Sunday, February 20, 2011

Radiohead's latest

Radiohead released their newest album, The King of Limbs, yesterday, and immediately the internet was abuzz with reviews and opinions on their sudden release of an album. The album is only 8 songs long, with 37 minutes of music, which is a little strange considering their last album, In Rainbows, eventually became a deluxe 2-CD album with the second CD being filled with some of their best, most melodic ballads yet. This is relative stinginess on the part of Radiohead (this time, unlike In Rainbows, you had to pay for the download, at about itunes rates). So I downloaded and listened and here are my initial thoughts:

Well first of all I have to get it out of the way that my favorite Radiohead album is OK Computer, which I consider to be one of the greatest albums ever made. And I love The Bends. I know a portion of Radiohead fans (the post-KidA cohort) will already roll their eyes at how old-fashioned I am, but I still remember the initial thrill of listening to such beautiful melodies filtered through such a weird, haunting voice. I thought KidA was a good experimental album (if wildly overrated by the critics), but I eventually found the electronica sound and wailing lyrics and meandering melodies tiresome as they tried to repeat KidA, to some extent, in three subsequent albums (Amnesiac, Hail to the Chief, In Rainbows). Then the bonus CD of In Rainbows happened, and boom, I started to believe in the band again. I liked that bonus CD more than I liked In Rainbows proper, and I wondered what absolutely beautiful melodies Thom Yorke had tucked away that he was not releasing. That "extra" CD contains some of the most gorgeous songs Radiohead ever composed, from "Down is the New Up" to "Last Flowers" to the haunting final track, "4 Minute Warning." All of these songs had something in common -- they were actual songs with lush melodies, very "old Radiohead" in a good way, and so I was very hopeful that The King of Limbs would be a continuation of In Rainbows' bonus tracks.

Here is "Last Flower" and "4 Minute Warning" and "Down is the New Up":

Well ... it's not. The short story is that for the most part The King of Limbs is trying yet again to recreate the critical success of KidA. Same electronica beats, weird kitchen sink sounds, aversion to guitar, meandering melodies, obscure existential lyrics, wailing vocals. The only difference is that the sound is no longer fresh or "experimental," it now sounds old, and, if it wasn't Radiohead, you might think it was just another dance electronica mix. This image is enhanced by the video of their new single "Lotus Flower" (see below) that has Thom Yorke doing some funky dancing. The only exception is "Codex," a deliberately old-fashioned piano ballad that seems like a self-conscious throwback to the "old Radiohead" sound.

"Lotus Flower" is maybe the most "catchy" tune on the album, which is probably why it was released as a single right away. But be honest ... does it really stack up against the best of Radiohead? And the lyrics, aren't they a little corny? "There's an empty space inside my heart/Where the wings take root/So now I'll set you free/I'll set you free." "Morning Mr. Magpie" has a refrshingly uptempo feel, with rather mysterious nursery-rhyme lyrics:
Good morning, Mr. Magpie
How are we today?
Now you've stolen all the magic
I turn my back, walk away
You know you should
But you don't
You know you should
But you don't
The other songs feel "old" and they were just released yesterday, probably because by now I'm no longer shocked by the post-KidA sound, and I'm numb to the effects that once at least jolted me. "Feral" in particular sounds like some dance electronica beats strung together. I can't help but remember the perfect construction of "Let Down," with its minor key turning into a major key in the last phase of the song, and how the song still has the power to move me, so many years later. The new album as a whole, with its spare 8 tracks, doesn't feel like a "concept" album the way KidA did, and it doesn't feel like a collection of the greatest alternative rock anthems, the way The Bends and OK Computer did. The overall effect of the album is muted, sterile, and right now, forgettable.

And now, let's all deliberately be old farts and go back to 1997, and listen to what Radiohead once sounded like:

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