and are ready to venture out into the future, unburdened at last. Again and again, Yorke insists that “this” is not over, whatever “this” is — and then he and his bandmates drift off into the ether, into whatever adventures the horizon holds. As it turns out, the future has not involved much new Radiohead material. In the decade since The King Of Limbs, the band has only released one album, 2016’s mournful and masterful A Moon Shaped Pool. In the meantime there’s been plenty of rewarding Yorke music, several stirring Jonny Greenwood film scores, and some decent if unremarkable solo records from Phil Selway and Ed O’Brien. (Colin Greenwood album when?)
Perhaps this absence of new proper Radiohead music has inspired fans to spend more time with TKOL than they would have otherwise, combing its surface for something they missed early on. That’s certainly been true in my case, and as a result I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for its harsh climate and fidgety polyrhythms. I’ve recently learned the album makes a fine soundtrack for jogging across snow-covered suburban streets at the edge of a city’s industrial zone. With some distance from my initial confusion, I have even argued that The King Of Limbs, with its tight focus and expectation-defying boldness, is superior to 2003’s Hail To The Thief, an overlong yet unadventurous album propped up by a few of Radiohead’s all-time finest songs. If it was this or nothing, I’m glad they pushed themselves to keep evolving, and I’m glad they documented their struggle to transform rather than end the band. At this late date, coming up on five years since their last LP, this much is clear: Better to be flummoxed by new Radiohead than to have no new Radiohead at all.