Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Great Unknown

Like so many other music critics who discuss Radiohead - I can't help but feel unprepared to really judge the existential meaning of this new release, the universal significance, the long-term impact it might have, and why I should think I might be qualified to do so. But you know what? We all (those who chit chat about music, and like to think we know what we're talking about) seem to be in this boat when it comes to Radiohead - this ambivalent, rocking craft that won't come to a halt long enough for us to say "A-ha! That's what they want us to hear." But maybe, that's the beauty of it all. Just listening, with a moldable, unknowing sort of ear.

Eight albums, a massive cult-following and heaps of critical acclaim later - Radiohead are equipped to do just about whatever they like. And they will do just that - as well as release their new album digitally, a day early, with only the warning of one single line of script on their website.

King of Limbs, the newest ghoul-covered album from famed British art-rockers Radiohead, has made its splash in the blogosphere and world of online publications since its February 19th release. Most people who know Radiohead, know that it often takes some solid, snack-and-bathroom-break-free listening in order to really soak in the lyrical and melodic significance of anything they release. Their sound - so complex, so artistic and always heralded as one one of the greatest of its era - takes time and consideration to decipher exactly what Thom Yorke is trying to get us to chew on.

I agree with New York magazine pop music critic Nitsuh Abebe, who describes Radiohead as: "The band people will enjoy taking seriously, approaching slowly, and pondering as art rather than entertainment. The whole concept of “serious listening” has somehow become this one act’s brand."

With that thoughtful bit of naivety in mind, I'm still happy to take a whack at an album I've almost already overplayed. I wouldn't say this album is on the same influential playing field as the The Bends (1994) or Kid A (2000) but these stylistically-diverse eight tracks fascinate and pause me the same way that 2007's In Rainbows did. Underlying the album lays a scattering rhythmic foundation, courtesy of some of drummer Phil Selway's best work yet. Something about the factory percussion - conflicting clangs overtop the sped-up ticks of the drum - creates the effect of some sort of hurried scene flashing before your eyes and ears. The groove of the downtown beats and the hollow thumps that impose themselves in between, make for such a modern-sounding, year-appropriate listening experience. With this album, I really feel like I'm listening to 2011.

While the sensual, beat-churning first single "Lotus Flower" promises to to be an underground club favourite, the album also flicks back and forth between much more haunting numbers. Avoiding the ballad build-ups or thick instrumental icing, they still manage to pull a sentimental and mournful chord with their romanticized moments. Winning songs like "Codex" bring you down from the hustle of "Lotus Flower", with silencing vocals and forlorn piano that will wash over you a feeling of tranquility, then rejuvenation. Equally as powerful but subdued is "Give Up The Ghost", a song I believe to be the most worthwhile lullaby on the album. Johnny Greenwood's countryside guitar plucks and Yorke's coined ethereal vibrato and coats of his own backing vocals are the minor ingredients as he asks "Don't haunt me." They hurry to the finish line with the radiant and addictive "Separator", a progression of building instrumental additions, an urban twist and the clever juxtaposition of both wildly uplifting and laid-back sounds.

King of Limbs is a map of Radiohead's abilities - a guide to what they're able to do and the tricks they still have up their sleeves. It's a call to attention but secretive with its meaning. It swarms with energy and answers, but chuckles at us while we look for the bigger picture; while we look to be let in on the pattern of stories and sounds. Because, compared to Radiohead, what do any of us really know?

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