Monday, February 28, 2011

Let Down

Just as I was getting ready to dive into Radiohead's newest album, The King Of Limbs, the eight-track, 37-minute EP-LP hybrid started to grow on me. But the main point I wanted to express didn't change. Which is: I really miss the Radiohead of old.

You know, back when they were a rock band.

Take Limbs' opening track, "Bloom." The song starts out nice enough, with a pleasant Eno-like bed of ambient electronics. 15 seconds later, a cacophonic clusterfuck of disparate snare splices and radio-staticky blips completely sabotage the song.

The only good part is that, five minutes later, it ends.

"Feral" is another instant throwaway. Only this time the cut-and-paste drum loop and lo-fi radio static start immediately. What follows is essentially an instrumental with random synth touches and Thom Yorke's slurred murmurs fluctuating in and out amid a wash of reverb.
"Songs like 'Bloom' and 'Feral' are the type of nerve-shredders Brian Eno used to compose in his sleep. Only underneath the random sounds of chaos, Eno also offered a melody, that on its own, could sometimes break your heart." —Sal Nunziato
I'd like to believe that studio gremlins—and not the band itself—ruined one-fourth of the songs on Radiohead's new album, but it's unlikely.

"Morning Mr. Magpie" is the other song I don't care for, and it's not because of poor production. It's because the song, driven almost solely by a scratch-guitar loop on acid, goes nowhere. And on Limbs, this is too often the case.
"I could use a little less aversion to melody. The King Of Limbs is typically (albeit beautifully) long on experimentation and frustratingly short on old-fashioned songs." —Shawn Amos
It took the world's greatest rock(?) band three years to come up with eight new songs, three of which are demo-quality cuts that would be lucky to be called B-sides? Maybe that explains the band's unheralded, oh-by-the-way announcement on February 14th that their new album would be coming out just five days later.

The remainder of Limbs is listenable with more traditional song structures, and outside of the doleful "Codex," mostly lighter temperaments. Overall though, my biggest complaint is that there are no moments of transcendence—just steady songs defined by funky drum beats, casual guitar noodling, and eerie background noises that we've come to expect from Radiohead.

I doubt the absence of payoffs is a coincidence, considering that the power of the guitars and real drum-playing that defined Radiohead in their prime (1995's The Bends and 1997's OK Computer) have been muzzled in favor of Radiohead lite—an intentionally mellow, lo-fi brand of arty minimalism that's appreciated most by music snobs and the 3 a.m. stoner crowd. This mood music can be heard throughout their catalogue, but was cemented by 2007's In Rainbows.

Limbs' shortcomings don't change the fact that Radiohead are the truest of artists, uncompromising nonconformists who make music for themselves before anyone else. But what bothers me is the notion that the band could one day mock the very pedestal that critics and fans have put them on by intentionally putting out a shit record, and no one would have the balls to say it sucked.

Much worse, it would be called "art."

On the album's last track, "Separator," Yorke cries, "I'm a fish now out of water... Wake me up." I'd like to think it's an acknowledgment of the musical limbo Radiohead's in, but I'm not holding my breath for another Bends. Because the truth is that Radiohead was once a rock band with electronic tendencies, but now they're an electronic outfit with rock stylings. And I keep wondering how drummer Phil Selway feels about splitting time with his computerized counterpart.

My hope is that one day they'll return to form, but not by mimicking The Bends—just without the restraint of Limbs, and without being challenging for the sake of being challenging.


Right on: In response to Rolling Stone's "Radiohead Reconnect" article in its May 3rd, 2012 issue, reader Jason Squier of St. Ansgar, Iowa had this to say:
"When I learned that Radiohead 'learned to rock again,' I got my hopes up that they finally gave up on the experimental samples and beeps. I guess they still feel it's uncool to create songs with a guitar and amp. I hope next time they reinvent themselves, they make music the fans want to hear. I wish it were 1997 again."