Whether you like Radiohead or not, there’s no denying their style when it comes to releasing albums. On Monday they sprung an announcement on us; yesterday, a day earlier than announced, The King Of Limbs arrived in the world. Music hacks went into overdrive cobbling together some thoughts based on a couple of listens, and most of the early reviews are only of value as first impressions. Personally, I don’t feel anywhere near ready to write a considered appraisal of the album, but here are a few early observations.
First, let me state for the record that Radiohead have been a hugely important and formative band for me. Ditto many of my peers. Ditto my 18-year-old brother. Ditto people I know who are in their thirties or forties. There can’t be many bands who are not only lionised but jealously owned by so many generations. A new Radiohead album would be a huge event with or without the surprise release stunts. The pressure on them is hard to imagine, especially because – unlike most bands – they have a fanbase who expect, even demand a change of direction with each album.
In Rainbows wasn’t especially radical, but it was utterly gorgeous. The King of Limbs lacks the melodic strength of its predecessor and it lacks the shock of the new. We’ve heard many of these ideas before, some of them on Yorke’s solo record The Eraser. And in some ways The King Of Limbs has The Eraser’s bedroom-y feel: even the orchestral arrangement in Codex is heard through a lo-fi haze. At 37 minutes it feels short, which has less to do with time (Revolver and Pet Sounds are shorter) than with a lack of variety.
That includes dynamic variety. I’ve no obsession with compression: it can be used for good or ill. But look at these full-to-bursting waveforms for the 1st and 2nd track. The rest of the album isn’t quite as extreme, but it is relentlessly beat-driven. Even the serene ballad Codex has a (sonically) dull kick drum sound insistently marking time. Only Give Up The Ghost, where the backbeat is simply struck on the body of an acoustic guitar, has much in the way of rhythmic space.
The video for Lotus Flower – in with Thom Yorke throws some serious shapes – is telling us the same thing as the music: this is, at heart, a dance record. Not that antsy, dancey rhythms are anything new for Radiohead, but they are unusually aggressive and insistent here. Moreover, every track is in 4/4, unlike Hail To The Thief’s clever-clever time signatures (less ostentatiously, In Rainbows began with a track in 5, then one in 4, then one in 6).
There are certainly some great grooves on the album, though. Phil Selway will probably get pretty annoyed with people assuming (as I’ve already seen them assuming on the blogosphere) that all the drums were built by Thom on a laptop. I love his military-march-in-reverse on Bloom and the walk-run-walk-run groove on Separator. I’m also very partial to the Afrobeat guitars on Morning Mr Magpie. But much as I enjoy the details, the big picture – as with those waveforms – is rather flat. Perhaps the surprises will come on the tenth or twelfth listen. I hope so.