Tuesday 21 November 2017

Music: The King of Limbs by Radiohead ****

(XL Recordings)

John Meagher

John Meagher

"I skimmed over that Ulysses this morning. Seemed alright. 3 stars. But I'll get back to you with a full review once I've, y'know, read it." So tweeted Irish band Holy Roman Army last Friday around the time that every music journalist and blogger was in a race to try to land the first review of Radiohead's eighth album, brought out 24 hours ahead of schedule.

Thom Yorke and James Joyce may not have much in common, but the point is well made. Great music -- and great literature -- cannot be judged glibly. I shudder to think what I would have written about Kid A based on one play. Radiohead are not the sort of band for whom a cursory listen will suffice. You really have to work to get the most out of their music -- and, for the most part, the effort is well rewarded.

That's certainly the case with The King of Limbs. Although it's a little disappointing that the first Radiohead album in three-and-a-half years boasts just eight tracks and clocks in at 37 minutes -- making it by far the shortest of their career -- there are songs here as special as anything they have released before.

Look no further than Lotus Flower, a sweet riposte to anyone who says Radiohead don't bother with melodies any more. It's as textured as we have expected the band's music to be and there's a quite gorgeous vocal from the frontman. The song's uplifting mood is well served by a video featuring a bowler-hatted, skinny-jeaned Yorke dancing and lip-synching along. Beyonce -- you have competition.

Then there's the gentle beauty of Codex, one of several songs that proves how essential producer Nigel Godrich is to the whole Radiohead sound. There's so much happening in what initially sounds deceptively straight-forward. It's close in spirit to Pyramid Song from Amnesiac, not least because of the suicidal undertones here. That's one way of interpreting lyrics about jumping in a lake with no one around. It might also be read as an ecological plea, a refuge from the stress-out modern life that have long obsessed this band. The album title, after all, is apparently the name of a celebrated, ancient tree.

Sonically, this album feels like the third part of a trilogy that includes Kid A and Amnesiac, but there are also echoes of Yorke's solo project from 2006, The Eraser.

The band's professed passion for dubstep is evident on Feral, the album's most arresting song. But for the most part the glitchy electronica that has characterised their sound for the past decade remains in tact. Some may quibble that such an approach smacks of safeness, but when you have slow-burners as seductive as Bloom or Little by Little, does it matter?

The closing track Separator posits the intriguing possibility that there may be further surprises when Yorke sings, "If you think this is everything, you're wrong".

Burn it: Codex; Lotus Flower; Bloom

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