Over the years, Radiohead have positioned themselves as "artists' artists". Their studio work has become more perfectionist and their songwriting has veered into more abstract directions. Where other artists find themselves torn between repeating past successes or carefully erecting new artistic directions, Radiohead makes each new album a study of that particular moment. Each album's sound seems shaped by some hidden strange attractor. Elements of the past may appear again, even as the artistic framing shifts to something new. Meanwhile, Thom Yorke and the band play with theories of commerce while they're diffident about positioning their music.
The King of Limbs is rooted in an electronic aesthetic, with complex syncopation arising out of rhythmic loops and mechanistic drumming. There are plenty of electronic sounds and keyboards, while the guitar's contribution is more symbolic and subtle. Taken as a whole, the album is unsettled -- the contrast between the anxious rhythm loops and the more languid vocals fuels a nervous melancholy, even as the overall sound sets up a kind of trancy dreaminess.
Some of the experimental vibe of Kid A is resurrected, along with a moody Krautrock feel. The lush sounds of In Rainbows are largely missing here. Radiohead's uncompromising commitment to making an album of this moment may not sit well with newer fans (or less flexible ones), but a legion of hardcore enthusiasts are already on board.
It's no mistake that Lotus Flower is the first video for The King of Limbs. It's one of the more song-like tracks and, even with the loops and dreamy vocal processing, it references Radiohead's earlier work. By contrast, the minimalist dubstep of Feral is a harder fit. Personally, Little By Little hits the perfect balance of old and new. The rhythmic drive sets off the abstract guitar chords while the vocals still have enough energy to evoke Paranoid Android. In another standout track, the piano-based groove of Codex is a moment of respite from the rest of the albums pervasive beat work.
There's no ignoring the hype around The King of Limbs. The universal drop (a day early!!), the packaging options (the "Newspaper Album"), and the desperate attention of the blog-o-sphere all guarantee that. The frenzy has almost eclipsed the music itself. Every obsessive fan has already gotten their copy, but the rest of you might want to wait until more of the songs are easily available to preview. Bottom line is that, with the right mindset, there's plenty of detail to tease out and appreciate. Certainly, it's grown on me the more I've listened to it.