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