Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Radiohead, "The King of Limbs" and ennui

You see this cover?

Yeah. Pretty cool, isn't it?

Might be the best thing about the whole album.

Let me explain.
I like Radiohead. I really do. I came to be a fan midway through their career, but I still think they've done some remarkable work. They've always been a bit eclectic, from their sound to their album art. And that's cool. I can dig that.

Radiohead is something of an oddity. It's a band of guys who seem to get bored, a lot. And they are guys who get angsty about being superstars, but are basically anonymous. If you walked up to most people between the ages of 18 and 50 in the U.S., Canada or most countries outside of the UK and asked them to name more than one member of the band, I'd be willing to wager a butterscotch candy that very few of them (proportionally) could do it. (I'd bet a lot of them couldn't name Thom Yorke, either). So maybe they protest a bit too much. But they still make some interesting material that make critics swoon and rock fans bicker.

So what's the deal?

To the band's credit, they don't like to repeat themselves. They could have done five sequels to "OK Computer" and no one would have given them too much hassle over it. "OK Computer" tends to get singled out as their greatest accomplishment, depending on which critics you talk to. Certainly, it has sold enough to get enough commercial clout. 

Following the low-key "Pablo Honey," the "monster single" of "Creep," and the sophomore album "The Bends," Radiohead developed "OK Computer" with the perfect combination of studio skill, instrumental brilliance, lyrical wonder and vocal beauty. Aloof, disconnected and so, so cool.

So how do you follow-up an album that critics, fans and you, yourselves, consider the height of your artistic outgrowth?

You go minimal. You go fractal. You go internal. You go emotional. With Radiohead, they went "Kid A."

"Kid A" is a divisive album. It spooks some people (me included ... but I like it). Some people find it too skeletal, and prefer the more traditional sounds of earlier Radiohead. Some people found it artistic and gutsy, and love it the most of all their albums. It's all valid, folks. Music is just that cool.

With this album, the band gets away from the traditional song structures, the stuff that would make stadiums rock. Radiohead plunges into more electronic sounds. The usual instruments are here, but so are strings and horns. Keyboards are bigger. The songs are more impressionistic. You sometimes get songs that emulate old soundtracks, sometimes you get jazz. Sometimes you get electropunk. But at the heart of it all is a detachment and longing that ties it all together. Everything about "Kid A" is texture and passion, even if it's the lack thereof.

What does all of this have to do with "The King of Limbs?" Well, it goes like this:

"Kid A" was a big departure from a classic album. "The King of Limbs" basicallly does the same.

"The King of Limbs" followed "In Rainbows," which followed "Hail to the Thief," which followed "Amnesiac," which followed "Kid A." "Amnesiac" is kind of a follow-up to "Kid A," with many of its songs recorded alongside "Kid A," and with much of the material written at the same time. Plus "Amnesiac" came out less than a year after "Kid A." "Hail to the Thief" came a few years later, and returned to a more normal songwriting style ... but it lacks a lot of the passion and ingenuity of their previous works. 

"In Rainbows" brought Radiohead right back to the top echelon of rock bands that MATTER. 

"In Rainbows" has great lyrics. The songs are uniformly excellent. It starts strong, carries a lot of moods throughout, and leaves the listener satisfied. There's a lot to like, with sounds both experimental and familiar. Maybe it was a return to roots, but it wasn't defeatist. It was as progressive and adventurous as anything they'd done, but accessible as well.

And apparently the band hated it. It was brutal. The band members have all gone on record talking about how hard it was, how brutal, how painful. They never wanted to do it again. They needed to change, to grow, to be something else ...

It's a pity.

Really, I'm all for artistic growth. I'm all for experimentation. And I am totally, totally, totally in favor of trying things so that you're not just doing the same old sound. The Beach Boys grew. The Beatles grew. The Rolling Stones grew. Pink Floyd grew. Heck, Green Day grew. Nine Inch Nails grew. Growth has a proud musical tradition of being a good thing. Believe me, I totally get it.

And I also understand that doing an album that everyone likes isn't always a good thing. Some great albums met with resistance and a lack of appreciation at the time of their release. ("Pet Sounds" is a great example of that.)

"The King of Limbs" isn't really growth, though. It's been done before. By them, even. The band uses technology to create sound loops. They use samples (as they'd done with "Kid A" and "Amnesiac"), and they create sound collages that they then overlap with vocals and drones and instrumental flourishes. It's repetitive, it's confounding, it's background noise that doesn't prove a point.

"The King of Limbs" is not challenging status quo. It's just ... ... ... there. It's the cut-up technique that takes more than 37 minutes to wrap itself up, and the final result leaves you feeling no more clued-in or informed or shocked than the first 3 minutes did.

The cut-up technique isn't new. It's been done, from everything to beat poetry to whole novels and albums. Adding loops in different progressions, building new soundscapes? It's basically a lazy exercise, letting tracks build themselves while you search for inspiration, then labeling it as experimental exploration.

When the Beatles started working with tape loops and studio effects, like with "Tomorrow Never Knows," they used that technique to build on a song and really flesh it out. They didn't depend on the noise to create the song (when they did, they came up with "Revolution 9" ... not exactly the most fantastic track in the Beatles oeuvre, though it isn't as awful as many claim).

I'm not trashing Radiohead for trying. Trying is worthwhile. These men ARE artists. These men ARE trying. But they should also understand that maybe, just maybe, their boredom isn't the basis for an album. The horror and frustration and agony of "In Rainbows" proves a general truism in art: genius is pain. Artists create when they have the inspiration. Pain tends to be a good one. (John  Lennon's "Plastic Ono Band" is one of my all-time favorites. Pain? Very much there.)

I understand that it isn't cool to repeat yourself. And fans and critics embraced "In Rainbows." No one wants to write the same songs over and over again. Especially not the hip, angsty, "we hate being popular" neo-rock gods that have risen for decades (and reinforcing their hipness). So the thing to do is to go in a new direction.

The sad thing is that "Kid A" had a similar pedigree, but actually did develop into a pushy and challenging and interesting album. "The King of Limbs" just sounds ... cluttered. Muddled. Occasionally interesting, but mostly just an electronic yawn.

I know that sounds harsh. The album isn't awful. It isn't devoid of good stuff. I like "Lotus Flower" just fine. It's just that the album doesn't really go anywhere, do anything or provoke a response other than apathy. I bought the album the day it came out and have listened to it at least a dozen times. I've done the car thing. I've done the stereo thing. I've done the headphones thing. I've listened during the day. I've listened at night.

And there was no combination that made this album provocative. It's just kind of listless and meandering. I'm sure there are those that would say that's the point, or that there's a message buried in the atmosphere and fragments. Fair enough. Maybe I'm just not getting it. Critics ate it up, it's reviewed well. And it has sold pretty decently. But to these ears, it's just a disappointment. One man's opinion, I suppose. :)

Now, would it have been such a disappointment to me if it had followed "Hail to the Thief" instead of "In Rainbows?" I don't know. I think it would have continued a trend that seemed to start with "Amnesiac," of letting studio experimentation and boredom dictate making the album. The inspiring "In Rainbows" broke that cycle, so maybe that's why "The King of Limbs" is so lackluster. It follows a great album. That's a hard cross to bear.

I'm sure Radiohead has more to give. They're not a creatively bankrupt group. They're all talented individuals. It's just that this album is a bit of a clunker, and every band is entitled to one of those every now and then. There's no shame to it.

I'm hopeful their next album will be an improvement. Maybe they'll decide the effort of discomfort has a greater result than the "ease" of studio tinkering. There's room for both. On the same album. But let inspiration inform the experimentation, rather than the other way around.

As for the album art, it is pretty dang cool. I dig it. I was hoping something of the art would be reminiscent of the music. Something spectral. Something ... dark, while at the same time natural and spiritual. Something nocturnal, something organic. I was hoping for quiet power. Didn't quite happen.

Maybe next time.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, Валентин Лёвин. Glad to hear it. :)

      I've had some conversations with a number of my friends regarding the band and this album ... Radiohead is the kind of band that can form some pretty divisive opinions!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...