The King of Limbs is the most underrated record Radiohead have ever released. A tightly-coiled knot of rhythm and texture, intricate, subtle, and perfectly sequenced, it was met with mostly lukewarm reception, something of a collective ‘meh’, and a few too many pieces mourning the ‘old’ Radiohead, the Radiohead who ‘remembered how to write a tune, dude’. But TKOL isn’t concerned with tunes or melody, really. It is concerned with creating a small, inhabitable world that entirely envelops you in its colours and textures. Across its 38 minutes, it unfurls from a dense and almost claustrophobic tightness into a wide-open, airy finale: the movement of a tree from its thick trunk up through its spreading branches towards its delicate leaves. Or, alternatively, the opening up of a flower (a lotus flower?) as it blooms, its movement from a tiny bud, in which all its potential is packed tight, to an exposed, vulnerable blossom.
These natural images abound throughout the lyrics, the artwork, the album title (a reference to a huge ancient oak in Savernake Forest, Wiltshire) and the track titles. And the record sounds natural, too. It sounds feral. It sounds like nature in all its wildness and messiness, and makes me think of mutating DNA, microorganisms and rot, unpredictable weather. Part of this effect is in the heavy processing of rhythms and melodies through a programme Jonny Greenwood wrote himself to cut up and rearrange the songs (a bit like Menomena did on Friend and Foe), allowing randomness into the compositions. That everything manages to seem so wild and uninhibited while at the same time remaining so tight and controlled is really very clever. This natural quality means it’s a record that is best listened to outdoors. I remember walking around woods and lakes and fields with it in 2011, sitting under a large tree just as ‘Separator’ came on: this was the environment in which it started to make sense.
There are two things I really love about this record. The first is how it messes with time. I can’t, even after five years of listening and letting this thing grow on me, quite puzzle out how it moves. The songs don’t quite feel fixed in time; it’s almost like they unfold in multiple timeframes simultaneously. This is most apparent on ‘Bloom’, where the vocals are kind of smeared both forwards and backwards through the track. There’s an echo of Yorke’s voice, repeating most of his lines, but sometimes the echo comes before he actually sings them, as much as two or three seconds in advance. (Listen for the line “a giant turtle’s eyes”, where this is clearest). So even though this is an album which is all about forward movement and unfurling, it also feels circular, seasonal, cyclical, something emphasised by all those tightly looping rhythms.
The second thing I love is the way the band blend together hi-fi and lo-fi sounds. Radiohead can afford to record in as high quality as they like, and there are elements of this record which are an audiophile’s dream: that deep, rich bass sound that kicks in halfway through ‘Feral’, those glorious-sounding horns and strings on ‘Codex’. But underneath the million dollar strings is a watery-sounding piano and a muffled thump, really lo-fi, home-recorded sounds. There are similar contrasts all over the album: the lush acoustic guitar against the crackly “don’t haunt me” vocal loop on ‘Give up the Ghost’; the feedback whining at the back of ‘Morning Mr. Magpie’, behind perfectly-balanced bass and drums. The juxtaposition of sounds is part of the appeal here, and adds to the overall richness of the album’s texture, which as I’ve said is dense and intricate and requires a lot of unpacking.
I understand why some weren’t so keen on the album. It came after the loose and very melodic In Rainbows, which was basically ten perfect songs stacked up against each other. The King of Limbs is something of a 180 away from that. There aren’t a lot of hooks. It’s all about the texture, really. But I don’t think it’s a particularly difficult album, and I’m surprised it hasn’t grown on more people like it has on me, for there is a whole lot of sumptuous beauty on here. Yorke’s vocals, in particular, are suffused with feeling and nuance throughout.
Another criticism I’ve heard levelled against the album is that it’s slight or too short. Well, it’s longer than What’s Going On, Pink Moon, A Love Supreme, Revolver, Surfer Rosa. Are those slight too? It’s also short by design: it’s tight and small, and it doesn’t deviate from its opening-like-a-flower movement. The best song from these sessions, ‘The Daily Mail’, was rightly left off the album because it didn’t fit that movement. This is an album with a very particular feel, purpose and design. And perhaps it might be considered minor Radiohead. But do we really want every album by a band to be a big, grand statement, the equivalent of an epic poem or a great American novel? Isn’t there something to be said for the shorter, quieter novella, with its smaller stakes?
Besides, though the album itself is short, a wealth of additional material followed in its wake. I like to think of The King of Limbs, the album, being a kind of core to a wider project, the trunk of the tree if you like, out of which grew various branches or ‘limbs’: the excellent songs released as singles and B-sides (‘The Daily Mail’, ‘Staircase’, ‘Supercollider’ and ‘The Butcher’); the extensive remixes collected on TKOL RMX 1234567 (which is nearly two hours long); the Live from the Basement version of the album (a looser, livelier full-length recording which many fans profess to preferring to the studio version); the Universal Sigh newspaper; the Polyfauna app. When you think of all these ‘limbs’ it doesn’t seem like a small minor record at all, but a many-faceted project that spread its tendons through various forms and formats. Some might argue that there was too much concentration on all these extras and not enough on the album proper, and I can sympathise with that, though I think it was nice to see a band who are known for making grand statements, Albums with a captial A, do something a bit different.
The King of Limbs doesn’t reach the heights of OK Computer, Kid A or In Rainbows, and I’m not sure it was really trying to. But it is an important addition to the bands oeuvre, one that rewards patient and close listening. If you were lukewarm on it the first time round, I recommend, as we all continue to unpick the delights of A Moon Shaped Pool, revisiting it. After all, there’s no pressure on it anymore – it isn’t “the new Radiohead album”. It’s just a Radiohead album, and a pretty unique, interesting one at that.