Radiohead’s eighth LP, The King of Limbs, announced Feb. 14 and made available on the band’s website just four days later, may be their most divisive release yet. No longer jumping around like paranoid androids and severing ties all together with the group that performed The Bends, Radiohead circles their prey rather than lunge at it. Tracks echo the themes of past records – alienation, world-weariness and the quiet anxieties of modern life – but with neither the conventional rock instruments nor the orthodox approach.
Frontman Thom Yorke never screams on Limbs, but floats in his signature falsetto on ethereal ballads (“Codex”, “Give Up The Ghost”) and cuts the soundscape sharply on others (“Bloom, Little By Little”), while always keep control of the seemingly fragile work, as if cupping a butterfly in his fist. Drum loops and laptop-borne textures mingle with natural acoustic instruments; chopped up vocal lines add chaos to the mathematically precise rhythms, and somewhere in the middle, Yorke’s familiar sounding lyrics remind listeners that yes, you are listening to Radiohead.
That can be good or bad, depending on your expectations. Notorious for their rabid devotion to the band, fans can be divided into three main groups regarding the album. Some view it as a revelation, the next frontier for the innovative British quintet. Some take issue with the abstract nature of the work. There are not many catchy hooks on the 37-minute recording, which falls in between an EP and a full album in length. Is their work a genuine exploratory move or has success made them cocky? With the knowledge that their fans will devour any table scraps thrown to them, does Radiohead even need to try anymore? Many who have grown impatient with the group’s highbrow “serious listening” aesthetic ask this. And still, some are angry they are no longer rocking out like on Pablo Honey. King of Limbs, rather, finds its roots in Kid A, Amnesiac and even Yorke’s solo album, The Eraser. But where those albums guided listeners in a clear direction, this one meditates intensely.
Though the music certainly explores new territory, the business side of Limbs harkens back to familiar methods. 2007’s In Rainbows famously utilized an “honor system” approach to album buying. Fans could pay what they deemed appropriate for the record, evidently an average of $6. Limbs costs $9 for an mp3 download (a price comparable to purchasing the title as individual iTunes tracks), $14 for higher quality .WAV files and in May, fans eagerly await the arrival of the physical format. Billed as “the world’s first Newspaper Album,” it features two 10-inch vinyl records, a compact disc, downloadable files and over 600 pieces of artwork. What precisely defines a “newspaper album” remains to be seen, but as Pitchfork Media founder Ryan Schreiber told WNYC Soundcheck on Tuesday, “It seems like, at this point, it’s going to have to do with the packaging – the only thing it could have to do with.”
Fans suspect, too, that more music is on the way. The newspaper package features two vinyls, much more than required for the relatively short work, and some read a hint in the album’s final track, titled “Separator,” in which Yorke challenges, “If you think this is everything, you’re wrong.”
More esoteric than ever, Radiohead leaves fans with a polarizing and interesting album worth a listen (or 12). No plans for touring have been announced, but if you find yourself at their show in the near future, don’t expect to hear the band that wrote “Creep.”