Sound Malevolent #2: Radiohead Flatline on Purpose


So let’s look at the tally, thus far:


General Consensus:   “Uhhh, can I get back to you in a couple days, man?”


Critical Consensus:

“Dear Webmaster,

Could you please disable reader comments for the next 6 weeks? Thanks!”


My Score:


That's right. I rate this album the square root of 79.


But what are we left with, one week henceforth? A lot of talk, but not as much as the last time, and probably the weakest Radiohead album since The Bends (which is obviously relative). And unfortunately, as far as godawful putrid album titles are concerned, it’s three-in-a-row for the boys.


But before anything, let’s clear something up about this issue of length.


It’s not an issue.


This has been one of the most intently discussed and referenced topics regarding King of Limbs. Pitchfork’s review that just went up right now was practically framed around it. To me, its one of the most baffling subplots in the King of Limbs reaction thus far. Not only is the 37 minute length totally irrelevant, to bring it up itself shows a peculiar ignorance of history. Doolittle was a scant 39 minutes. Lodger was merely 35. Coltrane’s Sound was 38 minutes. The so-called limitations of the vinyl record were, in fact, a weird natural alignment: no record should be longer than 45 minutes, regardless of the format.


Pitchfork dances around this deftly by adding the “modern” modifier, that albums in the compact disc era and beyond have all fallen close to the 50-55 minute range. And this is partly true. But it still overlooks the key element in all this: This isn’t even a short album by Radiohead’s own standards. Yes, it is their shortest album to date, but not by much. Amnesiac was a shade under 44 minutes. In Rainbows, King of Limbs‘ predecessor, was 42 and a half.


That’s roughly one song longer than King of Limbs. The length isn’t an issue. If the album seems short, the length is only a red herring; it’s an easy scapegoat for a deeper problem. The album’s length is just an ancillary part of the process. That brings me to another bit of balderdash in the critical response to the album: process acknowledgment.


Radiohead are, without question, the most arduous pop band of this era to critique, arguably ever. And it goes well beyond the simple challenge of critiquing the music, as abstruse  and enigmatic as it can be sometimes (especially this time). There’s a paradox with Radiohead. The band members themselves are notoriously private, so much so that even today, in 2011, we still don’t have even an adequate grasp on them. Is Thom Yorke really a socially devoid, standoffish wanker? Does Colin actually exist offstage? Is Ed really that much of a heartthrob? All question we’d like answers for, and we will never know the truth. And yet, as little as we know about them, we know more about the way they make albums than most other bands. More specifically, we know about what gets left behind. Radiohead have always been completely unabashed about revealing non-LP material.


The easiest place to look is their b-sides, a legendary compendium that ranks amongst the best ever produced. Radiohead come from an era that emphasized the b-side, in fact. The Holy Pentagon of Britpop (Blur at the top, Oasis and Pulp on the second tier with Supergrass and Suede at the base) all wrote some of their most brilliant material for the flip side, and fellow Britpop outsiders Super Furry Animals likewise have an worthwhile collection.


But Radiohead are different; their b-sides don’t seem like statements, or experiments, or a nod towards b-side folklore. More than anything they reveal the band to be impossibly particular about the albums they craft. What else, beyond an involuntary lobotomy, would explain the inclusion of that dreadful “Morning Bell” remodeling on Amnesiac over anything from its iconic b-sides? I swear, I’ll never forgive them for including that but not “Cuttooth”. Never.


I can do this all day, guys.


The other major source for these songs are in legitimate concert, soundchecks, or solo shows. OneThirtyBPM compiled a magnificent collection of these songs in anticipation of King of Limbs, the bulk of it taken from songs played in various avenues since In Rainbows was released. Though often rudimentary, you can hear differences in the songs that either made the cut or was set aside.


So when critics write of Johnny and Ed’s guitars being pushed to the background again, or of a deliberate push towards a specific sound or vibe or virtue or whatever, it looks kind of foolish. Yeah, that’s what it might have ended up as on King of Limbs as released, but don’t frame it like it’s  the next grand shift in the band’s philosophy; we know other songs are out there and, like every album before this, they won’t merely act as a complement to it. They should make us rethink and reevaluate the album as presented.   There’s a reason these specific songs were chosen. Each of these songs serve a purpose.


But the overriding thought in all of this, whether good or bad (I’m being diplomatic; it’s bad), is that a Radiohead album as released is by no means the whole story, and even the most damnable Formalist asshole would have to admit that you have to account for that.


Go away, Derrida. I don't care how SexyFrench you are, you suck and Radiohead have to be critiqued in context.


Unfortunately, by not overtly tempering your criticism, you end up giving way too much ammunition-of-dismissal to Radiohead obsessives, a notoriously insufferable coterie of presumptive cunts. Most of an anguish involved in professionally evaluating Radiohead derives from the fanbase. Personally, I’m nonplussed. If the last six paragraphs didn’t make it obvious, I’m a member of that baneful club. In my most obsessive periods, I’d spend days trying to figure out how to “correct” Amnesiac, crafting the perfect tracklist using the Amnesiac b-sides. I still commemorate Radiohead every August 14th, in honor of the concert I attended at a dog racing track in Boston ten years ago. But I haven’t abdicated my critical ability when it comes to the band.


Really though, any sign that you don’t have an intimate knowledge of the band’s labyrinthine working is like exhibiting post-concussive symptoms to a Pittsburgh Steeler: you’re gonna get knocked out. “LOOK MAN, RADIOHEAD’S ALBUMS ARE SCULPTURES, NOT CONSTRUCTIONS!”


Which really comes back to an prevalent theme: Radiohead are truly a bunch of calculating bastards.


This is pretty much self-evident by now, and goes way beyond fastiduous track selection. Playing all those Amnesiac tracks on the mini-tour for Kid A, their insoucient attitude towards p2p right in the midst of the foofaraw over Napster, releasing In Rainbows at 160 bitrate… hell, the simple fact that they are charging for King of Limbs is a bit calculated.


You have to wonder if they are as interested in the act of releasing an album as much as releasing the album. In this regard, I interpret In Rainbows as an attempt to see if an album released outside of the record industry could be an event. Now they’re pushing that concept to it’s extreme: can an album’s release be an event if it’s just released out of the blue? I mean yeah, Prince did it 25 years ago, but does that mean senior Thom Yorke will be scoffing at a reconstructed Kim Kardashian onstage in 2036? I sure as fuck hope so.


Remember when he covered "Creep"? I'm still waiting for the guys rename the song "Creepy But Still Fucking Awesome Black Bowie" for him.


So what of the album itself? I already called it one of the weaker entrants into their ouevre and yet contrarily gave it what amounts to a 9 out of 10. That says quite a bit right there; it’s already the most divisive album they’ve ever released. But opinions differ even when people agree on things, so it’s hard to find traction anywhere in this bedlam.


Trying to place the sound of the record to other artists, and to previous Radiohead albums, has been a fecund discussion, although not a hotly debated one for some reason. Placing it to other artists is almost impossible, but I’ve seen a lot of names out there. People are pointing to artists Thom Yorke has specifically named as favorites, like Four Tet and Burial. But there’s nothing in this album that sounds like Four Tet. And, really, not much that sounds like Burial, either. It’s a callow way to look at it, anyway; Thom also worships Liars, and this is just about the most un-Liars album you could produce. To the point where I’m starting to think it was deliberate. But, alas, it sounds to me like they are still exhibiting the same Autechre and Aphex Twin influences they were ten years ago, with some Flying Lotus thrown in. And that’s fine. But there’s two problems.


The first one is Burial. Thom should have kept that one to himself, because that acknowledgement is probably a noticeable reason why the word “dubstep” is being used far too much in relation to this album. Let’s just make this clear right now:



Fucking hell, I wouldn’t even say it’s influenced by dubstep. Hell, Burial isn’t fucking dubstep. This is really becoming an epidemic. It seems that “dubstep” is now the placeholder name for anything that is danceable, a bit nocturnal, and has some sort of noticeable bass. I spoke with a source of mine, a renowned expert of dubstep, who shrewdly explained to me that King of Limbs was DUB, not dubstep, but I think that might be overstating it a bit as well.


And that’s the second problem: if there’s a “sound” on the record, it’s unmistakably Radiohead. This is where I think the Pitchfork review really nailed it. King of Limbs me than anything is imbued with strains of their other records: the somnambulist mixing and recording of everything they’ve done post-Amnesiac, the dance-electronics of their post-OK Computer b-sides, the unsettled tension of Kid A… it’s all there, with some new angles. Any notion that this album is The Eraser II, or some sort of genre experiment is balderdash. It could be nothing but a Radiohead album.


Which Radiohead albums it recalls, however, is a bit of a sticky issue. I’ve noticed a wide consensus that Amnesiac is something like a first cousin to King of Limbs, and I find it totally perplexing. The two albums have two very different sonic and songwriting blueprints. In fact, King of Limbs continues the sonic theme that was first pronounced on Hail to the Thief: foggy, tenebrous, languorous, and deeper. So I believe it fits firmly amongst everything after Amnesiac: Hail to the Thief, In Rainbows, and the accompanying b-sides, especially the Hail to the Thief ones. Sure, you can trace angles of it back to Kid A, all the way back to Pablo Honey if you want to be obnoxiously thorough, but it became pronounced after Amnesiac, exhibited on Hail to the Thief and exemplified on In Rainbows.


Because the mixing, recording, producing, and engineering aspects of King of Limbs sounds nearly unchanged from In Rainbows. The individuals sounds themselves, the stratified morsels that reveal themselves on repeated listens like all Radiohead albums, and the framework is evolved. But the nocturnal, restrained, miasmatic underlying sound is the same. The feel of the albums are the same. They’ve traded alienated dystopia for an alienated take on the sumptuousness of the night. And we’re 8 years in now. I’m actually starting to wonder what the band would sound like without Nigel Godrich; would it be the triumph of Blur with William Orbit, or the disaster of Blur with… Fatboy Slim.


The songs themselves, individually, are all noteworthy. “Bloom” is the most authentic sounding incorporation of jazz into a Radiohead song since the free-form sheets of sound in “National Anthem.” “Give Up the Ghost” is oddly bucolic, not just because of the birdcalls but because of that acoustic guitar It’s the closest thing to folk we’ve heard from Radiohead in a long time, and, in the setting of a proper album, possible ever.


Lead single/video “Lotus Flower” and album close Separator both take slinkly, ominous bass-heavy opening sequences and improbably morphs them into celestial dream pop. “Separator” in particular is transcendent, a magnificent way to close the album. “Morning Mr Magpie” and “Little By Little,” the album’s most traditional songs, are probably the source of the sentiment that King of Limbs is closely related to Amnesiac. They’re also two of the more exquisite vocal turns by Yorke, and two of the most insistent and entrancing tracks. They are wound unbelievably tight; the tension the two are imbued with is incredible.


A deleted scene from The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. It only sounds like he has a reed stuck in his windpipe.


In fact, the album itself is pretty entrancing the whole way through. It’s without question the most danceable album Radiohead have recorded. The more discerning reviews have noted the emphasis placed in this album’s construction on the rhythym section. That rhythm section, save for the “Codex”-“Give Up the Ghost” coupling, is breathtakingly precise, fluid, and complex. To call it Phil Selway’s album might not be an overstatement; his drumming has always been a uniquely underappreciated aspect of the band’s sound, but he’s totally gone all “Morning Bell” all over this record. Colin Greenwood, always robust and imaginative, is the album’s sinews, holding everything together, acting as the stable force from which everything thrive.


And since Radiohead albums are never simply song cycles, it’s imperative to examine King of Limbs this way, no matter what the band said in the past few years about being bored with the album format. No, this is very much a carefully assembled album. There’s an effortlessness to the way it sounds that masks just how precisely managed everything you hear is. Radiohead are not spontaneous, not this time; the layering, the sequencing, the often obscured sonic treasures found deep within each track at every turn… all very measured.


And there’s a definitely schematic theme to the album, as well, and it’s quite a change. A decade ago, people lamented the lack of guitars on Kid A, but really they were just confused that the band didn’t rock anymore. The band changed the method; the crescendos of guitar found on “Paranoid Android” were replaced with the crescendos of dystopian squall found on “In Limbo”. But here, they seem to lack crescendo at all. Melodies are ephemeral, or incidental. The tempo, beats, playing, and melody are often languid. The songs don’t peak, they don’t nadir… they’re remarkably consistent.


But there’s a detriment to all of this, one crucial flaw that vitiates the overall success of the album: a crippling emotional and temporal sameness. The album is emotionally plateaued. It’s entrancing, but in a very particular way. There a magnetic tension, and it is found in different ways, too. The tension of “Morning Mr Magpie” is a different kind of tension than the one found in, say, “Feral.” Tension is a key element of King of Limbs… and it’s never resolved. Over the course of an entire album, it becomes burdensome and jarring. This is obviously an admirable artistic choice, but coupled with the monotonous tempos and plateaued emotional range, it can be suffocating. It not only recalls the detachments and frosty aloofness found in parts of Kid A, it exceeds it. It’s an unavoidable aspect of the album that precludes it from reaching the heights of it’s loftier siblings.


Which brings me back to the notion that the album is “too short.” It reminds me of a common complaint people espouse when they criticize an episode of a television show, the classic “rushed” argument. That episode was rushed, the ending was rushed, etc. It’s hardly ever that the episode was “rushed,” so to speak, it’s that the pacing of the episode was off, or that the structure was lacking. So it seemed rushed, but the problem actually went a bit deeper than that that affected the way you saw the show. And so if King of Limbs seems short, it’s probably because of that lack of resolution and the disorienting nature of such a perceptively level album.


And really, “Give Up the Ghost” is just straight up slight. Pleasant, but slight. The folk guitar that drives the song sounds like it wants to be agitated, matching the tension found elsewhere on the record, but it’s just lethargic. And “Codex” sounds like a half-time version of the Quad Steak song.


Thanks, Taco Bell. We were all due for a reminder of why we never wanted Chris Wylde on TV.


The idea that this album is a grower is true. The idea that it is a grower “like every other Radiohead album” however, false. In fact, it’s the first legitimate “grower” the band has released. Kid A and In Rainbows had contextual undergirds regarding their releases that made the first listen of each a legitimate phenomenon. Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief had legitimate singles to bolster them on first listen. But a “grower” is an album that is noticeably underwhelming on first listen; you only hear facets that hint at something dignified and grand. At the very least, this album embodies the concept of the “grower” more than any Radiohead album released thus far.


To me, it all comes back to Radiohead being calculating bastards with absurdly high standards in the conception of their records. King of Limbs is the band’s most earnest attempt to completely nullify their overwhelming reputation and mystique in the release of an album. Released completely out of nowhere, even more so than In Rainbows. The emotional uniformity, certain to confound on first listen and necessitating multiple spins to comprehend. All of it points to one overriding theme: the devaluing of the “event” and the apotheosis of understatement.


But it also has to confront absurdly high expectations and devoted fervor. They can’t completely abdicate their status; their fans and the critical cabal wouldn’t allow that, for good reason. The notion that the band has to release a clear Album of the Year candidate every time is exactly the conceit the band is rebelling against here. Essentially, that’s the purpose of most albums. Even if art is not a competition, the essence is to craft something worthwhile. The Smith Westerns, If By Yes, Mogwai… they are no different than Radiohead. He goal is to create something substantive, with the year-end accolades subsequent to that.


And King of Limbs, even with it’s flaws, is without question a contender. Will it be the best album released in 2011? Bloody hell, it might not be the best releases thus far in 2011. It might not even be the best “Album by an Indie-Leaning Heavyweight with King in the Title,” with The Decemberists equally restrained, and utterly charming, back-to-the-salad-years-of-2003 album The King Is Dead.


But it’s a worthy entrant into Radiohead canon. I’d place it somewhere in the middle grouped with it‘s recent successors. Whether or not is rises above Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows will, unfortunately, have to be revealed in time, after they’ve stopped releasing albums and the long overdue historical revisionism on Amnesiac can finally begin.


And, if anything, we’re left with the amusing juxtaposition: they sound so effortless on King of Limbs, and they’ve still managed to inspire a torrent. I’m J Michael.


Next week, I begin the three-part examination of the 2nd Seasons of Glee and Community that I’ve been outlining for a couple weeks now… only to have the fucking Av Club dude publish pretty much the same thing today. OY GEVALT.


6 Responses to Sound Malevolent #2: Radiohead Flatline on Purpose

  1. Anonymoose says:

    That was easily the most thorough and complete analysis of The King of Limbs that I’ve read, and I’ve scoured all the published reviews. You really manage to nail every aspect of whatever you review.

    In particular, about the length and feel of the record, I think you’re right about the fact that it’s not much shorter than previous records, or lacks the flow, but I feel that it somehow still feels rather incomplete. Yes, Radiohead are a calculative band, but all their LP releases have always felt like full albums and I can’t shake the feeling not everything was in the right place this time. Perhaps it’s because the album comes off as more subdued and riddled with sameness as you said, but this discrepancy has been pointed out by a large number of fans, so it has to be said that something about this Radiohead record sets it apart from the others. I think Pitchfork might have nailed it when they implied that fans always expect a new Radiohead record to wow them with a noticeably evolved sound, distinct from those of other records, while this one–though Radiohead through and through–feels like a retread of old sounds and is thus a mild disappointment. That being said, it’s a crime for them not to at least give it that 8.0.

    On a mainly unrelated topic, you mentioned Oasis as being second-tier Britpop. That’s an interesting assessment, but assuming you’re still keeping tabs on the band, how did you feel about recent Oasis-related releases? Dig Out Your Soul was considered by many to be a return to form while Beady Eye’s Different Gears, Still Speeding is also being hailed as one of the best Oasis-related releases in recent years. What did you think of these albums?

    • Thanks! That means a lot. It took forever to write that. Are you an NFer?

      I was shocked PF gave it anything less than an 8.5. You know, I like what I hear from Toro Y Moi, too, but a full half point more than King of Limbs? I suspect we’ll already be seriously reevaluating KoL by December in List Season. Maybe that was their plan, the bastards…

      Some of these songs really stick with you, though.

      I guess the Britpop thing is just my Blur obsession. The Pentagon is all first tier, just ranked. I actually think you can look back at Oasis and say that there’s something worth listening to about all of their albums. I think you can safely say they released two perfect albums to begin their career, and closed their career with two quite worthy ones.

      I haven’t heard Beady Eyes yet, though. I mean, if it has Gem Archer and Andy Bell, and is presumably giving them a larger songwriting stake, then this really promising. I was always a bit dissatisfied that Andy Bell wasn’t giving more to do in Oasis.

  2. AA says:

    I generally agree with the review, but just a little quibble.

    You are right that KoL is not dubstep, nor is it influenced by dubstep in particular. But, it is heavily influenced by uk urban bass music that has its roots in 2-step garage. Further dubstep is a style that has its origins in the 2-step garage scene primarily, and thus even though the comparison is wrong, one can see what is being grasped at.

    And for the record Burial is dubstep, there is really no argument there. The issue is that brostep (a particular brand of dubstep that emphasizes filthy bass at the expense of everything else) is not the most common face of dubstep, and it obscures dubstep’s origins in 2-step garage. Like Burial, Pinch’s Underwater Dancehall would not be considered by many to be dubstep, but his music was an essential part of the early dubstep scene. It is sort of

  3. Pingback: 2011 In Music: Rants, Reviews, and Upcoming Releases (Oh My!) « EnoughEmpty

  4. anon says:

    Check out Supercollider the Butcher, they’re both fantastic and really should’ve been on the album.

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