Chris Richards reviews Radiohead's 'The King of Limbs'

As Radiohead's sound has evolved, Thom Yorke's singing style has remained a constant.
As Radiohead's sound has evolved, Thom Yorke's singing style has remained a constant. (Lucy Nicholson/reuters)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2011; 10:42 PM

Whether or not you consider them God, Radiohead is in the details.

For over a decade, the quintet has been championed as the most innovative band on the planet, turning rock-and-roll's bombast inside out, building songs with incalculable layers, nooks and crannies.

You don't listen to Radiohead albums so much as scour them. No wonder the band's post-millennial dominance coincides with the age of the earbud, a time when we plug our music directly into our heads.

The band wants us to listen to its elegant and quietly pleasing new album, "The King of Limbs," very closely. It's one of the group's most finely sculpted efforts, rich with skittish rhythms and sumptuous textures that will satisfy longtime fans and continue to vex the nonbelievers.

And the band wants us to pay for it, too. This is Radiohead's first release since 2007's "In Rainbows," the album it self-released, asking fans to pay whatever they thought it was worth.

Great concept, great record, but plenty were fine with paying zero dollars and zero cents. This time around, the band is charging $9 for MP3 files and $14 for CD-grade WAV files on its Web site. The album will take on a physical form this spring; CDs hit shelves on March 28, and an elaborately packaged vinyl release arrives May 9.

"The King of Limbs" arrives after a much shorter hype cycle, too - proving that global anticipation can now be stoked in about 96 hours. The band announced the album's existence on Valentine's Day, promised a Saturday digital release on its Web site and then surprised everyone by dropping it a day early. So on Friday, office-tethered fans around the world reached for their earbuds and got intimate with it.

"Bloom," the first of the album's eight songs, opens with a looping piano phrase worthy of Philip Glass and a drum kit suffering from a fit of hiccups. "Open your mouth wide," singer Thom Yorke mewls at the onset. "A universe inside."

Like so many Radiohead songs before it, this one bristles with nervous anticipation, contrapuntal rhythms gently doing battle with each other. But the big melodic payload never arrives. Instead, delicate melodies course through this song, and most of the others on "The King of Limbs," like little breezes. We're left waiting - and in many cases, longing - for the big, fat, arena-thrilling gusts.

Of course Yorke isn't interested in delivering a huge singalong chorus. Where the band has continued to forge new sounds, his singing style has remained largely static throughout his career. You can hear him drawing breath - tiny gasps during "Bloom," big gulpy lungfuls during "Morning Mr. Magpie" - but he exhales the same as ever: in a mumbly, monochromatic moan where the vowels are dramatic and the consonants are tough to make out.

His voice is the band's one constant, but it's not so much an anchor as a kite that floats over the proceedings.

Thankfully, the proceedings are enchanting. Among the band's most deceptively complex fare, "Lotus Flower" weaves a spartan electronic bass line through a percussive game of patty-cake, while a billowing vocabulary of electronic sounds float into the picture, almost intravenously. Yorke coos as if he's literally part of the mix. "I will sneak myself into your pocket, invisible," he sings before confessing to "an empty space inside my heart."

But nothing else here is empty, even on "Codex," a piano-and-vocals ballad in which a barely perceptible pulse - a drum machine? a tapping foot? a foot tapping on a drum machine? - pushes things along. Horns, harps, bells and bleeps fade in and out on some distant horizon.

"Feral" has a much more commanding rhythm, like a vintage Fela Kuti beat grafted with dubstep, the subgenre of British dance music that shares Radiohead's penchant for the downcast melody and ethereal electronics. (Here, Yorke's vocals are wordless swatches, julienned and sprinkled throughout.)

"Little by Little" is almost as twitchy, acoustic guitars strumming over what sounds like a Brazilian Carnival band trapped in a tiny music box. If you can make out Yorke's lyrics, you'll find his modern-world-weariness is still firmly intact. "Obligation, complication," he sings over the clickity-clacks. "Routines and schedules drug and kill you."

This may be a band forever destined to bemoan the universe - something that's made Radiohead's music more and more fatiguing since it issued its twin masterpieces, 1997's "OK Computer" and 2000's "Kid A."

But with "The King of Limbs," the band displays such confidence and grace in its digital-age fussiness, its hard to take your earbuds out after one listen. It all just sounds too luscious. It's not a thriller, but it's an album worth exploring and re-exploring - until the next one drops out of the sky.

Recommended tracks: "Bloom," "Little by Little"

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