It sounds like easy listening, but it’s not. It’s no landmark, it’s occasionally predictable, it’s even a bit dreary, but it’s also occasionally challenging and subtly sublime. It’s definitely not the dubstep album readers of singer Thom Yorke’s esoteric “Office Chart” blog posts might have expected. It’s weird. It’s pretty. It makes no great leap forward. It all runs together, and if you played it on repeat you might not know — or care — which song was the ending and which was the beginning. Which might be the whole point.
“The King of Limbs,” a sudden new album from Radiohead (announced last Monday, released Friday), is a fairly logical continuation of the band’s post-rock, post-record label career — a woozy electronic sound that took shape around 2000’s “Kid A” and a pioneering, Internet-based distribution system that began with the expiration of the band’s Capitol/EMI contract and the pay-what-you-want pricing experiment of 2007’s “In Rainbows.” This time, the band fixed a value on its work; “Limbs” is available now as a $9 .mp3 download ($14 for .wav files) at radiohead.com. A physical CD comes next month, and a vinyl boxed set in May.
Like “Rainbows,” however, the creativity of the business seems slightly greater than that of the music, at least right now.
What you get for your nine bucks: eight tracks of murky, surprisingly rigid electronically colored music. You get fewer guitars, but you get interesting threads and restless beats in the rhythm section (Colin Greenwood, Phil Selway). You get Cocteau Twins and the Beta Band and Flying Lotus. On the opener, “Bloom,” you get polyrhythmic space-jazz and Yorke singing so nasally and in such a limited range he sometimes sounds like Rufus Wainwright.
Three years ago, electronic music pioneer Brian Eno released an acclaimed iPhone app, Bloom, which he called “part instrument, part composition and part artwork.” The song “Bloom” sounds remarkably like a fuller experience of the app — a humming, bubbling base tone, over which washed, blurred synthesized pings and chimes ebb and flow, repeating for a short while before fading out upon a rival riff’s arrival. Yorke’s voice occasionally slips out of its trademark falsetto to moan and wail sleepily, a la “Want One,” instructing, “Don’t blow your mind with why.”
It’s good advice. “Limbs” works best when you step away from it, let it do its fairly simple work without looking over its shoulder. This is music that doesn’t ask a lot from you; the experience is better when you reciprocate. That doesn’t mean it’s laid-back. Much of “Limbs” is edgy and anxious. Still, while Yorke dances like a spaz in the video to the new single, “Lotus Flower,” none of these rhythms ever quite resolve into anything you could call dance music.
The nervousness begins early in “Morning Mr. Magpie.” Don’t be taken in by the title; Radiohead still has absolutely no sense of humor. While bass strings and drums nag and skitter, Yorke literally whines — “You’ve got some nerve coming here / You stole it all, give it back” — and winds up making a simple pleasantry (“Good morning, Mr. Magpie / How are we today?“) sound like a cocked threat. Likewise, the rolling bass and Yorke’s use of few notes on “Lotus Flower” — the only crooning on “Limbs” that resembles, and just barely, a traditional melody — keep the song moving relentlessly forward through an airless, claustrophobic soundscape.
There’s room to move — and, thankfully, breathe — in the beautiful “Codex,” brooded over by droning piano and an intermittent choir of trumpets, though the lyrics could indicate freedom or an impending suicide: “Jump off the end into a clear lake / No one around / just dragonflies flying to the side / No one gets hurt / you’ve done nothing wrong.” That’s followed by the funereal “Give Up the Ghost,” literally haunted by background vocals electronically dulled and made distant. The neat mix of that mantra and a duo of lightly plucked acoustic and electric guitars makes this the most satisfying track on the album.
“Separator” ends somewhat suddenly as if an off switch was thrown, lending credence to the conspiracy theory now making the online rounds that “Limbs” is merely the first portion of a larger work. But this daydream smacks of an effort to add oomph to the album’s soft impact.
If we were still naming our price, I’d say “Limbs” is worth $5-6, though I think it’s a grower whose value will tick up slightly over time. What will be interesting is how this music will transition to the stage, if it can. Then again, it might not be worth its own tour.