The King of Limbs
At the Reading Festival in the summer of 2009, Radiohead gave the people what they wanted. The group’s set began with “Creep,” the song that had nearly made Radiohead one-hit wonders, released on a debut album the band members had all but disavowed. The next 22 songs ran like a greatest-hits collage, as the band moved from the rock atmospherics of The Bends to the electronic abstractions of Kid A, from the aggressive polemics of Hail to the Thief to the delicate swells of In Rainbows. The performance felt like career capstone for a group frequently cited as one of the most important in rock. “It was kind of like, ‘Well, that’s that; don’t need to go there again now,’” singer Thom Yorke remembered a few years later. “So there was a lot of... ‘Well, OK, if we are gonna carry on, we need to do it for a new set of reasons.’” This restlessness was a standard refrain for Radiohead, of course; this is a band that’s spent years toggling between sounds and styles. But the sessions the group members started that summer with longtime producer Nigel Godrich proved especially fraught as they searched for the next direction. Though Yorke had a few elliptical strummers in process, they weren’t quite working for his bandmates. So they took the tapes and dumped them into digital files, which they began to dig through like hip-hop producers, looking for little bits they could loop in order to build something bigger. “You had to simplify what you were doing,” guitarist Ed O’Brien remembered. “You couldn’t do loads of ideas.” Slowly and painstakingly, then, they amassed The King of Limbs, featuring eight tracks that asked, once again, what it meant to be Radiohead at all. The big thematic ideas of Radiohead’s albums yield to a vague sense of displacement on The King of Limbs—a feeling of planned obsolescence for ordinary people. Yorke’s words hang as drapery over the tightly wound rhythms of opener “Bloom,” in which icy electronics linger in the distance like specters. He swivels inside of the percolating bass and drums of “Lotus Flower,” his falsetto filling the space between the beats with pure longing. Meanwhile, “Morning Mr. Magpie” buckles and jerks like Afrobeat, reduced to the scale of a rock band fretting for the future. There are more straightforward moments here, especially the piano ache of “Codex,” but the overriding feeling of The King of Limbs is one of willful transition, of the band members recognizing that their venerated past is only useful as a springboard into a future they were very much trying to stake. “If you think this is over,” Yorke sings over chiming guitars and skittering bits at the end, “then you’re wrong.” This is Radiohead, once again, pushing for the vanguard.