Radiohead: God Save the ‘King’

Courtesy of Capitol Records

“Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! We’re still out of our freaking minds. Love, Radiohead.”

Though not so explicit, this seemed to be the message that the band wanted to express last Monday when they announced their long-awaited eighth studio album, “The King of Limbs,” a mere five days before its release.

Five days. That’s how long they gave us to mentally prepare for this next installment in the now-legendary journey on which the band has taken its fans.

And what an anticipation they have created. Though their last release, “In Rainbows,” could be attained digitally for whatever amount the buyer wanted (such as nothing at all), this is sadly not the case with “King.” That said, they are in no way backing down from their canon of unorthodox release methods. Though “King” is currently out digitally, the album will enjoy a second birth as CD and vinyl on Mar. 3 and will yet have another release on May 9. This third debut of the album will set loose upon the world what the band says is perhaps the world’s first “newspaper album,” a $48 monster of a deluxe package set to include two vinyl records, many large sheets of artwork, and 625 pieces of tiny artwork inside an oxo-degradable plastic vessel. Oh, and there’s also a CD somewhere in there.

While all of the hype surrounding the release of “King” is certainly enthralling, the short time span between announcement and release begs the questions of musical merit; Radiohead most certainly talked the talk, so to speak, but did they walk the walk?

The short answer?: yes. They certainly haven’t let the music fall by the wayside, despite how it may seem upon first glance. The album is on the shorter side — a mere 37 and a half minutes long — and the opening tracks don’t exactly reflect the dynamism of their last release. While “In Rainbows” seems to fly in the listener’s face, “King” relies on subtle ambient touches to get its energy across. As a result, songs on the record seem to occupy a much larger space than previous works.

Nowhere is this subtle ambience more conspicuous than the first track of the album, “Bloom,” which in keeping with its namesake, seems to unfold slowly. Not only do they create a stratosphere above our heads, but they also float us into it as well, using strings and horns so reverberated that they almost cease to exist.

Under the blanket of Yorke’s signature wail and the insistently rapid thumping of a drumbeat, much of the album tends to keep drifting away from itself. In a way, “King” presents very little on which to ground the listener. Some might not appreciate this, but one doesn’t exactly seek out Radiohead in order to keep grip on reality in the first place.

Still, those fond of coherence will most likely enjoy “Lotus Flower,” the fifth track on the album. Though still remotely atmospheric, it is far and away the most easily grasped song on the record. It shares many of the same qualities as the rest of the album: spaced out effects, droning bass, fast beat and Yorke’s falsetto. Although the rest of the album tends to occupy a larger aural area than might be necessary for what is contained, “Lotus Flower” seems to get the sizing right. While still not as glaringly intense as some of the band’s previous singles, it works out its subtlety in brilliant proportion to its energy.

“Give Up the Ghost,” the seventh track on the album, relinquishes the fast-paced beats governing the songs before it in favor of more sparing instrumentals. This, along with its predecessor, “Codex,” offer respite from the pulsating drumbeat energy and instead offer sweeter harmonies.

“Separator,” the eighth and last track of the album, follows suit in serving as a cool-down from the atmospheric excursion that the rest of the album presents, returning a consistent drumbeat but keeping the saccharine softness of the two tracks leading up to it.

For those who would revel in joining Radiohead in the cosmos, “The King of Limbs” will more than satisfy. The ambience that the band works to create with this album does not go to waste, creating a sense of peaceful levitation despite some cacophonous moments and an almost constant clanking drumbeat. Nevertheless, listeners unwilling to let the album drag them into that dreamy meditation will find the album somewhat unfocused, a Gaussian blur of the album’s forerunners.

It is important to keep in mind that this digital release is only one piece of the puzzle. Radiohead’s innovation in releasing this album speaks of an incomplete message. Though they have handed us the album in its musically complete form, it is only the first phase in what appears to be a much larger project; full comprehension of the work will have to wait until May 9 with the newspaper album’s imminent unleashing.

Rating: 4/5 Stars