It only takes about five seconds of Radiohead’s video for “Lotus Flower” to tell you what kind of album they have concocted this time. Thom Yorke, the front of Radiohead, is possessed by some musical spirit that forces him to move his body like he’s taking part in an ancient ritual to expel the toxic demons from his soul. The weird thing is how badass he looks when he does it. I tried to think of a single person besides Yorke who I could watch squirm uncomfortably for five minutes, and I came up with nothing.
An album fairly unlike the rest of the Radiohead catalogue, The King of Limbs is a collection of somber tunes, all nodding away behind the wheel of a car driving to Mars. Reverb and ambience have been integral factors in Radiohead’s success, but most of the time these effects are applied to epic chord progressions and vast musical arrangements. This time around, Radiohead has come up with a less dynamic set of songs, but a strong sense of unity exists between them.
Whereas their last release In Rainbows was full of close-your-eyes-and-feel-it sort of music like “All I Need,” “Videotape” and “Reckoner,” the vibe on the new album is more close-your-eyes-and-attempt-to-focus music. The songs evoke a cluttered sense of confusion and lunacy, mostly due to the different style of production on the album. The tracks don’t contain nearly as many layers as their other releases. Radiohead did away with most of their intricate strumming and fine tuned technical attention, which makes a groove that allows for a surprisingly pleasant absence of guitar and other conventional instruments.
It’s no secret that Yorke has been in support of experimental hip-hop producer Flying Lotus for the past few years. The two have toured together and remixed each other’s songs, and the effect seems to have sunk deep enough into Yorke’s machine-like head for it to show on the new album. What Radiohead once touched upon with Amnesiac has expanded with new technology and studio tricks that are often utilized by artists like Flying Lotus. The odd quantization of the drums on tracks like “Feral” and “Bloom” gives the gloomy album more tension and force, while tracks like “Lotus Flower” tie Radiohead to their roots, using Yorke’s unique falsetto voice and the reliably moving rhythm section to add the auteur-like qualities to Radiohead’s music that listeners have come to expect.
The lyrics on the album stay enigmatic and sullen, a la Yorke. His meaningful moans aid the music most on songs like “Little by Little,” where he sings “turn to nasty now, the dark cell, the pit of my soul. The last one out of the box, the one who broke this spell.” Yorke will always have something mysterious and powerful to sing about, but in the context of The King of Limbs he seems to be relaxing our eyes and lulling us into a comfortable but questionable sleep.
While it may not carry the impact expected of a signature album of theirs, The King of Limbs reminds us how spontaneous Radiohead can be. Yorke has become known for many things, one of which is his slightly crooked eye. I like to think of it like this: Yorke (as Radiohead) can see straight and can always continue on a linear path when he likes, but it’s nice to know his other eye is looking in different directions.