The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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APR 2011 Issue

“Thank You For Waiting”

The King of Limbs

The clear-cut missive appeared on Radiohead’s website on Valentine’s Day morning and set the blogging gears of anticipation into motion. Once again, these wizards of misdirection were pulling a rabbit out of their hat: Three years after they devised a “pay-what-you-feel-it’s-worth” distribution mechanism for In Rainbows that was both lauded and reviled, they were suddenly back with a new strategy. Guitarist Ed O’Brien announced that The King of Limbs would be available for download ($9 this time, folks!) in less than a week, on the following Saturday. Then, for some reason, the band not only released it a day early, on Friday, but followed it that same day with a video consisting solely of Thom Yorke singing and dancing on an empty stage to the slinky new song “Lotus Flower.” From crickets to chaos in less than a week.

The sudden announcement and subsequent early release of King sparked rampant speculation about Radiohead’s true intent. It may have been an attempt to hamper the progress of bootleggers who would, as usual, leak the album on torrent sites as soon as possible, and to encourage people to actually buy the record. Since the eight new songs formed the shortest Radiohead album to date at 37 minutes, the web was also quickly overrun with rumors that The King of Limbs was merely part one of a two-part release, and entire websites popped up dedicated to proving this conspiracy. According to the official Radiohead site, the group would also be releasing “the world’s first newspaper album,” a special edition of King: Available for 48 dollars, it would include “many pieces of original art” and two clear vinyl albums that some people speculated “would surely contain additional music!” Conspiracies aside, this was another clever way for Radiohead to dissuade their true fans from merely settling for illegal downloads, instead giving them something deluxe and rare for their money. As we go to print, a second album has yet to materialize, but a newspaper The Universal Sigh has.

The pace of King’slaunch would have been impossible before the Internet rose to dominate our culture. In those distant days, labels would glue a band’s album on the calendar well in advance and deliberately build momentum to a release over the course of months, with advanced singles, videos, interviews, tour dates, and copious radio hype. But that was pre-Radiohead, or at least before they released 2003’s Hail to the Thief, fulfilled the terms of their multi-album contract with EMI, and became the industry’s most powerful free agents. With that unprecedented autonomy, Radiohead could create and distribute their work any way they wanted to. This notion would have been a sign of a rudderless existence, if not abject failure, for most bands, but to the fame-allergic quintet from Oxfordshire it signified relief from the corporate circus that irritated them, and provided them with the key to artistic independence.

When Radiohead signed their major-label deal in the early 1990s, nobody was concerned with the Internet. Many of us hadn’t even heard of it yet. CDs still came packaged in long cardboard boxes, and Nirvana had just bounced Michael Jackson from the top of the charts while simultaneously driving a spike through the heart of hair metal’s credibility. It was the era when “punk broke,” with indie veterans Sonic Youth joining Nirvana on a major label, sending A&R reps scrambling to gain traction, scouting for scruffy young talent to sign, to exploit the market for bands with fuzz-tone riffs and feedback. Radiohead arrived in the States from the U.K., citing influences as divergent as Queen, Scott Walker, and the Pixies. They played small venues, and brought with them a mediocre debut album (Pablo Honey) that had been coolly received in their native country. Even when the release of “Creep” elevated their audience-approval rating to sing-along underdogs, they still hinted at a future with has-been status written all over it. They gelled with neither the grunge scene nor the burgeoning Britpop movement, and their album couldn’t deliver a decent second single.

But then things changed. Radiohead returned to Oxford from a grueling tour and entered the studio with EMI eager for them to capitalize on the success of “Creep.” Their new producer, John Leckie, came with a young engineer named Nigel Godrich, an unknown whiz-kid. Godrich’s edgy electronic sound treatments infused Radiohead’s songs with mystique, and going forward he would also help the group define their indentity as a veritable sixth band member. The group’s innovative second album, The Bends, showcased the increased power of Thom Yorke’s voice and Jonny Greenwood’s explosive and moody guitar, and transformed the band into the biggest surprise story of 1995. I for one had written them off as Nirvana-lite with “Creep.” But instead, with this new collection, they took a major stride toward their destiny: They went on to deconstruct rock with their revelatory third album, OK Computer, and, with Kid A, to embrace modern technology, combining it with granular rock music to create a new musical synergism. From one-hit wonders to world’s most relevant band in less than five years’ time.

Following the tour for In Rainbows, the restless band scattered into various side projects. Drummer Phil Selway recorded his first solo record, Familial, which found him up front, singing and playing guitar. Multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood composed the orchestrated scores for P. T. Anderson’s acclaimed film There Will Be Blood and the Japanese film Norwegian Wood, and is currently scoring the upcoming We Need to Talk About Kevin. Yorke, thanks to his growing fascination with underground D.J. culture (dubstep, for example), has for several years now been intently exploring the science of beats. He has cited the abstract likes of Burial, Squarepusher, Flying Lotus, and Modeselektor as influences, and he has spun their records (along with Can and Kraftwerk) during recent surprise gigs in L.A. He finally explored his solo work from The Eraser when he toured the U.S. with his side band, Atoms for Peace, which includes Beck’s drummer Joey Waronker and bass legend Flea, along with Godrich on keyboards and treatments. More recently, Yorke appeared on two songs released on British electronic musician Four Tet’s label (both of them collaborations with Four Tet and Burial). Airing out those brainy, uptempo electronic tracks with a veteran funkmeister like Flea might have shown Yorke the possibilities for Radiohead’s rhythm dynamic as well. The new record is certainly their most rhythmically complex album to date, and could likely sound as compelling on the dance floor as it does through your headphones, with Selway and Colin Greenwood comprising their own formidable tandem.

The King of Limbs was allegedly named for a tree in the North of England that is older than England itself. It is an aptly visual title for Radiohead’s complex yet naturally flowing eighth album. Produced again by the inventive Godrich, King of Limbs is a lushly hypnotic record, layered with treated guitars and humming with haunting atmospherics. It is tangled with woozy soundscapes, bird songs, and shimmering electronic noise that twists its way through corridors and back into the light. King is Radiohead’s most percussively inventive album to date, with layer upon layer of beats and oddly timed cadences, The ever-expanding talents of drummer Selway might just be the most significant of the band’s recent developments.

Not that most critics took the time to discover that. Initial reactions from the bloggerazzi were remarkably contentious. Before the “Lotus Flower” video even had a chance to go viral—with fan versions set to “Billie Jean” and the Benny Hill theme—there was a wave of gripes from writers that “yet again” King was guitar-deficient and too brief. The surprise release of the record sent bloggers scrambling to publish their take on it that same day, leaving them too little time to properly listen and sift through the complexities of the lean new work. By rushing to judgment within a single day, they missed hearing a record that, while not as grand in gesture as previous albums, represents a subtly new, less angry, more groove-oriented direction for Radiohead. It may have critics scrambling to amend their knee-jerk reactions.


Todd Simmons

TODD SIMMONS is a writer/actor/improviser/photographer. He lives in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

All Issues