Head Over Heels

By the time you read this, many of you would have had not only heard (some of you, several times) Radiohead’s new album, The King of Limbs, but also been barraged by myriad reviews of that splendid piece of work. But I am writing this on what will be called ‘last Sunday’ by the time you read this (yes, magazines have strange deadlines). That means I have had a just a bit over 24 hours to listen to the album and have been so overwhelmed by it that it is difficult to for me to describe it coherently.

Eighteen years, eight albums: Over the years, Radiohead has built up a solid base of ultra loyal fans

Eighteen years, eight albums: Over the years, Radiohead has built up a solid base of ultra loyal fans

I’ve had three listens (well, two and half, really, because the third spin is on right now on the dock in my bedroom and the first two were hurried and interrupted sessions on an iPod and then a CD I had ripped for the car. The fact that the last week, at least for me, wasn’t one marked by a particularly buoyant mood didn’t make things easy.

Yet, I can safely say this is going to be an album that’s going to remain on my playlist for weeks, if not months. Radiohead’s albums, typically, grow on you. So, a couple of hurried listens is not the best way to form an opinion about the band’s new and eighth album. But what the heck, here goes.

Radiohead do things differently and unpredictably and The King of Limbs is not an exception. The band, thumbed its nose at conventional distribution networks,  and released the album via their website and even leaked a video of one of the songs, Lotus Flower (more about that video soon). Then, of course, there is the eight-track album itself. The King of Limbs has it all. At less than 38 minutes, Radiohead’s eighth studio album is a short full-length. But it has everything that will appeal to the band’s fans who’ve been waiting for this for more than three years since the band released In Rainbows in October 2007. Then too, Radiohead had bucked convention and put up that album for digital download from its website and allowed you to pay anything (or nothing) that you wanted (Quick question: did you pay for your copy of In Rainbows? Never mind, you don’t have to answer that).

Radiohead can fill arenas anywhere on this planet. Yet they are a band that is as indie as they come and their music never hesitates to break convention

Radiohead can fill arenas anywhere on this planet. Yet they are a band that is as indie as they come and their music never hesitates to break convention

From the opening piano riff on the first song on the album, Bloom, to the final notes on the last song, Separator, The King Of Limbs is an enthralling album. But it’s different. If In Rainbows appeared to chart a new path (with a bit less electronica, and more human-seeming music) The King of Limbs strays quite a bit from that. The sound is more electronic—in the unique Radiohead style, of course, where conventional instruments are made to sound like electronic equipment. There is a lot of vocal echoes, reverb and looping. Frontman Thom Yorke mumbles, yelps and delivers the occasional falsetto on the eight songs whose lyrics are even more abstract than on their earlier albums. But so delightfully abstract. And, of course, there is melancholia, the trademark hue that tinges all of Radiohead’s music all the time.

But here’s the thing. In one of my listening sessions with the new album, I got someone who’s never been into Radiohead to listen to Lotus Flower, the fifth song on the album. It was an instant hit. If you, like me, are a diehard Radiohead-head and want to convert others, do the following: make them listen to Lotus Flower and/or Separator and, this is important, watch the Lotus Flower video that the band put out on the eve of the album release. It’s a black and white video in which Thom Yorke who is known to be an introvert and famously unsocial wears a trilby and dances weirdly. He is, as a friend remarked, the King of the Limbs in the video. It’s pretty cool.

Radiohead is band that can fill arenas anywhere on this planet. Yet, they are a band that is as indie as they come. Their music never hesitates to break convention. Their fans are almost universally loyal, till death-do-us-part types that are ultra active on the internet. Consider this: within hours of the release of The King of Limbs, you could get lyrics of all the songs (well, not all; Feral has no lyrics other than yelps and moans from Yorke) on various websites. It’s a great boon having those lyrics handy as you listen to the downloaded album—even in the best of times I find it not easy to follow what Yorke is saying. On The King of the Limbs, the vocals are particularly muffled on many tracks. That’s not a bad thing. And, the album? It is indeed splendid. As you read this, I will be listening to it again. This time on this Sunday.

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  • http://fidelmehra.com/ Fidel Mehra

    Hi Sanjoy,
    Nice to see out your early review of the album :) . I am sure by now the tracks must have started sinking in more deeper. I was so astonished with the Lotus Flower video that i ran off from my office at about 4 that day, although i was partly angry when i downloaded the purchase and found only 8 songs but soon on the drive back realised the magic it contained. And as you rightly said hurried listen to any radiohead new tracks can disappoint as there music takes time seeping down.
    I have been waiting for new music from radiohead since ages and this couldnt have come at right time and as i am for sure one of their fans who are till death-do-us-part types i can say that anything by them is epic and will go down in history in golden words.
    I am still taking my time to go through the tracks and slowly getting in em and am sure even you are.
    Also i wish the rumors floating around on web about a possible TKOL 2 come true.
    Hail to the King.


  • Joydeep Mukherjee

    Hi Sanjoy,

    I was pleasantly surprised to see the “Lotus Flower” video, primarily because you won’t expect Thom Yorke to do that sort of a thing. And as you rightly mentioned, the melancholy tinge in their songs, apart from everything else, is what makes Radiohead so special.

    As a loyal Radiohead fan, I wish these guys make music forever.



  • Piyush Singh

    I did not listen to Radiohead back when Kid A was released following on from the success of OK Computer ,(I was 10 at the time and was probably still listening to Backstreet Boys) so I never experienced the fan-base infighting over what direction the band were taking in their musical careers.
    But now after the much more traditional pop sounds and lyrics of In Rainbows, Radiohead have again thrown a curveball with TKOL and the debates on message boards all over the Web have broken out again and this time I get to air my views on the subject and see others’ reactions first hand.

    Personally I love the album and have been playing it pretty much on repeat for 4 days now. But unlike the last album, its the entire album that I love, individual songs dont really do it for me. I cant really see even Radiohead pulling off many of these songs memorably on stage (something that they have incredibly managed to do with Kid A material). My only wish is that this album had a ‘Reckoner’ or ‘There There’ moment. Then it would have been perfect. As of right now its merely Genius.


    Sanjoy Narayan Reply:

    If Thomas does the Lotus Flower vid dance live? No? You wouldn’t like that? :)


    Sanjoy Narayan Reply:

    Thom I meant. Darn the effing auto correct thing on the iPad!


  • Kartikay

    Hey Sanjoy,

    I was half expecting (and looking forward to!) the review of TKOL, knowing how much you mention Radiohead in your columns!

    My first impressions weren’t that good. The first listen was during my half-hour evening jog. Goes without saying that this album is not a jogging companion! But nonetheless, I couldn’t help but think about ‘The Eraser’, which is the closest sounding to TKOL than any other radiohead albums. I’m not one of those clamoring for another Bends or OK C. I liked the Kid-A amnesiac combo a lot more;

    On repeated listens, TKOL sounds really good, but a lot like a Thom solo effort.


  • Ashish

    I personally was expecting the band to continue in the same direction as In Rainbows for some reason. How naive can a guy get? :-)

    The relatively short length of the release make me want more. Smart move by the band I say.
    After several listens, I’m alternating with Kid A. Interesting combination.


  • http://queerfishy.blogspot.com ***** Fish

    Just gave it a first listen, it’s going in my ipod for numerous repeats. Lotus Flower was the first one I heard, with of course the amazing ‘in my bedroom in my chaddis’ dance. I love those more mellow, autumnal ones like “Give up the Ghost” and “Codex” as much I like the more frantic and energetic ones with the electronic edge like “Bloom” and “Feral”.


  • Rahul

    At some point in this post, I am going to reveal my absolute unbridled adulation for Michael Jackson. So MJ dissers may want to stop reading.
    What prompted me to put fingers to keyboard this time around, are a few articles that I read on the web about Radiohead. Okay wait; let me start at the beginning. Over the past week, I happened to download a LOT of music (close to 20 albums), primarily because I found the time to do so…I was at work…So there…
    While at it, I happened to chance upon the entire Radiohead discography and in a manic frenzy, got whatever I didn’t have of them, including their latest (The King of Limbs).
    They are not a band unfamiliar to me. However I have maintained a healthy distance from Thom Yorke (don’t know who the rest are). I remember owning “Pablo Honey” on tape and have vague memories of listening to vodka-induced reruns of “The Bends” at a friend’s place. Once they went into their arcane electronic phase, I lost whatever little interest I had (barring a few exceptions). The friend however has since gone on to become a rabid Radiohead-head, which draws me closer to the topic at hand. Over the years, I, along with the rest of the world have realized that there are two types of people in the world…
    Folks who go into multiple orgasms every time Thom cares so much as to shift in his seat in order to **** have always intrigued me. Not because rock fanaticism has never scaled the heights of unexplained cult adulation (Grateful Dead, Velvet Underground, Phish, Tori Amos), but because I have always wondered whether Radiohead, or any of the other bands mentioned, can ever do anything less than spectacular, if looked at from the perspective of their fans.
    Every album release by Radiohead is punctuated by the collective moans and sighs of its innumerable minions. In the recent past, their admittedly innovative, bordering on the bizarre, experiments with sound and their music videos have drawn considerably more attention than the actual music. Write-ups about their last release, “In Rainbows”, being given away free-of-cost on the internet initially, far exceeded actual album reviews. Not very many bothered to point out that this was a band that had already made its millions and could very well afford the dent. If seen in light of the fact that a lot of Indie bands, distribute free at least some of their songs, if not entire albums, one does wonder what the fuss was all about. Assorted jam bands like the Dead or even artists like Tori Amos have always encouraged fans to record their concerts and bootleg them. Throw in Thom’s pretentious, self-indulgent, aloof air even on stage, and you may begin to wonder if these rapturous fans are blind in addition to being deaf.

    Here is my question – What about the f***ing music? Is it really that great? I don’t know. I haven’t heard a lot of it. My take is, let a Radiohead fan answer that question…honestly. Isn’t it possible that the common refrain amongst some of the older fans of the band, wishing that the band would return to their “earlier sound” could possible translate into “Okay. This one sucks. The last album was infinitely better”?
    Oh, and by the way, this holds true for ANY other band that inspires this kind of enthusiasm. I am a huge fan of Michael Jackson (You were wondering when that was coming, weren’t you?). I am also honest enough to admit that “Invincible” sucked. That “Dangerous” was far better than “History”. There are quite a few of us as well. Of course MJ has a more “pop” fan base, more mass than cult. In any case, it’s about time a Radiohead fan stood up, and pointed out that the Emperor doesn’t have any clothes on…