Radiohead has mastered the bait-and-switch mode of recording albums.Â Itâ€™s not always a conscious effort, they just seem to grow and progress at an alarming pace â€“ though much of this is due to the fact that they sincerely want to grow as musicians and songwriters.
Their first album, â€œPablo Honey,â€ was a searing, guitar-driven rock album. It was followed by â€œThe Bendsâ€ and â€œOK Computer,â€ both of which were masterpieces, though each was consecutively less powered by guitars.
Then along came â€œKid Aâ€ and â€œAmnesiac,â€ confusing some fans but shocking none; this was a band that was expected to change music (and had, with â€œOK Computerâ€). Both these albums were intricate, moody, and strikingly electronic-based. Drum machines and synthesizers were the norm, with one or two rocking tracks thrown into the mix.
â€œHail to the Thiefâ€ and 2007â€™s â€œIn Rainbowsâ€ were an amalgamation of everything Radiohead had accomplished up until then: powerful rockers with distorted guitars set alongside sprawling piano pieces, all with Thom Yorkeâ€™s ethereal voice soaring overhead.
Enter their latest release, â€œThe King of Limbs,â€ a work of pure atmospheric imagery. The arrangements are sparse, and it does not lend itself to being a memorable listen the first time – I listened to the album three times before I got a grip on it.
But, for a Radiohead fan, that is hardly a surprise. There are very few guitars on the album, and not a single guitar solo. Most of the guitar work is simply strumming an acoustic once a measure, or simple melodic lines â€“ there are no distorted power chords here.
And thatâ€™s just fine. Radiohead made an album equivalent to a painting: itâ€™s short (only eight songs), consistent, and puts you exactly where they want you to be.
Breaking down the album track-by-track would be a pointless endeavor, much along the same lines as trying to describe a Picasso to someone.
I will say much of the album is driven by electronic drums and synthesizers, and has a thickness that will swallow you whole. â€œLotus Flower,â€ the first single off the album has a simple bass/keyboard line that holds down the melody while strange electronic samples and noise float around in the background.Â Thom Yorke sings in his trademark falsetto: â€œSlowly we unfurl as lotus flowers, and all I want is the moon upon a stick, dancing around the pit, just to see what it is.â€
My favorite songs on the album are the last three, â€œCodex,â€ â€œGive Up the Ghost,â€ and â€œSeparator.â€ They are slow and beautiful, full of rich melodies and soaring vocals.
â€œGive Up the Ghostâ€ is one guitar and a simple bongo rhythm, but the chorus line of â€œDonâ€™t haunt meâ€ is slowly repeated and layered until the many vocal lines create a thick wall of sound.
This album is a return to the â€œKid Aâ€ days, and only raises the bar for the band and the expectations of whatâ€™s to come.
Radiohead has once again proved that the only category they can be pigeonholed into is the one marked â€œGenius.â€
A physical/digital bundle can be purchased for $48, which includes two 10-inch vinyl records, a CD and over 625 pieces of artwork. MP3 copies are $9 and WAVs are $14. A more traditional CD release is due March 28. To order, go to thekingoflimbs.com.