First Impressions Live: Radiohead – King of Limbs

If everybody else was jumping off a cliff, would you? Yes, yes, but this live-to-air thing is so compelling because you capture the very first moments as they happen! So this is me listening to King of Limbs for the very first time, updating in real time, as it happens.

Bloom

Well, this is different. I mean, even for Radiohead. I’ve been listening to them for 19 years and they’ve managed to surprise me yet again. It’s off-beat – uncomfortable, but the vocals are smooth and balance it. It’s very jazzy. Once it settles into its itchy, uneasy groove, it’s actually quite pleasant. People talk about Radiohead being great innovators, but they’re not. They are just another of those “difficult” experimental bands that normally come from Brooklyn – Zs or whoever – but they’ve got a much better sense of song structure than almost any other band and are particularly adept at making the unlistenable sound ear-friendly. There’s shades of modern classical in this – layers upon layers of melody, brass, strings – maybe it’s all electronic; impossible to tell these days. What I can tell from even half of the first song is that I’m going to like this a lot more than Kid A. It’s the pop music of a future genre rather than the noodlings of a band with no proper songs to sing.

Morning Mr Magpie

A ridiculously infectious groove on this one – practically every part of me is bobbing and tapping and trying to escape from my seat. It’s gentle but twitchy – the uneasy chilled-outness after a night in a club when you sit there clutching your morning coffee in McDonald’s, waiting for the hangover to kick in. Thom’s finally learned how to rein in his wilder vocal excesses – no longer yelling LOOK HOW MUCH I CAN SING! but just carrying the melody as a balanced part of the song. The bass on this is great. The sliding bass reminds me a little of Call Me Al, which is downright perverse.

Little By Little

I’m struck by how little this sounds like a Radiohead album. The complex, fidgety little rhythms are really coming together nicely on this song as much as any of the others. Yes, it’s a natural successor to In Rainbows, but it could be another band entirely. There’s just so much to hear here, but it’s never overwhelming. Remember Fool’s Gold – the only thing worth remembering the Stone Roses for? That slinky, unapologetically laidback percussion? It’s a bit like that.

(Going to pause this for a few minutes as Real Life beckons …)

(…. and back!)

Feral

I think by this point we can rule out anything that sounds like My Iron Lung. This is another jazzy, bass-heavy, syncopated slice of sample-laden uneasy listening. Reference points would be difficult, but those Zs remixes and the Battles album would be the things I’d put it near on a compilation. Feral‘s the first one I’d point to and say “this is a filler”.

Lotus Flower

Oh yes, in the context of the album, you can really see just how much Lotus Flower stands out – not for its difference, but for its superiority. It has the languid groove of Idioteque, and evokes shades of the Aphex Twin’s Windowlicker, but is a much better song than either. I’m sticking with my earlier comparison to Nine Inch Nails, because this definitely could belong on The Slip in particular, and probably anything since The Fragile. It’s a better song because it’s a fantastic pop song – which was always Radiohead’s secret strength.

Codex

Well, this is different. A quiet piano ballad – but of course we had those on In Rainbows – but this is strong and confident without being strident. I imagine this is what Keane and Coldplay think their songs sound like. They don’t. There’s that brass again – and it adds a Kinks-style depth to the song. It just sounds so … natural. There’s no forced “ooh, aren’t we sensitive” bulls*** to this. Just a guy playing away at a piano while the rain tumbles down the window pane, not particularly mournful, just reflective.

Give Up The Ghost

For the first few seconds you think you’re going to hear another song like the others, but then that acoustic guitar kicks in and we realise that this ghost of the US Old West is taking us somewhere else entirely – but intriguingly at the same time it’s more quintessentially Radiohead than anything else on the album. I’m not even sure what that drone is – it’s just out of reach – not brass, not strings – a ghost of an instrument; intangible, elusive. On OK Computer, they pulled a similar bait-and-switch with Climbing Up The Walls – you couldn’t quite work out what you were hearing. In another forty or fifty listens I’ll know – but maybe that’s the point, the shifty buggers.

Separator

Last song already? Shame! Just when I was enjoying myself. I’ve only skim-read one review so far – I normally read reviews after the event to pick up on the bits I missed, rather than beforehand, but it said that it ends neither with a whimper nor a bang. Thank you, Telegraph, I concur. A capricious double-bassline, simple syncopated percussive samples – a recap of what we’ve heard so far, but also very In Rainbows. The unexpected twists and turns of the multi-layered vocals are what marks this out as – like the rest of the album – quite special.

VERDICT

In the past 12 months we’ve had arguably career-best offerings from Foetus and PJ Harvey, and it makes me pleased that another thoroughly deserving act is hitting the top of its game decades into what used to be considered a very fleeting career. It’s always hard to say whether someone is breaking new ground because innovation is normally iterative rather than some out-of-the-blue leap. What Radiohead achieve is to take the sounds of similar bands and compile them in a way that makes it accessible and enjoyable to hear. There are a lot of ideas here that Trent Reznor has used in the past few NIN albums, but rarely with this level of consistency or finesse. It’s the extreme confidence of Radiohead that is a joy to behold – especially pleasurable in a band of good-natured people who’ve worked really hard to achieve that measure of success.

It’s another fine album of solidly-written songs that I’ll have fun dissecting over many hundreds of listens – and every time, I’ll hear something new. After all, it’s that more than anything else that Radiohead does best.

Good on them.

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5 comments on “First Impressions Live: Radiohead – King of Limbs

  1. Pingback: 20 Years of Radiohead « Reinspired

  2. i like the live review concept. i did it myself with this album, only much more amateurishly so. (if amateurishly is a word).

  3. Pingback: Music: reviewed in cats « Reinspired

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