Even if you’re not sure what a new Radiohead record is going to sound like — they’ve done blustery guitar epics, spastic pop, and brittle electronic compositions to start — you’ve probably got some idea of how it’ll make you feel. Radiohead are expert at eliciting a certain kind of emotion, somewhere between bliss and total devastation, and the band’s eighth full-length offering incites a very familiar swoon. But it’s not an effortless listen: A rattling collection of spare electro-rock sketches, The King of Limbs requires patience, and a fancy pair of headphones, to properly unpack.
These days, everyone gathering round the desktop to hear the same songs at the same time is basically unheard-of. And culturally speaking, the album, which was officially announced just four days before it was made digitally available on Feb. 18, is already something of a coup. (Incidentally, this is the second time Radiohead have revitalized the notion of the release date as an event to get giddy about: 2007’s In Rainbows famously came out of nowhere with a pay-what-you-like price tag.) An elaborate physical iteration, dubbed a ?newspaper album,” is due in May, and will contain two clear 10-inch vinyl records, a CD, ?many large sheets of artwork,” and ?625 tiny pieces of artwork.”
Like all Radiohead records, Limbs mutates and shifts in clever, unexpected ways; somehow, the band makes verse-chorus-verse structures seem embarrassingly outmoded. But it’s also tricky to find (or feel) an emotional center here, and the obvious hazard of focusing on atmospherics — and deliberately referencing other, less accessible genres, like dubstep and house — is that it can leave listeners feeling a bit like The King has no clothes: It’s mood over melody, intellect over gut.
Still, there are a few moments that will make your knees buckle. Thom Yorke’s vocals, usually a wild counterpoint to the band’s hyper-controlled rhythms, are especially abstract and supple. And his plaintive performance on the haunting, horn-addled ?Codex” may be the most sophisticated of his career. Guitars are less of an overt presence, which means Phil Selway’s spectacular drum work (see: the anxious taps of ?Little by Little”) gets pushed to the front and soars.
The album’s distinct halves — the first four songs are shaky and experimental, the last four are dreamy and soft — appear predestined for separation, like two bits of a larger, still-unrevealed art piece. And a quick, Amnesiac-style follow-up seems imminent (?If you think this is everything, you’re wrong,” Yorke wails on ?Separator,” the auspiciously titled closing track). Maybe more context, and a little more heart, will make The King of Limbs feel less unreal. B