With The King Of Limbs—recorded in fits and starts over the course of a year, making it a virtual toss-off by Radiohead’s exacting standards—the band has made its most subliminal record. Dealing almost exclusively in sensation and texture, The King Of Limbs invites comparisons to the challenging abstractions and chilly atmospherics of Radiohead’s game-changing Kid A/Amnesiac period. The difference is that those records conveyed a sort of emotional paralysis; this one is about fumbling into motion.
After shoring up Radiohead’s guitar-rock credentials on 2003’s Hail To The Thief and 2007’s In Rainbows, six-string physicists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien once again step aside on The King Of Limbs. Radiohead focuses instead on its most underrated element, its rhythm section, particularly Phil Selway’s remarkable drumming. On the first two tracks, “Bloom” and “Morning Mr. Magpie,” Selway and bassist Colin Greenwood power the music to discomfiting velocity, creating a violently percussive bed for Thom Yorke’s languid vocals. The juxtaposition of speed and slow-motion replicates the feeling of being in a car crash, a recurring disaster in Radiohead songs. Only this time, the fear of losing control gives way to acceptance, or at least recognition that a free-fall to oblivion can be pretty damn exhilarating. “I will slip into the groove and cut me up and cut me up,” Yorke sings on “Lotus Flower,” Limbs’ catchiest song, a sensually slinky come-on that’s one remix away from being a dance-floor favorite (if that hasn’t happened already).
As is Radiohead’s custom, The King Of Limbs hasn’t been designed for immediate comprehension or acceptance. It’s densely detailed and intended to be pored over, with new, fascinating wrinkles emerging with every listen. (Marvel at how a trumpet, a synth line, and Yorke’s voice harmonize over the same wordless sigh on the mournful piano ballad “Codex.”) While The King Of Limbs always sounds great, the actual songs prove elusive—perhaps too elusive at times. (The dub-step dalliance “Feral” is best appreciated as a showcase for Selway’s rapid-fire time-keeping.) The album’s relatively skimpy 37-minute running time might suggest to some that this is Radiohead’s slightest effort yet, but there’s more to The Kings Of Limbs than revealed on first listen, and even well after that. Or, as Yorke himself says on the closing track, “Separator,” over the album’s swingiest backbeat, “if you think this is over, then you’re wrong.”