Preface to readers: This review is based on a few listens to a new album that I've only just received this morning. Initial opinions can be telling but are often modified after repeated listens. Having said this, any disclaimers are probably moot as these words will likely be my lasting pronouncement. So there.
If UK soundmeisters Radiohead are in a process of continual progressive evolution - as most great artists/bands tend to be in their prime - their new album, The King of Limbs, picks up where their last, In Rainbows, left off. This is particularly found in the complex rhythms, syncopated percussion and looped sounds that form the bed upon which much of their latest music is made. And that is good news for fans. There is, once again, all the creative exploration and inventiveness that has come to be expected. This is a group of musicians that still seem to be able to find fresh atmospheric approaches, even as much of the alternative music world apes their electronic blueprints, moving the goalposts to keep up with each Radiohead release. As if to underscore the point, with a spate of Thom Yorke imitators also finding their way in popular contemporary bands, it's gratifying - or more specifically, a relief - to hear the real deal...
Nor will anyone be suggesting Radiohead has compromised anything in themselves or their music with The King of Limbs. While the sound can be epic and create a wide sonic landscape, it is the small details that signal their musical forethought. Take a moment in the brooding piano piece, Codex, where the open note of a new (chorus) chord progression does not resolve in the way we expect but actually sounds quite blue (wrong). Or listen closely to the "imperfect" drum groove in the song, Feral, that features flams that most drummers would want fixed, re-recorded or quantized. This is a band that sounds polished by not seeking pop precision.
If Radiohead started out as an angry-ish or emotive group that did pathos well, there is also an evolution in the serenity to be found in the atmospherics now. While many - even fans - will likely interpret this record as more "depressing music" due to the minor-tinged melodies and slow-paced vocals, there is something much more interesting at work. By way of example, the song Give up the Ghost has a strangely positive and grounded feeling to it that plays differently from the Yorke-led yearning we're used to. Whether this is an indication of a newer musical direction or simply notice of the boys getting older and more comfortable in their lives is anyone's guess. But here's suggesting it's a combo. (Although "comfortable" is not to be interpreted as quiescent as much as aware.) Having said this, as Yorke moves further into his falsetto with each performance, there is a vacancy left where his scream or his louder-voice singing would formerly have been quite compelling.
And so, if there is a shortfall to this new record it is more in acts of omission rather than commission. Radiohead have become a band that paints musical pastiches better than any in the rock music game. On this new album we find intensely satisfying soundtracks and moments. But none of the formidable pop-rock sing-along songs that Radiohead have also proven they can write. There is no Karma Police or Fake Plastic Trees here. Continuing with the process started with Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead seem genuinely less interested in traditional "songs" and pop song structures and more captivated with incremental sonic inspirations. In short, there is no "hit single" on The King of Limbs. Even less so than on In Rainbows (which may have been a more accessible record). But then, nor should we require "hits" when offered the flow of a collection like this.
The recording feels as a whole. Radiohead have been quite conspicuous about maintaining a position - at least, in their actions - that the album is not dead. And they have done it again. To listen to just one or two of these songs would do an injustice to the entirety. For Radiohead fans this will be another delicious delivery to devour. For those who've never really "got it" when it comes to this band, The King of Limbs won't convince them. But maybe that divide is as it should be. Radiohead have managed the almost impossible: To find global arena-sized success without ever truly entering the mainstream. This album will continue that momentum. And, along with the savvy self-marketing and sales, provide yet another textbook on how it can be done right.