The title of Radiohead‘s 8th LP, “The King Of Limbs“, is quite possibly a reference to a grandiose oak tree in Wiltshire’s Savernake Forest that is thought to have been living for a millennium. This album contains 8 songs and comes in at about 37 min, which is abnormally undersized in both respects. And at first listen, more than just this album’s length might catch listeners off guard.
Stanley Donwood, the artist behind the album’s artwork, told us the artwork was inspired by Northern European fairy tales, which are often centered around forests and their inhabitants. He said, “It’s very much about natural forms. I’d heard something about the northern European imagination, in the sense of all our fairy stories and mythical creatures, they all come from the woods – Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel & Gretel… Me and Thom were working on these ideas of strange, multi-limbed creatures that are neither malevolent or benevolent, they’re simply there, part of the living spirit of the forest. That’s come through into all of the work.” And while he was referring to the visual work of the album, upon close and repeated listen of “The King Of Limbs” one can see how this description of the forms being neither entirely malevolent or benevolent can also be applied to the music.
Where in their last LP, “In Rainbows”, we listened to complex and committed music; in which the path the listener took was laid out quiet clearly. It wasn’t sanguine, as Radiohead really never is, but it was upbeat and, in the long run, emitted positive and confident impressions upon the listener. It often used digital sounding beats, but as backbones for other sonic narratives to unfold. “The King Of Limbs” has a sound that definitely seems to germinate from that of “In Rainbows”; however, the intention, forms, and sentiments do not. We are not left with something markedly optimistic, nor defeatist, yet something slippery, amorphous, and at times suspicious – but beautifully so.
In Bloom, the album’s opener, we find a drum pattern that doesn’t initially seem to coordinate with the floating and wavering vocals, and the almost sound-scape ‘esque background sounds. The drum pattern never alters, but Thom’s vocals and the sounds build, brood and swoon. It’s not an unfriendly sound we are left with, but its not warm either. This juxtaposition of a steady and quick drum line and/or rhythm section, surrounded with more staggering and unhurried sounds is used more than once within this LP. It is also found on Morning Mr. Magpie and Feral. Although, it should be noted that the percussion is noticeably organic throughout the entire album, which is a slightly deviation from the past, although they still endow a highly quantized (extremely on beat) feel to the drums.
In Codex; we find a mesmerizing and swaying piano line with a simple kick drum back beat, over which Thom sings in a manner that results in a song with attention-grabbing subtlety. It’s downright gorgeous. It might be considered as having a affirmative sentiment to it but for an crackling sound effect – which sounds something like digital distortion, but isn’t – which adds a sense of emotional distortion to an otherwise simple and straightforward song. This crackling effect is also used on Bloom and Give Up The Ghosts. It isn’t a pleasant sound, but it isn’t intended to be (and is maybe the one sonic tactic that could have been re-thought out) .
Lotus Flower could be said to be the song which most resembles what one might have expected from Radiohead after “In Rainbows.” It’s dynamic, sonically elaborate, yet retains a certain pop-feel to it (in that unique Radiohead manner, of course). It is clearly the album’s single, and is a very catchy and a delightful number – but still offers emotional insecurity through lyrics such as the clearly discernible, “There’s an empty space inside my heart”.
“The King Of Limbs” shows us a Radiohead that has carefully focused on distilling and refining their music, sound and meaning (hence no need to add music for adding’s sake). But their progression, on this album, is more-so in respect to painting emotional pictures and delving deeply into the process of creating and relating sounds, as opposed to song writing. And like the mighty oak tree which starts as a seed, at first it might be hard to grasp or to understand it’s full potential. But given time and patience it will reveal its beauty, and neutral authority. Bravo.
Written by Sean Poynton Brna