Radiohead have been pursuing one of the most interesting careers in modern rock since their debut single, 1992’s ‘Creep.’ Their music began with a guitar-driven and ultimately conventional phase that culminated in 1997’s OK Computer, made a sharp left turn into the electronic genius of Kid A and Amnesiac and then, incredibly, managed to combine the two earlier phases into the sublime Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows. Through all this, Radiohead were always a band primarily concerned with songs.
Their new album, The King of Limbs, at times feels like a conscious abandonment of their own evolution; at times like another left turn. It is definitely not an album that shows the same genius for songwriting that fills their previous work. More than anything though, The King of Limbs feels like singer Thom Yorke’s 2006 solo album The Eraser rather than a new Radiohead album. Here we find the same staccato, sometimes schizophrenic, percussion tracks hung with Yorke’s ghostly falsetto. There is little other instrumentation, sometimes a few chords on a piano, and one gets the feeling guitarist Johnny Greenwood may have spent most of the recording sessions down at the pub.
There are still moments of brilliance, the album’s first single, ‘Lotus Flower,’ is a particularly fine example, but these never break free from the basic vocals-over-percussion model. There are no hooks, no middle eights, no riffs in this album – none of the tricks that Radiohead know how to use so well. Why this should be the case is a mystery. If the band is consciously striving in a new, sparsely minimal direction the change is less successful than their earlier changes of direction. More likely the band is doing as they always do – following their own star.