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Radiohead’s Not Dead

A review of The King of Limbs, comprising a 117-message e-mail chain spanning the week following the album’s release. (Edited for length, clarity, and some explicit content.)

18 February

Andrew: Weigh in with your first-listen verdicts when you get a chance.

Jeff: Just starting. Only eight tracks? Hmm.

Jeff: Listening while I work. Lotus Flower is the first one to really catch my attention.

Andrew: So . . . I suspect in-depth reactions will have to wait, given ya’ll schedules etc. Album seems like a real grower. I’ve been able to listen a few times. I really f—ing love it, but it’s not what I expected at all.

Kinda surprised there isn’t more of an In Rainbows influence in the sound. I guess it’s still there, but more in the positive vibe (for Radiohead, so it’s relative) than the songs themselves. Although I do feel like in some ways Jeff is getting his Reckoner album. Lots of sampled/looped drums, lots of falsetto, lots of grooves.

Paul: Yeah, dude—less than thirty-eight minutes long? This thing better be amazing because it’s half way to an EP. Enh, I guess it’s the same length as In Rainbows minus House of Cards. Perfect!

Paul: Hmm. Well, on first listen, it didn’t jump out and grab me by the balls. I liked Codex a lot, could see that as a single. The song that followed it was enh.

First listens aren’t that important, though. Seems . . . less interesting than past albums? More stripped down, less going on? I guess there’ll be stuff to notice as time goes on.

Andrew: Yeah, it’s definitely subdued. Not at all what I expected.

Paul: Maybe they got sick of a bunch of stuff going on and were just like f— it, let’s keep it simple this time. Eight songs does point to that.

Andrew: Yeah, it works as a little eight-song album, like a ’70s throwback thing. I have a feeling there is more music on the way.

Paul: I like the sense of . . . unease? in the off-rhythms. Or not off, but complex. The rhythms seem really complex and poly, in a way. Like it’s dancey in one sense, but on the other hand it kind of keeps you on your toes, doesn’t let you fully ease into the beat.

Something rubs me the wrong way about Mr Magpie.


19 February

Andrew: Yeah, you know I actually thought of Remain in Light the first time I heard it. Not that it sounds like Talking Heads per se, but definitely has the weird dancey element.

Little by Little and Bloom are my two favorites right now.

Jeff: I made a playlist with King of Limbs, then In Rainbows, and man, In Rainbows sounded way better. King of Limbs needs to do some growin’ on me. Codex and Lotus are great.

Paul: I mean, to be fair, we’ve had four years to digest and realize how f—ing awesome In Rainbows is. It’s one of the best records of the decade, no doubt. So, yeah, too soon to say about Limbs. I’m really liking Codex, and Little by Little is awesome too. I like the video for Lotus Flower a lot. Just gonna take it slow and let it grow on me. It’s gotta be better than Hail . . . Hail’s just so damn long. I listened to it today and it’s good, but not great. I prefer a too-short album (get it?) to a too-long one. Leave ’em wanting more, rather’n bore ’em.


20 February

Andrew: I think part of the appeal of Radiohead and being a Radiohead fan is that it’s fun to contextualize. Name another band (mainstream or otherwise) with this much variety in their catalog. I don’t know of one. The shifts from album to album are part of the fun; judging this album against the last one against the last three, etc. etc.

In a million years, this is not the album I expected or even wanted from Radiohead post-In Rainbows. And yet here it is. And f—, it’s really damn good. Even on the first listen . . . the moment the drums kick in on Bloom, it’s like, Oh, it’s gonna be that kind of party. The bastards, they keep surprising me after eight albums.

It totally thought they were done with electronica. Really, I thought it was gonna be employed more as a device than anything else after In Rainbows. Like, “Okay, we learned our lesson with all that electronica shit, we’re gonna relegate it to the background from here on out.” A la Videotape, 15 Step, etc. I thought they would just build on that sound. I even thought, Okay, maybe they’ll take it the Twisted Words route, maybe krautrock-ish, jammy. I’d be cool with that, it’d be totally different.

Instead they went someplace semi-familiar, and yet different. And nobody thought this is what the album would sound like. I mean, seriously, the reviews and fan feedback are as polarized as Kid A. No one expected this. Crazy.

It’s definitely not groundbreaking. Are any Radiohead albums groundbreaking? Do any Radiohead albums contain sounds or ideas no one has ever conceived before? Probably not. Their strength is the ability to co-opt other ideas, bring in Thom’s voice, draw on their utility players, spin it as rock, add melody, add songwriting, add production. Even for them, the album doesn’t hold many surprises. But at the same time, I don’t know of another Radiohead album that sounds this way. And I can’t name another Radiohead album that sounds this unified. Definitely the weirdest album to date, the least song-y. Sounds nothing like Kid A, no matter what the reviews say.

Strong, strong Flying Lotus influence. They bit his whole sound, really, on the first four songs. And yet when I listen to Flying Lotus, specifically Cosmogramma, the two still sound very, very different. They found a way to make it their own.

Oddly, it still sounds like a full band to me, even though the instrumentation is more stripped-down than Kid A. I’ve heard lots of people compare it to The Eraser, but I think that’s lazy. There’s a lot more going on here.

I really, really like the album so far. I can see myself loving it at some point. It took me forever to love Kid A. I’m willing to wait and see. Weird—can’t name another band I’d put this much effort into.

By the way, having heard both, the WAVs sound noticeably better.

Jeff: All I’m saying was the In Rainbows/King of Limbs contrast was stark. Chalk it up to exposure/time to grow, but still.


21 February

Paul: Conspiracy theories

Andrew: I definitely think there’s more on the way. No idea how, though. One thought is a series of smaller EPs that are all “connected.” They’ve given lots of interviews talking about interest in smaller, non-album releases.

Do you like it any more?

Paul: I’m trying not to burn out on it, so am taking it in “little by little.” Woke up with that song in my head this morning. Bahman’s hating on Lotus Flower. I like the video a lot. He doesn’t. It’s like a modern Street Spirit, but not really.

On Bullet Proof (I Wish I Was) he says, “Little by little, tooth by tooth,” or, “Limb by limb and tooth by tooth.” Either way it’s a reference to what was to come, fifteen years later.

Andrew: You cracked the code.

Paul: I cracked the codex.

Andrew: Hmm.

Paul: Maybe I should’ve given up the ghost?

Andrew: My final deep thought on this album is that the “newspaper” thing could mean you get different issues/installments. Buying means you subscribed? Maybe? Help me out, here.

Jeff: Nah, I read somewhere that the art is printed on a newspaper paper stock.

Andrew: I assume the box set involves something newspapery too. Just seems weird to call it the world’s first newspaper album and only refer to the layout of the box set only certain people will order.


22 February

Paul: I do think this album is a little more influenced than influential.

I’m kinda leaning toward an 8.6ish. I feel like it’s not really grabbing me. Good, perhaps even great. But Radiohead?

Andrew: Yeah, it makes me think of Amnesiac-era in that regard. Although, better songs, and a better album to my mind. It’s a hard album to love, but there are definitely things I like about it. Still waiting to see if there’s gonna be more, or if this is all there is. Which is obviously due to some level of disappointment with the music as is.

Paul: I haven’t made my final call on it yet. I am interested to see what Pitchfork says. 8.6 is my guess, or they’ll pull a Pitchfork and give it a 7.1 or 9.7.

Andrew: It’s not an album that asks you to love it. I realize that is such a lame, douchey sentence, but this is like the least assuming Radiohead album there is. It’s so subtle. I guess I’m kind of banking on there being more music. Even if it sounds exactly like this, at least there’ll be more of it. I could see the ’fork giving it something in the 8 range.

Then again, I just looked at their scores for previous Radiohead albums vs. collector’s editions . . . if Amnesiac and Hail scored so high the first time out, then by that standard this thing should get a 9.


23 February

Jeff: Listened to Limbs on headphones on the walk to work, was the best listen so far. Maybe it was the headphones, maybe the uninterrupted attention to it. I did notice that there’s a lot of sloppy guitar on the first few tracks, like you can hear the strings jangling around. And it really does have a Portishead Third influence. Not feeling the “Don’t hurt me” song. Codex is even better that I first thought. Kill the noodling guitar on that last one. This would be way better if it was released as an EP, calling it an album sets the expectations too high. 8/10.

Paul: Totally agree. Actually the best listen, early on, that I had of Diamond Eyes was on headphones walking through San Francisco in the morning.

I agree about Give up the Ghost. I want to like it, it could be cool, but. Something about it. Yeah, Codex is amazing. I thought it sounded kind of sexy overall, the record, and put it on the other night while, well, you know. It was all right, nothing mind-blowing. The record sounded amazing, though. Just kidding but seriously folks. Yeah, they need to release more, because as-is, this thing’s a long EP.

They mighta shoulda ended with Codex, but I bet they thought it’s too close to Videotape as a closer. And the whole thing about how Connector connects this album to the rest of the stuff they’re gonna release.

Andrew: Like you guys, I find it sounds a lot better in moments where I can just focus on it and I’m not occupied with much else. If this is all there is and we have to wait another three years for more music, then yes, I will be disappointed. It was pretty ballsy of them to release this in such a hyphy way. I guess it shows how much they believe in it.

Andrew: So can I just ask, Paul, Codex vs. House of Cards, seems you like Codex more. Any particular reason why it’s better?

Paul: House of Cards just really bores me. On an incredibly incredible album, Cards just totally falls flat. Maybe it’s an okay song on a King of Limbs, but on In Rainbows it’s just not up to snuff. I think the problem with Codex, if there is one, is that it doesn’t build to anything—but that’s okay. Structurally it’s really really similar to Videotape, which is simcity2000 to Pyramid Song. I think they all belong in the same family. But, Codex is just really pretty. The lyrics harken back to Lucky, I think, jumping into a lake versus being pulled out of one, kind of like he’s matured, he’s more confident, he’s taking control of his own whatever rather than asking someone else to pull him out of the lake, he’s jumping into it. Taking the bull by the horns. “No one around,” kind of like, Do what you feel sorta vibe. Pretty boring, structurally, though. Overall the album might be a little boring, structurally, on a song-by-song level, but I haven’t listened to it with that in mind yet. Not that they’ve ever been that groundbreaking with structure.

Paul: So, yeah, definitely lacking in the structural category. Give up the Ghost starts out nice, it’s pretty, etc., but it kind of falls apart toward the end. It’s like, Okay, why am I caring about this? It never goes anywhere. Codex gets away with it, Ghost doesn’t. The last song is kind of . . . weak overall, in a House of Cards kind of way. Actually it totally reminds me of House of Cards.

Separator = House of Cards
Codex = Videotape

Paul: Is this about blowj—s?:

You look so pretty
when you’re on your knees.
Disaffected
and eager to please.

Andrew: Is this?:

Open your mouth wide
The universal sigh

Andrew: And you didn’t ask, but I think I’ve officially shifted into the “love it” category on King of Limbs now. it keeps getting better and better. Really appreciating the texture of the album and how it’s so different from their others.

Jeff: Chop of the last two songs, call it an EP, and I’ll love it too. Circumcise the limb.

Andrew: Give up the Ghost is my least favorite, but Separator has really grown on me. Some nice OK Computer-ish guitar at the end there too.

Paul: Man, I’m really wanting to like it (obviously), but have been down in the dumps about it recently. Sure, give it time, but.

Maybe it’s time for a track-by-track. Meantime, thoughts on the video? I really like it. I just think it’s entertaining to watch. Goes with the song well, compliments it, etc. Also, he looks exactly like Kurt Cobain.

Bloom: Really like it. Great opener, weird off-beats are awesome. Nirvana reference? Yes.

Morning Mr Magpie: Disliked it straight off. First, the title bugs me. I feel like it should either be “Good Morning(,) Mr Magpie” or just “Mr Magpie.” The casual-ness of the in-between, I picture him just going, “Morning,” to this magpie, like a greeting, all casual, and I don’t like it. I think it’s the lyrics that bug me here, because the music’s cool. “Good morning, Mr Magpie, how are you today?” Why do I want to listen to that? What happened to “We hope that you choke / that you choke”? You know?

Little by Little: Really like it. Rhythm is cool. Has that sexy feel, and I like the way he sings. I still feel like it’s a really good song, and not a great one. Like the album overall, it just seems lacking in something, though I can’t put my finger on what.

Feral: I actually love this one. Doesn’t get a lot of talk, since it’s “instrumental,” even though it’s not, since there’s vox. Love the bass; this album is super drum/bass heavy, and this song is like the whole album condensed into one song, maybe. Like its thesis.

Lotus Flower: I like it, though I like it more while I’m watching the video. Cool when the bass line kicks back in. Just a really strong track. Kind of feels like an Amnesiac-era single, like not standout but still good. I never agreed with the singles from that album.

Codex: Obviously awesome, obviously the best song. Wish it went somewhere structurally, but I could say the same thing about every song here. This one passes muster, Mr Custer.

Give Up the Ghost: Yeah, just not really working. Could, if it went somewhere, but it doesn’t. Kind of an updated How to Disappear, but it kind of crumbles and all you remember is the “Don’t hurt me” repeated ad nauseam.

Separator: It’s okay. Just doesn’t feel quite Radiohead strength. And it definitely feels like a second-to-last track, not a last track. Kind of a slap in the face, like, oh, here’s thirty-seven minutes of music, but we’re ending with this sort of in-betweener track. Medium tempo, etc. etc. A new Scatterbrain, kind of. You’re like, “Well, okay.” And to end with that?

One thing I love about In Rainbows is the instrumentation. Especially the bass. Just killer bass lines left, right, and center. Here, everything sort of gels together and I don’t see the musicians coming out, which is why I liked Thom Yorke’s solo album less than a Radiohead album. These guys are really good at what they do as individuals, and In Rainbows (like OK Computer) showed that without sacrificing cohesion. This one feels more like Kid A or The Eraser in that maybe it’s more a distilled “artistic statement,” but less a showcasing of five great musicians.

Wish I had some artwork / liner notes to accompany this, I will say that.

Jeff: I pretty much agree with what you said.

Here’s a quick blow-by-blow from me.

Bloom: Really grew on me, took a while to figure out what was going on, what the different parts looked like. I like the bass, but it’s way Portishead, as are the drums. Like I said, a a few songs on here remind me of Third.

Magpie: I like this one, but, yeah, I can see the lyrical issues. The guitar in the left channel seems like it’s still figuring out the song—kinda distracting. Not much happens in this song. Gimme a good outro or something.

Little by Little: The guitar riffs sound too typical Radiohead, and again, sloppy, noodly, like they haven’t totally figured out their parts yet. Typical bridge . . . slow it down, build it back up . . . but in a boring way, not in an awesome Pearly* way. An outro, please?

Feral: It’s fine, sonically interesting, but it’s not a song.

Lotus Flower: I like it! They give you actual vocal hooks just before you think they forgot how to write vocal hooks.

Codex: Gorgeous. Love it. Don’t change a thing. Why doesn’t the whole album have this much soul?

Give up the Ghost: Oh, hey, an acoustic guitar! This could be cool. Crap, it’s not. Starts nowhere and goes nowhere.

Separator: It’s alright, but come on, Radiohead. Writing music is your job. This sounds like a few other songs on this album. And that wanky lead guitar is dumb.

Don’t get me wrong, I like this album. I’m harsh because it’s Radiohead. I expect a lot out of them.

Jeff: And to clarify the outro comment—a good example is Reckoner. It doesn’t really go anywhere dynamically for most of the song (which is fine because it’s beautiful), but they give a groovy outro at the end!

Andrew: If I had a vote, I’d probably want every Radiohead album to sound like the contribution of all five band members, as I agree they are all really good at what they do. I would’ve much rather had In Rainbows 2 or Twisted Words the album, to be honest. But now that this thing is here I think it’s pretty great. I still have ups and downs about it but more and more, as I accept it for what it is, I really dig it. And when it comes down to it, it’s pretty rad that the same band made this album and Kid A and In Rainbows and OK Computer and The Bends.

Even if this is more of a footnote album (time will tell, obviously, not to mention the effect of any yet-to-be released material), I still think it’s awesome. It’s a complete reworking of their approach to songwriting and production, even more so than Kid A/Amnesiac. They’ve never released an album this subtle and . . . I dunno, concentrated? before.

Bloom: My personal favorite.

Magpie: Had some of the same thoughts as you, and initially this was my least favorite. I’m disappointed by the lyrics more because they sound like old Thom Yorke and not new Thom Yorke (the song’s from Hail days, albeit with different arrangement). It grew on me, though. I love how it has kind of an afrobeat/Remain-in-Light vibe. Like something from The Eraser but way more interesting.

Little by Little: Really good. Actually kind of a traditional Radiohead song from a songwriting perspective, they just dress it up with that constant percussion.

Feral: It’s fun; I don’t mind it being instrumental at all. A good way to end the first half of the album. You get the Burial/Flying Lotus sound here in full effect.

Lotus Flower: This one’s been a real grower for me; I love it now but I couldn’t get into it at first. It sounds like a really solid Hail-era single, even. Almost like Backdrifts but more user-friendly.

Codex: I can tell this one will just get better as time passes. It has the same vibe for me as House of Cards, and I love that too.

Give up the Ghost: I’m hoping this one gets more interesting on future spins. Right now I kind of zone out every time it’s on. But it’s often the Radiohead songs where “nothing happens” that prove to be favorites as time passes. I couldn’t stand How to Disappear for years upon years.

Separator: This is my jam right now. It’s really grown on me, and I love that OK Computer B-side quality to it.

I’ve said it a million times already, but I’m pretty sure the book isn’t closed on this album yet. I think there’s more to be heard. That said, I’m satisfied with the album and I think people’s minds are really going to change in the next few years on this one.

Jeff: Pitchfork review

Paul: Well, this says it all: “None of us want to get into that creative hoo-ha of a long-play record again,” Thom Yorke told The Believer in August 2009.

More music TK. Newspaper album. Done. The Queen of Limbs, The Limbs of Kings, etc.

Andrew: Yeah, mang, that’s why I been so cocky about getting new songs. ’Cuz I done did my homework and shit.

Paul: You read The Believer?


24 February

Andrew: Do you guys think the Pitchfork review means anything? If you count retroactive scores for catalog albums, it’s the lowest score they’ve given to any Radiohead album since Pablo. Do we really believe Pitchfork’s review scores have any impact on a band’s critical/popular standing? Does Radiohead not scoring a 9-10 this time mean they’ll now be seen as on-the-way-out? The question might seem silly, but I do feel Pitchfork has almost singlehandedly blessed or cursed smaller artists in the past with their album scores. I’m wondering if Radiohead is critic-proof at this point.

Paul: I think they’re Pitchfork-proof, for sure. I agreed with what the dude was saying, for sure, in the review. Which is rare with Pitchfork. I think it sort of ends there.

Andrew: If Pitchfork gave them a 5, though?

Paul: I’m just having trouble imagining that happening. Sure, Pitchfork has a lot of influence, but I do feel like Radiohead exists outside that sphere.

But sure, what if Pitchfork gave it a 5, wrote, “Radiohead is no longer relevant, and King of Limbs is clear, undeniable proof. The album is a hackneyed mess, indicative of a band no longer influencing, but purely influenced, like the twenty-nine-year-old at the frat party, trying to score with coeds and failing miserably, his backwards cap not only anachronistic, but indeed pathetic.”?

Pitchfork is aware it’s a tastemaker, and therefore their opinions (opinions) are suspect. They’re part of the culture they’re critiquing, so they have an ulterior motive to appear at the forefront of that cultural wave. If they wrote the above, it’d be nothing more than an attempt to be the first to declare Radiohead dead.

Jeff: Radiohead died when the first kid said, “Radiohead’s not dead. Radiohead’s nooooooot dead.”


24 February 2011  11:15 pm  

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