Looking at the cover of In Rainbows, you notice how clearly the "I" and "O" of Radiohead's name at its bottom form a distinct "10." Ten of course being the number of years its surprise release was removed from OK Computer, an extended decade-long peak of creative triumph and god-like influence. Listening now, that record sounds valedictory, a cohesive summation of everything the band did well in that span: adventurous electronic sounds, doomed balladry, tasteful jazz noodling, and even a fleeting rock-out. The band has since suggested that they might no longer be interested in the effort that kind of grand gesture demands. But with the myth they've cultivated, are we even allowed to treat anything they put out as a minor statement? Their latest, The King of Limbs, is a test case.
The record's first half runs through a single idea four times, slightly tweaking the tempo and balance with each. "Bloom" establishes the peculiar tone, its relentless beat looped to perpetual twitch. (The King of Limbs decrees that you flail yours epileptically!) Above the seizure-beat, Thom Yorke holds sustained, pinched notes. He self-sabotages the angelic effortlessness of his voice, forcing it towards a slow, searching medium. The juxtaposed elements allow for neither exhilaration nor relaxation; the listener left stranded at edgy unease. The band toys with that formula methodically, adjusting the pace of their skittering and the vocal and instrumental heft relative to it. Though an even tweakier beat, "Morning Mr. Magpie" is more pleasantly balanced towards accessibility. German art-legends Can have been an evident influence as far back as Amnesiac, but with virtuosic vocals held in check and that maniac pace tightly locked, there's never been a greater resemblance. By the third iteration, "Little by Little," the musical strategy finally clarifies. Rhythmically, it's still got all the ease of a shock patient holding a maraca, but that element is counterbalanced by a stronger, brighter tune. "Feral" lurches back in the opposite direction#&8212;all beat with just a few tatters of warped vocals. There are plenty of interesting sounds and textures. But despite the cerebral interest found in measuring each subsequent recalibration, there's a real lack of magic moments. They've been toying with mismatched pieces like this since their late 90s/early 00s b-sides. These songs aren't such a quantum leap further. There's certainly no "There There" here.
The second half is decidedly different, the tightly clutched nervousness considerably loosened. "Lotus Flower" has a slinky, low-key danceability. In context it's a relief, but in isolation it's still sort of shy. Like sweet, sweet salve on a raging case of poison ivy, "Codex" follows. It's the record's first beatless, and first truly beautiful moment. Songs like this one serve as a reminder that, if they'd wanted to, Radiohead could have been a way better Coldplay than Coldplay turned out be. My college-aged self might have kicked me in the balls for even facetiously half-wishing Thom Yorke would take a cue from Mr. Gwyneth Paltrow, but shit, doesn't an Eno-produced Radiohead album chock full of populist piano anthems sound sort of awesome at this point? "Give Up the Ghost" goes out of its way to be soothing, incorporating dewy morning bird chirps and a repeated backing mantra of "don't worry." After the record's early claustrophobic density, the track's empty spaces are easy to savor, but it's still kind of hookless. "Separator" ends the record with a bit of mushy muddle. More distressing than the lack of truly great Radiohead songs on the album is the scarcity of even truly great Radiohead moments. Thom Yorke has penned myriad disquieting images: "He's like a detuned radio," "Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon," etc. But here, the lyrics veer towards repurposed clichés. "You've got some nerve," "Little by little, by hook or by crook," or "quiet as mice, while the cat's away and do what we want" don't evoke much deeper import. Cumulatively, this feels like the least consequential Radiohead release in forever.
The band has more than earned the right to get nagging artistic tics out of their system. They've got the earned luxury of a fan base that will study anything they deem worthy of release with a focus that's downright anachronistic for the times. Which is great, and kind of crazy, and good for the continued health of pop music as capital-A art. But the slightness of The King of Limbs begs the question: Is it time to let Radiohead off the hook and stop taking their every move so goddamn seriously?