In October 2007, Radiohead released “In Rainbows,” an album with a twist.
Three years for this, huh?
In October 2007, Radiohead released “In Rainbows,” an album with a twist. In contrast to the normal ways that bands release albums, i.e. through labels at a fixed price, Radiohead instead offered a “pay what you will” system. Fans who downloaded the record did exactly that: They paid whatever they wanted. Even with some people paying only a penny, sales of “In Rainbows” surpassed those of their previous album, “Hail to the Thief.”
This time around, Radiohead has returned to fixed prices, and it appears that they just don’t give a damn. In fact, upon first listen, it would appear that Radiohead is engaging in an even more groundbreaking marketing strategy. The new name of the game is “let’s see how much goofy crap we can put out and still have people pay for it.” With their new release, “The King of Limbs,” Radiohead is teetering on the tightrope; below is complete self-indulgence, and just ahead is quality songwriting.
But wait, you say, isn’t this what people were saying about “Kid A” when it came out? Yes, yes they were. However, “Kid A” was a radical departure from their previous work, 1997’s “OK Computer.” Nobody expected the shift from Radiohead, and their following works saw them expanding on that style. “In Rainbows” saw them inching their way up the ladder to one side of the tightrope. Now that “Limbs” is out, Thom Yorke and company are right out there on the high wire, flapping their arms and sweating profusely.
I never thought I’d live to hear myself say this, but it seems that the lack of a record label is causing Radiohead to implode. The complete lack of any outside force to keep them in check lets them release whatever they can squeeze out whenever they want.
That’s what “Limbs” appears to be—a collection of ideas with no real cohesion, a model airplane assembled with no glue.
Granted, the album, which consists of eight tracks, is somewhat of a grower. Upon second and third listens, a bit more stands out, but halfway through the third listen, the album plateaus, and it isn’t pretty. Jonny Greenwood fans will be extremely disappointed to hear how shamefully underutilized he is on this record.
One thing that isn’t underutilized by any stretch is programmed drums. In fact, the album is rife with them, with Radiohead using the most boring trick in the book—playing half-time to fast drums. We’ve come to expect more from Radiohead, and this time they simply haven’t delivered.
In fact, one of the standout tracks on “Limbs,” titled “Lotus Flower” leaked everywhere before the album was even released. Fans clamored with excitement that Radiohead might deliver unto us another “OK Computer” or “Kid A.” When “Limbs” was finally released however, the doubt ran downhill from the “Lotus Flower” peak. Some might argue that “Lotus Flower” is the album’s peak, and I wouldn’t disagree, though “Morning Mr. Magpie” and “Little by Little” are close.
By now, you’re undoubtedly thinking that I have said that nearly half of the album’s tracks are good. They are—but the level of pretense that Radiohead operates under throughout the course of “Limbs” is simply enough to mire the rest of the compositions.
From a practical standpoint, and given the rest of Radiohead’s offerings, there isn’t a single track on “Limbs” that would electrify a crowd if played live. Every record has one such track, and I believe it’s fair to judge Radiohead’s contemporary output in this way. Unfortunately, “Limbs” holds no instant classics in Radiohead canon, and thusly should be viewed as what it is—a sloppy mishmash of underutilized talent that has a few shiny spots. I hate to say it, but every band is entitled to a stinker. Let’s hope this is Radiohead’s first and last. “Pablo Honey” doesn’t count. ?