When Radiohead releases a new album, they don’t just release a new album.
As evidenced by the band’s previous two releases, Radiohead dominates music headlines with descriptions of their innovative forms of marketing and distribution. Whoever is behind the band’s PR work is a genius for his or her ability to generate so much buzz about the band’s work.
We saw this in 2007, when Radiohead shocked the music industry by releasing the album In Rainbows on a “pay-as-much-as-you-want” model. Radiohead was the first superstar group to post its own album as a completely free digital download.
With its latest release, The King of Limbs, the band has produced yet another genius work of media navigation. Even the most casual music fans were likely shocked when the band suddenly announced last Monday that the album would be released the following Saturday.
As if the extremely hushed release date wasn’t enough to gain the band sufficient press coverage for the upcoming album, the band pulled another surprising move. They released it Friday, a day early.
Along with the album release, came a video of singer Thom Yorke strangely contorting his body in some form of dance to the album’s lead single, “Lotus Flower.” The video spread quickly on the Internet, inspiring a humorous trend of mock videos using Thom’s recorded dance but replacing Radiohead’s song with songs ranging from Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” to Guns ‘N Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle.”
With all the press, hype and mystery surrounding the album, one might easily assume The King of Limbs to be the band’s masterpiece. But in fact, it fails to live up to the quality of the band’s classics OK Computer and Kid A by a long shot.
Where those albums were works of musical mastery, The King of Limbs and its predecessor In Rainbows are works of PR mastery.
By conventional standards, however, The King of Limbs is still a great album.
With its disjointed drums, bass and layered, dreamy strings, “Bloom,” the album opener, almost sounds like a classical orchestra chaotically warming up for the entirety of its five minute length. Somehow, the parts all fit together and hook you in as Yorke’s nearly indistinguishable lyrics soar and entrance.
Like most of Radiohead’s work, The King of Limbs is spacey and slow, best enjoyed and more easily digestible in a calm, quiet and secluded setting.
What the band lacks in energy, however, it replaces with musical craftsmanship.
From the relentless beats on “Morning Mr. Magpie” to the tense, ticking sound on “Little By Little,” the band has complete control over its imaginative rhythms. It tinkers with time and meter effortlessly, and every change in tempo or style feels carefully executed.
This complexity does not always produce exciting results. For instance, the extremely warped voices on “Feral” drag on for far too long and fail to transition into anything captivating. It’s a song that messes with the mind but does not beg for multiple listens.
The albums’ high points occur when the band forgoes the complicated beats, trading them in for instruments like piano and acoustic guitar. The song “Give up the Ghost” has the same trance-like effect as the electronic and percussion-heavy songs, but the lack of a fast and consistent beat leaves more room for the listener to focus on the acoustic guitar instrumentation and layered lyrics.
Similarly, “Codex” substitutes the intense beats for a soft but powerful piano line. Those two subsequent songs provide a much appreciated break from the rest of the album’s more repetitive nature.
With or without Thom Yorke’s interesting dance accompaniment, “Lotus Flower” is one of the album’s best tracks. It has the most variation of all the songs on the album, and contains strong lyrics such as I will sneak myself into your pocket / Invisible, do what you want, do what you want.
Overall, The King of Limbs feels as rushed as the band’s sudden announcement last Monday. It’s certainly a good album, but it lacks the variation and melodic tones found on many of Radiohead’s earlier releases.
If the band wants to pull another PR stunt anytime soon, it should make sure it’s capable of producing something comparable to its past gems.