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.
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).
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.