Radiohead’s return to nature for ‘The King of Limbs’

February 24th, 2011

What if it’s terrible?

That was the joke my friends and I passed around last week after Radiohead ended their four year silence on Monday with the announcement that their eighth album “The King of Limbs” was to be released via digital download on Feb. 19.

After all, this is a Radiohead release. It’s never an issue of whether or not it’s amazing, but instead a question of in what way(s) the record will be outstanding.

On Friday Feb. 18, guitarist Ed O’Brien threw everybody for a loop by posting, “It’s Friday…It’s almost the weekend…It’s a full moon…You can download ‘The King of Limbs’ now if you so wish!” on the band’s website.

After dealing with the mad scramble the early release caused, the record presented a new and welcome challenge.

First, this is definitely a Radiohead record. That might seem obvious, but it’s important to note. “The King of Limbs” doesn’t mark a huge shift in their sound the way 2001’s “Kid A” did.

To expect the band to dramatically alter their approach every album is shortsighted.

Instead of focusing on what Thom Yorke and company didn’t do, the most important aspect of this record is what subtle movements they have made.

There is an overlying thread throughout the album’s 37 minutes: a sense of a withdrawal into a primitive, primal state that forces “Limbs” to be more than just a solid album.

At different points throughout the eight tracks it’s possible to hear elements from the band’s whole repertoire, but they’re rooted in a sense of nature that has never been present in their work before.

This infusion of nature is obvious at points like “Morning Mr. Magpie,” which brings the band’s trademark sense of paranoia to John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” in the form of a fearful discussion with a thieving bird.

A frantic, echoing terror of a track titled “Feral” jumps out here too, as does the poisonously beautiful “Lotus Flower.”

In a broader sense, the nature in “The King of Limbs” is at its heart in the way that Phil Selway’s drumming is used.

In a band known for its complexity, Selway beats on this record are frequently repetitive gut-punches that have an almost tribal feel to them.

When the rest of the quietly layered sounds of the record are put over top of them, Selway’s drums provide a backbone that’s as solid as the 1,000-year-old oak the record is supposedly named after.

If this were any other band’s album I would hesitate to claim the natural focus.

But Radiohead has never done anything without a purpose.

“The King of Limbs” has an underlying center of natural elements that is in no way a coincidence.

The album’s production sounds as if it is being filtered through the forest, with sounds, instruments and vocals floating in and out as if they’re hiding behind trees until called upon.

This dense presentation results in, by far, the least accessible record Radiohead has ever put out.

The tracks run together with such cohesion that its difficult to tell them apart at first. This record requires notable effort.

Even though there are only eight songs they are not easily approached.

Seemingly credible claims have been flying that there may be one, if not two, more parts to this album that have yet to be released.

Regardless, the incarnation of “The King of Limbs” as it stands now is a beautiful and complicated record that deservedly earns its place in Radiohead’s catalog.