We’re back on Music Week, looking at an album you can’t even buy in the shops – and that’s the way the band want it.
Radiohead are the masters of the self-distributor model. They have the cash and the knowhow to be able to release what they want, when they want, in the way they want. The album, The King Of Limbs, dropped with barely a week’s warning, and a day earlier than initially announced. They’ve got rid of the pay-what-you-want scheme adapted for their last album, In Rainbows, taking on a slightly more traditional pricing structure. You can pick up an MP3 for £6, an audiophile-quality WAV for a couple of quid more, or splash out more for what they’re calling a “newspaper album” – an art package filled with little bits and bobs. Something for everyone, from the casual listener to the fanboi collector.
Like R.E.M., Radiohead have reinvented themselves, although in much more radical and innovative ways. Today’s Radiohead are closer to a dubstep outfit than a guitar band. Their embrace of electronica and effects-soaked washes of sound is the trademark nowadays, and The King Of Limbs does little to move that on.
The feel of the album is loose, improvised. The instrumentation seems stark, stripped down, and the mix feels open, letting the music breathe and allowing odd little details to seep through the gaps. The whole thing has an almost Middle-Eastern feel, something spiritual, meditational, devotional. Thom Yorke’s vocals, swamped in delay, become close to wordless, chants and roundelays, his voice a call to prayer. Drummer Phil Selway seems to have less and less to do, as percussion moves to programmed loops and breaks. The rest of the band are in there somewhere, I’m sure.
The problem is, that while the improvisional approach has led to some gems, the bookends of Bloom and Seperator especially, a lot of the album feels a bit under-thought, a bit slung together. Compared to In Rainbows, it meanders where it should stride, flops back on the sofa at the point when it should be leaning into the mike. There’s certainly nothing with the bite and fire of 15 Step or Bodysnatchers. It’s their shortest album, at 8 tracks and under 40 minutes. There’s still enough invention, intelligence and sheer joy in the art of creation to put it head and skinny shoulders above most of the other records that will be released in 2011. But I can’t imagine returning to it in the same way that I would to In Rainbows or OK Computer.
The King Of Limbs is a delightful little trinket, but it’s a minor work compared to the high points of Radiohead’s career.