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Snap Judgment: Radiohead's 'The King of Limbs' [Updated]

February 18, 2011 |  5:04 pm

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Kingoflimbs Thom Yorke jerks around in the video for "Lotus Flower," the first single from Radiohead's just-released eighth studio album, "The King of Limbs," like someone only just discovering that the body's job is to move. In the clip, choreographed by the British kinesthesis expert Wayne McGregor, Yorke shakes, wobbles and nearly drools to the song's needling dance beat, sometimes elegantly loosening up, only to shake back into awkwardness.

The singer's moves and his bowler hat recall the physical comedians of the silent film era, when onscreen human motion still seemed artificial, almost surreal. It's a typical Radiohead moment in some ways, a visceral expression of the struggle to stay fully human in a world that's been both enhanced and corrupted by technology. Yet it's new, too, mostly because of the music behind Yorke, and specifically the sound coming out of him: his falsetto has never sounded this relaxed before as he sings about the release of dancing, the joy of releasing energy, "just to see what gives." In some dark imagined disco, this song is getting people on the floor. Radiohead, it seems, has become a dance band.

Well, not entirely. "The King of Limbs," which was abruptly made available for download via the band's website Friday, can be heard from several different angles. Fans and critics have already been registering wildly divergent reactions: Some think it's one of the band's best efforts; others find it too low-key or similar to previous work; a few consider it awfully doomy, and a few others wish it were less abstract. The stature and skill of this band allows for so many interpretations that even a decisively unpretentious work like this one sends listeners wide to find its headwaters.

A strong emphasis on ambient electronics connects this set to the more experimental strain of Radiohead music that emerged with the 2000 album, "Kid A." Jonny Greenwood keeps the guitar grandiosity to a minimum, letting the rhythm section of Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway take the lead in the music's dances with machines. Several tracks seem to allude to the voraciously inventive experiments of L.A.'s Low End Theory club scene as well as to old sources like minimalism. "Feral" is an uptempo dirge, if that can exist, crumbling into dream dust; "Separator" relies on a gentle, intricate build that touches on jazz and 1970s soul.

The second half of this fairly short eight-song release includes some meditative ballads that lend the whole project a calm, wistful tone, but even in "Codex," a memento mori possibly based on the Langston Hughes poem "Suicide's Note," the sensual power of these songs tempers Radiohead's frowny brainiac tendencies. Quieter moments might remind listeners of the cyber-rustic heartbreaker Bon Iver: here, like that younger artist, Radiohead builds a forest that's both plastic and real.

Some songs are actually quite funky, too. "Morning Mr. Magpie" and "Little by Little" both bear the mark of Flea, whose bass contributions got Yorke dancing madly in the solo sets he performed in Los Angeles last fall, and a hint of Timbaland's influence sneaks in on a few tracks. The music's enveloping resonance, the unalloyed pleasure it brings, colors Yorke's lyrics; even when they go morbid, they seem less concerned with demons than with ghosts who might be tamed. "Open your mouth wide," he sings in "Bloom." "Don't blow your mind with why." No harm, it turns out, in sometimes letting the bones (or maybe, once in a while, the booty) lead.

-- Ann Powers

[Updated: The original version of this post erroneously identified the song title from which the lyric, "Open your mouth wide" was taken. It was from "Bloom," not "Little by Little." Also, the original version of this post erroneously identified the title of Langston Hughes' poem. It is "Suicide's Note," not "Suicide's Kiss." We have corrected the text above.

Top image: Radiohead's Thom Yorke in the video for "Lotus Flower." Screenshot taken from Radiohead's Web site.

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