The King of Limbs is the sound of Radiohead regressing in their deification.
In 2008, the absurdly-named English trip-hop duo Dan le Sac Vs Scroobius Pip released its debut album, Angles. It is a forgettable affair that swims in the wake of LCD Soundsystem and the Streets; if you know it at all, it is for the album’s single, “Thou Shalt Always Kill.” The track positions itself as a sort-of guide to living a non-obnoxious life, full of pieces of wisdom like “Thou shalt not read NME / Thou shalt not question Stephen Fry.” The song is a little overbearing to say the least, but it does contain one sound piece of life advice: no matter how great recording artists are, they’re still, at the end of the day, just bands.
That sentiment would likely appeal to Radiohead (the band is, in fact, name-checked directly in “Thou Shalt Always Kill”). By 2011, Radiohead had been anything but “just a band” for about 14 years. OK Computer saw the group laying out the template for the next two decades of digital paranoia to come. Kid A and Amnesiac pushed rock music forward, embracing that same technology, paranoia and all, in the pursuit of new frontiers. Hail to the Thief was a grand political statement in response to what was then perceived as the nadir of modern American political history. In Rainbows was the grand experiment intended to remake the music industry’s profit models. For five straight albums, Radiohead set the compass for the direction that forward-thinking rock was to take, only for them to clear their own bar the next time out.
The King of Limbs is the first record—arguably since the band’s debut—to arrive not as a paradigm-shifting change agent, but as just an album from a popular band. That didn’t mean it wasn’t expected to blow minds. The immediate critical response to the record was one of “good, not great.” No single outlet came down hard on The King of Limbs, but the record was correctly heralded at the time of release as the end of the band’s landscape-altering run. It is the sound of another rock band trying its best to live in the world Radiohead created.
Radiohead responded to this reality by becoming the Avalanches. The big gimmick central to The King of Limbs is the band’s use of sampling; rather than pulling sounds from old soul records or field recordings, the band recorded itself, then sampled its own recordings to construct the album’s eight songs. It’s an interesting gambit, to be sure, and one that isn’t essentially much different that clipping together multiple takes to get the best sound—something that traditional digital multitrack recording has been doing for years. It does create some strange moments of potentially needless dissonance, like the string sections on “Little by Little,” which seem like they could have been easily enough created in live space. It also leads to some inspiring moments; the stuttering, overlain guitars on “Morning Mr Magpie” are the kind of exciting that only Radiohead seems willing to comprehend, and “Give Up the Ghost” might be the band’s brightest, most cheerful song in nearly two decades.
Where this self-sampling is especially compelling is in the album’s drums, which alternate between glitchmob scattin’ and beboppin’ and in-the-pocket post-punk, often in the same song (“Little by Little” and “Codex” sound like they’re being played by a robot octopus.) Of course the band had to employ two drummers to recreate these songs live; no one person could ever create these rhythms without making them on a laptop. It’s effective stuff, even if it isn’t hard to see the inevitably of it all; this album is what happens when there are no worlds left to conquer. Alexander wept. Radiohead fucked around in Ableton and made eight pleasant trip-hop songs.
Of course, this being Radiohead, The King of Limbs had all the pageantry and showmanship that had become part and parcel with the band’s other releases. This one, besides being offered via a multi-tiered pay structure via the band’s website, came with the release of a semi-fake alternative newspaper, The Universal Sigh, loaded with pictures, poetry and other writings. It is the kind of large-scale publicity stunt that only the biggest bands in the world can coordinate with any meaningful success. It worked, too; according to the band’s co-manager, between the vinyl offerings, the download codes from the band’s website and the decision to make the record exclusive to the band’s website for two months before release, The King of Limbs is believed to be the band’s most financially successful record.
What does that say about the band, that its moneymaking-est album is also its least transcendent, it’s most common, the one that doesn’t fly above the context of the band and launch rock music into a new place? What does it say about 2011, and a musical and technical landscape that seems as foreign in 2016 as 2011 did in 1997? The King of Limbs is the sound of Radiohead regressing in their deification, turning back into just another band. It’s a sigh of relief, met with a sigh of resignation.