It’s been a strange four years in Radioheadland; after releasing their most acclaimed album in a decade, sneaking out the odd new song as a download and revolutionising the music industry in the process (or something), there’s barely been a moment of quiet. Thom Yorke has kept writing and performing with his makeshift band Atoms for Peace, Jonny Greenwood has composed award-winning soundtracks (with the latest, for long-awaited Japanese film Norwegian Wood, due next month), and even drummer Philip Selway has put out his own material. So when the regrouped band sprung news of a new album on the world last week, it was difficult to know what to expect; some clamoured to hear full-band renditions of the songs Yorke debuted on his own at Latitude festival in 2010, some hoped for the skewed atmospherics of interim single ‘These Are My Twisted Words’, and the usual stragglers at the back still dreamed of the day when the band would surprise us all by finally recording ‘Lift’ properly. Either way, it’s pretty unlikely that any of them quite expected The King of Limbs.
Where In Rainbows was a reassuring cuddle of a record, the sound of Radiohead rediscovering the joy of just playing together, The King of Limbs is as austere as its title. At no point do you ever get the sense of the band being in the same room at once – hell, even Kid A had ‘Optimistic’ – leaving Yorke pretty much free to run the show; you can all but see the dust gather on Jonny Greenwood’s arsenal of pedals and it’s telling that, after releasing a fragile, melodic solo album last year, drummer Philip Selway’s presence is spectral at best. His beats are instead programmed, looped, or chopped up beyond recognition; opening track ‘Bloom’ boasts a drum pattern that falls over itself, leaving the track’s kaleidoscopically spooky instrumentation – all clipped pianos and Indian strings – with nothing to cling to.
At no point does The King of Limbs sound like it could have been made by another band, but this works as a mixed blessing; tracks either sound “like Radiohead”, or like specific moments from the band’s back catalogue – some more obviously than others. ‘Little by Little’, for example, comes off like the bastard cousin of ‘I Might Be Wrong’ and ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’, hinging on the former’s bluesy detuned style and a disarmingly funky beat, while Yorke’s scary/sexy vocal delivery comes straight from ‘Jigsaw’, as he insists “I’m such a tease and you’re such a flirt…” Meanwhile, ‘Give Up the Ghost’ slows down the pastoral folk of ‘Faust Arp’ into a spaced-out acoustic campfire strum, complete with background birdsong; hitching itself to a hauntedly simple vocal loop (“don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me”), with only some delicate fingerpicking and a lone kick-drum for company, it’s the album’s most nakedly honest-sounding moment, and hardly suffers for it.
‘Give Up the Ghost’ works as the record’s lynchpin track, and the centrepiece of a three-song closing run where The King of Limbs proves it’s human after all; ‘Codex’ is a stunning piano ballad, laced with swells of Salvation Army brass and an invitation to “jump off the end into a clear lake” that is at once friendly and disturbing. It all comes to a head on ‘Separator’, the best of the bunch; over skittering drums and a nimble star turn from bassist Colin Greenwood, it casually builds to a chiming climax, where the guitars pick out a gorgeous melody, while you can just imagine Yorke adopting his best Cheshire Cat grin as he warns the listener: “If you think this is over, then you’re wrong.” Well, we would be, wouldn’t we?
For a band who are notorious for being deliberately confounding and wilfully difficult, Radiohead’s records always contain a strongly-beating heart, but it’s very carefully hidden on The King of Limbs; at once intimate and cold, it may in some ways be their most difficult album yet. It also seems far less suited to the guerilla release strategy – which all but invites instant reaction – than its far more approachable predecessor. It’s a hard record to love and, despite its brevity, a nigh-on impossible one to get to grips with quickly; but it’s also a record that dares you to blink first, defies you to give up on it – a rare quality in albums nowadays, and one which makes Radiohead such a compelling band to follow.