Hail To The King Of Limbs, Pt. 2: First Impressions

Well, well, well. How’s this for a pleasant surprise? After the Valentine’s Day announcement that their new album The King Of Limbs would be released on Saturday, Radiohead apparently decided that five more days was too long after making us wait for nearly three and a half years and let us download it a day early.

So now the mysteries surrounding LP8 have been resolved – well, mostly. The King Of Limbs is an 8-track affair; half the album consists of songs nobody outside the band’s inner circle even knew existed. The songs the fans already know that appear here (in completely revamped form) are “Lotus Flower,” “Give Up The Ghost,” “Separator” (formerly “Mouse Dog Bird” – thank God they changed that title), and perhaps most surprisingly “Morning Mr. Magpie,” which has been kicking around since the Hail To The Thief sessions and was only played once in a live webcast. (It’s also featured in The Most Gigantic Lying Mouth Of All Time, a collection of short films set to Radiohead songs and clips of the band performing.)

And how does the new record sound? Completely different from anything else they’ve ever done, as usual. It’s very, very far from the folksy record you might expect considering that it’s named after a tree. But where its predecessor In Rainbows is one of the most immediately accessible albums of the band’s career (and a good place to start for newcomers), The King Of Limbs challenges you from the very first note. It’s even stranger than Kid A and Amnesiac in places, and sometimes feels like a follow-up to Thom Yorke’s solo album The Eraser only with more guitars. Turns out “These Are My Twisted Words” was only a partial preview of what was to come. We’ll take a track-by-track look at this baby after the jump!

1. “Bloom”

Um, wow. Hey, those of you who were stunned to hear the electric piano intro to “Everything In Its Right Place” ten years ago as your answer to how Radiohead would follow up OK Computer… I think I now understand how you felt. “Bloom” is full of electronic bloops, jazzy bass, two piano notes playing over and over, spacious-sounding horns and strings, and perhaps the most complex drumming of Phil Selway’s career. And frankly, I’m not sure how this song managed to even make the album, let alone get the leadoff spot.

This is easily the weakest opener of Radiohead’s career. And this is on the album instead of stuff like “The Present Tense,” “Super Collider,” “The Daily Mail,” “A Walk Down The Staircase”/”Let Me Take Control,” “Follow Me Around,” “True Love Waits,” “Skirting On The Surface,” and a multitude of other unreleased songs. If there’s anything truly memorable about “Bloom,” it’s the way it constantly sounds like it’s about to completely fall apart at any given moment and somehow manages to hold together for five minutes. It just doesn’t feel like it really goes anywhere.

2. “Morning Mr. Magpie”

I must say, I’m very surprised about this song. “Morning Mr. Magpie,” which has also been known as “Morning M’Lord,” has been sitting on the shelf for nearly a decade. It hasn’t been played live since the aforementioned webcast in 2002. And yet the fact that this song was dusted off, recorded, and included on The King Of Limbs isn’t even the biggest surprise in store for you. It’s that this song has been transformed into a totally different beast. Remember how “Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses” began as one of Radiohead’s hardest-rocking songs and was turned into a bass-heavy seven-minute experimental jam? Yeah… the changes are that radical.

“Morning Mr. Magpie” began life as a short folk-rocker that Thom Yorke played on acoustic guitar. The actual meat of the song featured powerful vocals over a blues-shuffle riff, and was bookended by a riff that sort of reminded me of “Optimistic” played in double-time. The version found on The King Of Limbs, on the other hand, sounds closer to “These Are My Twisted Words” and closes in on the five-minute mark; the acoustic chords and blues shuffle have been replaced by interlocking muted guitars and a faster groove. Much like the new version of “Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses,” this one has actually grown on me a bit even though I wasn’t too keen on it at first. It’s certainly one of the livelier offerings on this album.

3. “Little By Little”

The second of the previously unheard songs on the running order, “Little By Little” is the standout of the first half. “Little By Little” is to The King Of Limbs what “Optimistic” was to Kid A – it’s pretty much the only traditional guitar-rock song to be found. This song would feel right at home on the second half of Hail To The Thief; it has a similar guitar tone with a chunky riff and complex percussion reminiscent of something like “The Gloaming.” It’s one of the strongest and most accessible songs here, so don’t be surprised to see this become the next single.

4. “Feral”

Here’s another track that’s sure to polarize. “Feral” has been compared to “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors,” a glitchy electronic track from Amnesiac that featured Yorke speaking in an AutoTuned monotone about the many kinds of doors – and is perhaps the most frequently skipped song on that album. I’d say it sounds more like a couple of B-sides from the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions; I’m thinking of “Kinetic” and “Fast-Track” in particular, mainly because of how they use effected vocals as instruments. “Feral” almost sounds like it can’t decide whether it wants to be an instrumental or not, as Yorke’s mumbling is altered so much that if he’s saying anything at all it’s completely unintelligible.

This track has probably grown on me quicker than anything else in the first half, which is the weaker half of the album. When I first heard it, I didn’t like it very much. Now, having listened to it a few times, I kind of dig it. And the reason for this rapid evolution of opinion can be summed up with two words: Phil Selway. His drumming carries this song on its proverbial back, giving it an infectious and fast-paced groove amid the weird electronic noises and haunting voices.

5. “Lotus Flower”

I had a feeling this song would make LP8 and possibly even be a single. It was among the catchiest of the new songs Thom Yorke premiered in live shows over the last few years (“Super Collider” and “The Present Tense” are up there as well, but unfortunately they didn’t make the cut). And of all the new songs, none were played more frequently than “Lotus Flower.” Now here it is, placed at the very heart of The King Of Limbs as the obvious choice for the album’s lead single. It comes complete with a goofy music video featuring Thom dressed kind of like a Droog and dancing like… well, like only he can – so frantically that it looks kind of silly, but in such a way that you can tell how much he’s feeling the music.

It’s pretty remarkable how different “Lotus Flower” sounds on record from its original version. When Yorke first played this it was a mid-tempo ballad-ish song accompanied exclusively by guitar arpeggios. The finished version has absolutely no guitar at all and is actually heavily electronic with a faster and more danceable beat courtesy of Mr. Selway (seriously, Phil does a really good job on this album). I’m still so used to the guitar version that I almost feel like something is missing here, but “Lotus Flower” is still probably the most enjoyable song on The King Of Limbs. And at least they don’t have to worry about people saying it sounds like “Follow Me Around” anymore.

6. “Codex”

Three words: drop dead gorgeous. Imagine a somewhat more understated “Pyramid Song” with reverbed horns (the horns here actually remind me of how the National uses them; they aren’t very intrusive, just gentle sustained notes in the background), and without that bewitching drum pattern that still tricks people into thinking the song isn’t in 4/4 time. That’s pretty much what “Codex” sounds like. If there’s a second single from The King Of Limbs… well, my money would actually be on “Little By Little.” But if there’s a third, this would be a good bet. Also, it segues quite nicely into the next track…

7. “Give Up The Ghost”

I’m actually pretty surprised that there’s still a song to go after “Give Up The Ghost.” I thought this song had “album closer” written all over it, but here it is in the penultimate spot. The band wisely chose not to do too much to alter this song, though I’m on the fence about the fuzz effects added to the backing vocals. See, the big selling point of this song is the way Thom Yorke effectively uses a sampler to harmonize with himself (or at least that’s what he does live). When he debuted the song at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, he only put reverb on the vocals and the resulting harmony sounded beautiful. Here it sometimes sounds like there’s a little too much fuzz. For some reason it actually made me think of “Runaway” by Kanye West and the three-minute heavily-fuzzed vocal solo that closes it.

8. “Separator”

The last track on The King Of Limbs, Radiohead’s weirdest album in quite some time, actually made me think of In Rainbows while I was listening to it. I’m not even entirely sure why; I haven’t listened to In Rainbows in a while, but I just get this feeling that if any song from this album could fit on that one, this would probably be it. Musically it seems like an odd choice for an album closer — it feels more like something they’d put toward the end of the running order, but not actually in the last spot. The last time Radiohead ended an album with something this upbeat was “Blow Out,” which was on Pablo Honey. Perhaps they’re playing with the irony of ending the album by telling you, “If you think this over, then you’re wrong.”

And so here we are at the end of The King Of Limbs. Man, does this album ever fly by. If there’s one overarching complaint I have with this album, aside from the fact that I don’t like “Bloom” all that much, it’s that it’s so short. It’s the shortest Radiohead album by two tracks and about five minutes. So now you’ve got people wondering if this is really it… or if Radiohead’s got some more surprises up their sleeves.

They announced that The King Of Limbs was finished and ready to go five days before the scheduled release date. Then at the last minute they decide to push the release up by 24 hours. And to top it all off, they close out this album with a song called “Separator” that prominently features the lyric, “If you think this is over, then you’re wrong.” I’m not exactly holding my breath waiting for them to pull the same trick they did with Kid A and Amnesiac, but that would be pretty cool.

High Points: “Lotus Flower,” “Codex,” “Little By Little”

Low Points: Aside from the fact that it’s over too soon? “Bloom.”

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4 responses

  1. Logan

    I’m curious if you still feel the same way about Bloom. Because I would have said much the same thing, on first listen – or even seventh listen, for that matter. But after listening for almost a week now, I think this is actually the strongest opener of Radiohead’s career – easily the strongest, in fact. It is just ridiculously difficult to get past the initial obscurity.

    February 23, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    • colfrat

      While I’ve gotten used to it, “Bloom” still kind of leaves me cold. On previous albums the opener was just weird enough to grab your attention, but was still “hooky” enough to maintain that attention for the REALLY weird stuff that was soon to follow. “Bloom” comes at you full-force with the weirdness, but the hooks aren’t as strong as they were on previous track 1s. It will probably take even more listens before this one really sinks in.

      For the record, my favorite Radiohead opener is probably “2 + 2 = 5” (“Airbag” is a close second). I love how the first half feels so ominous, like it’s building up to something… and then Thom shouts “YOU HAVE NOT BEEN PAYING ATTENTION!” and the song just explodes. Big Brother is mad as hell and he’s not going to take your crap anymore. Off to Room 101 with you!

      Thanks for the feedback, and apologies for the wall of text.

      February 24, 2011 at 12:22 pm

  2. That’s funny… I actually adore Bloom now as I listen to it over & over again. I really love the upright bass used sparingly. That part reminds me of Airbag. People should really check out Thom’s Give Up The Ghost live to appreciate the song. Now I’m in love with that tune. I just heard the TKOL website changed in order to support more volume (whatever that means)… this is a good sign… who know, myabe Radiohead is up to something.

    March 20, 2011 at 6:51 am

  3. Pingback: An Old-School Colin’s Collection Post « Listen Up! (with Colin Frattura)

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