To say that Radiohead is the most innovative band of our generation would be an understatement. The English alt-rockers possess a discography that reads like testament to musical evolution, from the expressive and robust “The Bends,” to the diverse and technical “OK Computer,” to the dark and minimalist “Kid A,” to the orchestral and accessible “In Rainbows.”
Radiohead announced their new album, “The King of Limbs,” just five days before its release date and then released it a day early. Like 2007’s “In Rainbows,” “Limbs” is available only by download until it is released in May as the “world’s first newspaper album.” This edition includes the digital download, two clear 10-inch vinyls, a CD, “many large sheets of artwork, 625 tiny pieces of artwork and a full-colour piece of oxo-degradable plastic to hold it together.”
Until the album’s physical release, its music must hold us over. Many anticipated “Limbs” to be the epic album that upends the music industry, but fans may feel underwhelmed listening to “Limbs,” since it feels so similar to the “Kid A” aesthetic. On the Radiohead scale, “Limbs” is only mediocre, but compared to the rest of the music world, “Limbs” is a concise and well-crafted album worth your attention.
Like any Radiohead album, “Limbs” has a central concept. The album name comes from a pollarded oak tree thought to be over 1,000 years old, and track titles such as “Bloom,” “Morning Mr Magpie,” “Feral” and “Lotus Flower” immediately convey an organic motif.
Upon further dissection, “Limbs” focuses on the struggle of nature against artificiality. The album’s sound is dominated by electronic beats, static pops, and lead singer Thom Yorke’s ethereal, mumbling wails, but hints of nature push through to counter the machinery. When taken in the context of other Radiohead albums, this theme is surprising, since the band has made its name utilizing technology and electronic sounds.
The best example of the central concept is found in the fillers between songs. After the first track, a vacuum cleaner and faint, mechanical chirping fill the transition. However, by the end of the album, this noise reemerges as the distinct chirping of birds and fluttering of wings. In this way, Radiohead conveys that nature prevails as electronic sounds turn more organic.
For being 37 minutes long and containing only eight songs, “Limbs” is surprisingly rich. The album begins with the disjointed, crashing “Bloom” that contains a jazzy bass like that in Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” After this artificial opening, the album gradually progresses into more organic sounds until ending with “Separator,” which bursts through with a tight rhythm and sweet guitar. In a final warning, Yorke forebodes, “If you think this is over/ Then you’re wrong,” as though Radiohead might announce another album in the next week.
The album’s centerpiece, “Lotus Flower,” acts as a turning point following the abnormal, dubstep-influenced “Feral.” Amongst the machinery in “Lotus Flower,” you can hear the first truly organic sound: clapping. Yorke croons about “an empty space inside my heart where the weeds take root,” as though he is breaking free from the robotic persona of “Kid A” and becoming human again.
Every Radiohead album requires a heartfelt serenade, and on “Limbs” this is fulfilled by “Codex,” which contains orchestration that could be found in a Phillip Glass piece. The album’s most poignant track, “Give Up the Ghost,” contains acoustic guitar, a tribal beat, and the gentle plea of “Don’t hurt me” repeated over and over, as though a tiny flower were crying out.
Radiohead is a master of turning the ugly into beautiful. On “Limbs,” the band’s abilities can finally be compared to nature’s power, even if it is just a tiny, green sprout in a field of concrete. The album is exceedingly relevant in a world today that is fighting to conserve resources and care for the planet. If “Limbs” teaches us anything, it is that nature can fend for itself.