BY JACK BRADY
Radiohead’s eighth album, The King of Limbs is a musical journey that defies comprehension almost as much as it does description, and is as dependent on the listener’s imagination as their hearing. The abstract, Lovecraftian creatures inhabiting the album’s cover are symbolic of the album’s inexplicable and incredible content, and an allegory to all of the emotion and energy within. The album is a dynamic, constantly changing mix of conflicting emotions and musical styles that ultimately manages to fuse seamlessly together.
Overall, The King of Limbs’ conceptual and experimental mix and progressive rock overtones evokes both past classics like the immortal Dark Side of the Moon and more recent hits such as MGMT’s hit Oracular Spectacular. More so, the album is a continued showcase for Radiohead’s own signature sound that they perfected on their previous albums Kid A and Amnesiac, an electronic, psychedelic, volatile mix of haunting, distorted, eerie synthesizers and instruments. Lead singer Thom Yorke’s mesmerizing, melodic vocals carry transport the listener into a world of surreal, somber, and utterly enthralling imagination. The King of Limbs is as beautiful as it is unsettling, and through just 8 tracks Radiohead once again redefines themselves and contemporary music.
The album opens with “Bloom”, an ephemeral, shapeless, track that is by far one of the most varied and intricate songs Radiohead has ever produced, featuring a plethora of samples ranging from thrumming cellos and muffled, clashing drums, to incessant and fragmented electronic tones. Yet the chaos and energy of the background is abated by Yorke’s melodic and fluid vocals. The lyrics, while brief, are poetic and hallucinogenic, with lines such as “Open your mouth wide/ A universal sigh/ As the ocean blooms/ It’s what keeps me alive”. Yet rather than polarizing the song, rendering it into two conflicting and volatile halves, the music and vocals fuse together and create a flawless introduction for the rest of the album.
The second track, “Morning Mr. Magpie”, is initially a much lighter, upbeat, song, reminiscent of Radiohead’s most recent and most lighthearted album, In Rainbows. Although it features a similar eclectic and dynamic style as “Bloom”, with prevalent and intoxicating vocals, seemingly the song exudes a lyrical, melodic atmosphere. However, as it progresses, the lyrics reveal bitter, ironic, wit, “Good Morning Mr. Magpie/ How are we today? Now you’ve stolen all my magic/ Took my melody away” likely a reference to the band’s frustration with the constraints placed upon their music and illegal music downloaders. It is subtle hints of wit and character that endow the album with a personality and identity few possess.
The next track, “Little By Little”, features much less digital and electronic elements, yet adds heavy distortion and synthesis to Yorke’s vocals, now spectral and bitter, and is by far the album’s most dark and somber song. The background itself is relatively quick and light, yet with lyrics such as “Obligation, Complication,/ Routines and Schedules/ Drug and kill you” the song overwhelmingly evokes the similar disillusionment with society expressed in workplace related lyrics populating their album Ok Computer The subtle and illusive contempt and disgust may not be a new concept for Radiohead, but is perfectly utilized in the track.
“Feral”, the fourth track, is both heavily distorted, synthesized, and nothing short of otherworldly. the lyrics are utterly unintelligible, mind-bending and mesmerizing samples and effects fusing together and tearing apart, Radiohead has frequently included similar “experimental” songs in albums such as Hail To The Thief and Amnesiac, notably “Mxymatosis” and “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”. While there may not be much for the listener to interpret here, it is still a stellar example of the ingenuity and (some might say) insanity behind Radiohead’s music.
“Lotus Flower”, the fifth track, combines subtle elements from across the spectrum of Radiohead’s work and is something entirely different from the other tracks on the album, or any other song Radiohead has previously produced. The tone shifts entirely from the chaos of “Feral” to one of mysticism and imagination. Yorke’s vocals evoke sentiments of wonder, hallucination and fragmentation, featuring lyrics such as “There’s an empty space inside my heart/ where the weeds take root./ So now I’ll set you free”, and “But all I want is the moon on a stick/ Just to see what it is/ Just to see what gives”. This is what could be considered the album’s definitive track, a song that defies comparison, explanation, or interpretation, and just as the band themselves, and merely seeks to exist and be appreciated for simply that.
“Codex”, the 6th track, is by far the most structured and stable of all of the album’s songs, a relatively static and grounded song, calm and meditative compared to the fervent energy of “Feral” or “Bloom”. A rich, evocative, piano-led chord progression compliment serene lyrics and vocals such as, “Slide your hand/ Jump off the end/The water’s clear and innocent”. The track ends with a jarring transition into “Give Up the Ghost”, a track that abandons the serenity of “Codex” in favor of a similarly introspective theme that is laced with (no pun intended) haunting overtones. The song retains the instrumental dominance of “Codex” yet continues the pensive vocals of previous tracks, creating a ponderous, defeatist atmosphere with lyrics such as “Gather up the lost and sold/ Into your arms/ Don’t Haunt me/ I think I should give up the ghost”
The final track, “Separator”, is a fitting conclusion to the album, infinitely expressive, with lyrics more developed and poetic than any other track on The King of Limbs. The track induces the listener into a dreamlike, contented state, a fond farewell that certainly does the rest of the album justice.
Ultimately, attempting to describe the album is a gargantuan exercise in futility. None of its brilliance, its insanity, can ever be transcribed into words. It is simply something that must be experienced, that must be utterly and entirely appreciated in all of its aspects, yet that is something for the listener alone-and their imagination too.