February 22, 2011

Radiohead creates another challenge with King of Limbs

One big reason I love Radiohead is that I don’t love every song made by Radiohead. They are constantly challenging the boundaries of music, and their attempts at creating something beautiful are more important than the mass appeal of the end product. So even though I am an ardent Radiohead fan and love most of their work, there are tracks scattered about their seven albums that fall short for me. And that’s completely fine, because it wouldn’t be Radiohead if they made songs that were always easy to enjoy. King of Limbs, the band’s latest studio effort, is perhaps their most challenging album yet.

Last Monday, Radiohead suddenly announced that King of Limbs would be available for download that coming Saturday. However, at a moment’s notice they moved the download date to Friday, leaving many fans scrambling. Apparently it’s not enough for Radiohead to simply challenge us as listeners—they also have to challenge our perceptions in a world driven by deadlines, preciseness, and realized expectations.

In Rainbows, the band’s last full length album, destroyed a lot of conceptions about how we are supposed to purchase music. In Rainbows was the first of its kind, available as a “pay what you want” album available for download off Radiohead’s website. This time around, however, you will have to pay for your music. The bare bones MP3 version will sell for nine dollars online, but you can also purchase what Radiohead is calling the first ever “newspaper” album for 48 dollars. This deluxe edition will be an easy purchase for ardent Radiohead fans, but it’s a bit disappointing to see the band selling such an unconventional album in such a conventional way.

Radiohead albums have always demanded a lot out of their listeners, and King of Limbs is no different. In fact, in terms of listener involvement, this album is right near the top. This is not an album that you can listen to and appreciate while studying, or something that you would play at a party. Listeners are expected to actually listen when they press play on their music players. King of Limbs is less about crafting melodies and more about eliciting a personal experience. The tones are haunting and ethereal and challenge you at every turn to not “blow your mind with whys,” as frontman Thom Yorke sings in “Bloom.”

The album is quite short, clocking in at a little less than 40 minutes. Quite honestly, though, I couldn’t imagine it being any longer. It demands so much out of the listener that you finish feeling spiritually exhausted. King of Limbs breaks down conceptions of what music is supposed to sound like from the very first discordant piano chords of the first track, “Bloom,” to the dissonant faraway wails of Thom Yorke at the end of “Separator.”

Melodies and drum loops don’t often overlap, and none of the tracks really have a conventionally “catchy” beat or rhythm. Despite this, every one of the eight tracks on King of Limbs is beautiful and memorable in its own way. You won’t be humming these songs as you walk to school or sing “Codex” in the shower, but as soon as you start listening, you’ll be swept right back into Radiohead’s world.

There has been a vested attempt to compare this latest outing to Radiohead’s previous work, and honestly such comparisons are unimportant. Comparing assumes understanding, and therein lays the mistake. I’ve listened to King of Limbs five times through now, and I still can’t figure it out.

Every listen has been just a little bit different, and the album feels malleable, like it can sound however it needs to sound given the listener’s mood. If there’s an accomplishment with this album, then that’s it: Radiohead’s ability to make an album that you can listen to four different times and still discover something new the fifth time through.

So I can’t tell you what I think about King of Limbs because I honestly don’t know. It wouldn’t be a Radiohead album if it was so easy to figure out. Perhaps this review needs to come a few months down the road, after I’ve fully digested it. All I can tell you right now is that you should listen to this album, and not just once, but multiple times. The journey of trying to figure this album out is a perilous one, but you might learn something about yourself along the way. And after all this, I’m realizing that that’s probably what Radiohead wanted in the first place.