In Don DeLillo’s strange novella The Body Artist, a grieving widow is supernaturally visited by a mysterious man. The man—Mr. Tuttle—doesn’t talk much, but when he does he seems to repeat phrases uttered by the couple in the house. Mr. Tuttle does absolutely nothing to help the widow mourn her lost husband and, in the process, seems to do everything. With that in mind, Radiohead’s eighth album, The King of Limbs, is their own version of Mr. Tuttle: it arrives suddenly like a ghost muttering words that seem oddly familiar and it disappears just as suddenly, leaving you with a dulled sense of loss.
When I studied the cover of The King of Limbs at my desk last Monday morning, I tried to imagine the sonic weirdness that could possibly represent the twin neon monsters lurking in a dark forest: odd time signatures, twitchy guitar sketches, beautiful yowls that imperceptibly morph into nasty snarls. Radiohead, of course, have always channeled their fear of these kinds of monsters in their music. These ghouls usually take the shape of isolating technology or environmental degradation or the indifferent powers of the state. But The King of Limbs doesn’t really bear out this anticipation because those aren’t monsters. Those are the grotesque ghosts that haunt this somber album. On The King of Limbs, those ghosts don’t hector or menace the band; they are a fact of existence, which makes the record a decidedly low key affair, relying on atmospherics more than they have since Kid A. The exact tone of the record is a little hard to describe, but it seems defeated and sleepy, distracted and dreamy.
The clearest manifestation of this sedated ethos is the fact that The King of Limbs’ sound lacks Radiohead’s excellent use of counterpointing. The band has always created tension and conflict in their records by examining emotional and musical peaks and valleys. Each record has an anxious high and a somber low that defines the dynamics of the album. Think of the extreme pairs that exist on Radiohead’s best records: ”Electioneering” and “Exit Music (for a Film)” on OK Computer or “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” / “Nude” on In Rainbows or “National Anthem” / “Treefingers” on Kid A. These songs represent extremes in tone and tempo that allow the band to define the boundaries of a given record. The King of Limbs has a much narrower range with which to work. At the extreme end of twitchy anxiety, the album’s opener, “Bloom,” presents a ramshackle off-kilter beat into a soothing swirl of synths. And at the other end of the spectrum, “Codex” is a depressing and understated suicide dirge. In fact, the band makes the audacious decision to split the record in half, dispensing with the up-beat songs in the first half and relegating the syrupy downers to the second half. While the weirdness of “Bloom” and the sobriety of “Codex” seem miles apart from one another, they’re compositions utilizing strikingly similar tones. The King of Limbs is an understated record in which seemingly all the songs sit somewhere on a very short emotional continuum.
And in this respect, it would be very easy to dismiss the record: it sounds emotionally stunted and unnecessarily maudlin, overly obsessed with its own melancholy. Though The King of Limbs does not try to reinvent Radiohead’s sound (we certainly know by now that they can do sad), it does offer a new set of possibilites with their core sound. Whereas Radiohead have always sounded exactingly precise, The King of Limbs allows them to smear and blur their songs with reverberating washes of undifferentiated sound. In nearly every song, the band creates blousy layers of hazy noise that betray Radiohead’s obvious influences on this record (Flying Lotus, Burial, Aphex Twin). The deep layering is what lends the record its distinct sense of dreaminess: everything sounds like a daydream about lost possibility and half-forgotten heartache. There’s a reason that the album’s breezy closer, “Separator,” ends with Yorke pleading to be woken up. But even the up-tempo movers and shakers like the excellent “Feral” and “Morning Mr. Magpie” sound like elegies with frantic beats overlaid on top of them.
For the bulk of the record, Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien’s guitars are muted in favor of a weird kind of electronic pastoralia that highlights Colin Greenwood’s excellent bass work and Phil Selway’s precise drumming. The album generally is so bottom-heavy that the low end of the mix contains some the album’s greatest treasures. Check out the wonderful bassline of “Bloom” or the swampy bass swell on “Feral.” Yorke, for his part, mostly stays in the same softly angelic register; his voice is rarely touched with any kind of processing and he never reaches down to snarl or chew over a line. Again, this doesn’t necessarily spell disaster, but it does mean that Radiohead have settled into a surprisingly comfortable zone for this album.
Taken together, the songs that comprise The King of Limbs show us a Radiohead that actually sound like the band their strongest detractors frequently describe: sullen, dour, melancholy, overly-serious. Of course, long-time admirers know better: the Radiohead of The King of Limbs is actually looser and less uptight than the Radiohead of, say, Kid A. But that doesn’t mean that the album isn’t something of a disappointment. There are a few truly standout songs (notably ”Feral” and “Lotus Flower” and “Codex”), but the whole record quickly glides by without really touching a nerve in the listener. There are really no brilliant moments that make the listener giddily confused. There is nothing so strangely exhilarating as “Life in a Glass House” or “A Wolf at the Door,” and there certainly isn’t anything that reinvents rock music in the band’s image like ”Bodysnatchers” or “Myxomatosis.” At some point, Radiohead had to record a merely good record. The band can’t release a masterpiece on the level of Kid A or In Rainbows every three or four years, and it’s totally unreasonable to expect them to do so. Look, no other band in the past 30 years has written as many essential albums and songs that just obliterate the musical zeitgeist in the same way that Radiohead has since at least 1997. But the fact remains that The King of Limbs is not a capital-G great record; it’s not the kind of record that demands and rewards a month’s worth of attention. I would firmly place this album alongside other second-tier Radiohead albums, namely Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief. Like those records, The King of Limbs is flawed, but since letting go of my crushing expectations of the band, I’ve found that the album is a fine addition to the greatest contemporary back catalog.
In The Body Artist, Lauren Hartke, our grief-numbed widow, doesn’t exactly know what to do with Mr. Tuttle. In the end, the best she can get from him is an opportunity to reflect in the unnerving penumbra of Mr. Tuttle’s silence. If The King of Limbs is Radiohead’s Mr. Tuttle, then this is an opportunity to see everything the band has been albe to achieve by noticing what they sometimes fail to achieve here.
Rating: 7.5 / 10