The King of Limbs Slowly Makes its Mark on Music

Slipping out a day early, Radiohead’s eighth album The King of Limbs was released last Friday to considerably less hype than In Rainbows three years before. With a flat $9 price for download, Radiohead abandoned the pay-what-you-want model, and the album’s release came only four days after it was officially announced. Across the 5Cs, fans rejoiced, listened, and then… thought about it.

It’s a testament to Radiohead’s success that the release of their eighth album can even be considered a newsworthy event. In explaining this, Vulture’s Nitsuh Abebe argues that “serious listening has somehow become this one act’s brand.” Radiohead has sold out tours in South America and Eastern Europe and has had four albums crack the top three of the Billboard charts. All the while, they have consistently produced material that any serious scholar of contemporary music—classical or popular—must take note of. MacArthur Grant “Genius” Alex Ross, for example, features Radiohead in his Pulitzer Prize-finalist book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.

Pomona English professor and Radiohead aficionado Kevin Dettmar agreed.

“Radiohead has become a reference point for music,” he said. “A ‘touchstone’ of demonstrated quality.”

Does The King of Limbs hold up?

“It’s too early to say definitively how I really feel about it, or how it stacks up, “ said Rose Haley PO ‘11, undoubtedly the number one 5C student Radiohead fan. Haley has seen the band seven times in five countries (the U.S., Mexico, England, Czech Republic, and Poland) and met lead singer Thom Yorke’s whole family.

“So far I haven’t seen fans so divided on an album [since] Kid A came out, and some hated all the stupid bleepy bloopy noises, and it was horrible because there were no guitars,” she said.

Nathan Obaid PO ’11 likes what he’s heard so far.

“It’s really growing on me,” he said. “It’s rich with lots of nuance… it’s funky, and you can almost dance to it.”

Similarly, Kelly Park PO ’12 said, “It didn’t move into my heart as immediately as In Rainbows did, but I’m liking it more and more as I listen.”

However, not all listeners have positive feedback.

“I’m a little let down,” Dettmar said, while maintaining he needed further listening before making a real judgment.

Although the production consistently favors percussion and bass across the album, fans have had difficulty describing what holds the album together and makes it more than a collection of distinct songs.

The King of Limbs seems less thematic than previous albums,” Dettmar said. “I wonder where the passion of [Thom Yorke’s] voice is coming from.”

“This is probably Radiohead’s most tuneless album ever, which is not necessarily a bad thing,” Haley said. “It’s very much a soundscape rather than a collection of songs.”

Park saw it functioning similarly.

“[The album] seems less interested in narrating a recognizable story and more interested in shaping and evoking the emotions behind one,” she said.

Weighed with Thom Yorke’s comments to The Believer in July 2009, these remarks make sense. When asked about Radiohead’s thoughts on EPs, Yorke responded, “None of us want to go into that creative hoo-ha of a long-play record again. Not straight off.”

The dividing line between EP and LP has always been unclear, but at 37 minutes, The King of Limbs qualifies solidly as a LP by length without ever sounding like one. Two tracks and five minutes shorter than any other Radiohead album, fans also noted its brevity.

“[With past albums], Radiohead reminded us that music can have huge ambitions,” Dettmar said.

Ambitious is not a word that comes to mind to describe The King of Limbs. Haley called it “weirdly restrained and understated,” whereas Park noted that it “doesn’t seem as full-bodied an album as previous ones.”

However, the album has been very well received by The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and BBC. Some reviewers love the off-kilter opener “Bloom,” others the bouncy closer “Separator” or the underwater pianos of “Codex.” Nearly every track on the album was mentioned by at least one student as a favorite.

It may simply be too early to evaluate The King of Limbs. Its success will ultimately depend on whether it too becomes a reference point for other musicians and for Radiohead’s future work. Is it an isolated foray or a preview of what is to come? Once again, the band has rocked the boat, this time playing with the definition of what constitutes an album itself.

“I think pissing off half of your fans is an exciting place for this band to be,” Haley said.

Perhaps Patrick Halliday PO ‘12 summed it up best.

“That is part of what makes them great: you can’t expect to pin them down,” he said.

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