It was March 15, 2012 – my future wife and I flew to Arizona and are standing on the floor at Jobing.com Arena (now Gila River Arena). The lights go off and Radiohead walk on stage for the last show of The King of Limbs tour, their first proper tour in four years. After a fervent reception from the crowd, Thom Yorke starts playing the swirling guitar arpeggios of “Bloom,” the opening track on The King of Limbs. While walking around the Grand Canyon the following afternoon we just could not shake off the chills still ringing through us from the night before.
Radiohead’s eighth LP, The King of Limbs (TKOL) turns 10 years old this week and as with any Radiohead album, it represents a unique (yet polarizing) place in the band’s history. The record followed up 2007’s In Rainbows, arguably one of the most important records in modern music history, and a massive double commercial success. Fans worldwide whole-heartedly embraced the pay-what-you-want model right off the band’s website. The record debuted at #1 on multiple charts months later when the retail version of the record was released. The release model for that record changed the music industry forever and foreshadowed the “creative economy” we are currently seeing explode. Four years removed from that ground-breaking release, fans were rabid for more.
The King of Limbs was slated to be released on the Radiohead website on February 18th, 2011 but fans were surprised one day prior when the band announced that the “website was ready early” and the album was available for download. I skipped class for the rest of the day at Fordham, raced home to Long Island and pressed play as soon as I could.
The album kicks off with “Bloom” a cascading mix of guitar arpeggios, repetitive drum sequences and a metaphor of the ocean breathing a “universal sigh.” What would become a mainstay in Radiohead setlists, “Bloom” reaches an epic climax before winding down to a single ringing bass note. “Morning Mr. Magpie” a feverish guitar rock track with a glitched out drum beat precedes “Little by Little,” where the new addition of second drummer Clive Deamer (of Portishead fame) really shines. The two play competing drum rhythms superimposed on one another but are still able to mix it in a way that comes off like a cohesive beat played by a single drummer.
Things take a sudden turn with “Feral,” certainly the black sheep of the record, even by Radiohead standards. The listener is bombarded with frenetic drums and ghostly, heavily distorted vocals (enormous “Pulk/Pull…” vibes here). We then hit “Lotus Flower,” the lead single released a couple days before the album via a music video featuring Yorke comically (seriously?) and erratically dancing in a bowler hat. The record then goes into a lull for “Codex” and “Give Up the Ghost” which are stripped back minimal efforts that stops the albums momentum coming back to back in the second half. Closer “Separator” features soaring vocals over syncopated drum beats.
Regardless of how we feel about the record today, there is no question that fans, myself included, felt disappointed that day. With only 8 tracks, a brief 37-minute runtime and a very lopsided track flow, I sat on my basement floor thinking to myself, “that was it?” After all, Thom Yorke seemed to be overtly teasing us with the vocals on “Separator” by singing “If you think this is over then you’re wrong…” A mantra fans used to convince themselves a “part 2” was coming. Everything about TKOL felt unfinished. The production was rather muted, the recordings felt like demo takes, and it was really hard to picture any of the songs slapping in an arena.
That last notion was proven completely false once these songs got the live treatment. For me personally, hearing them performed live (7 TKOL era tracks that night in Arizona) made it all come together. Listeners still turn to the live studio version released in December 2011 – The King of Limbs: Live from the Basement as the definitive version of the record. The expansive reworked versions and three additional tracks (“The Daily Mail,” “Staircase,” and “Supercollider”) gave the album a whole new persona. Between the release in February 2011 and the start of the tour in February 2012, the band only played three shows (Glastonbury, and two nights in NYC at Roseland Ballroom) but it was already clear that the songs on TKOL are in their full glory live. This is true for so many bands and songs, but here it is especially the case.
Radiohead embarked on a drastic stylistic shift on The King of Limbs. Ambient and melancholic electronica have always been an omnipresent backdrop since the OK Computer era. This time around, Radiohead dove deeper into their IDM and dub-techno influences and adopted a more dadaist approach to the structure and recording of the songs. This was taken to the n-th degree (in typical Radiohead fashion) by Jonny Greenwood who built and programmed a custom hardware/software package to sample the band’s live playing. The essence of TKOL was always meant to be a live rock-band adaptation of 2000s era minimalist techno and down-tempo, a subset of electronica seemingly brought about to capture the moments leading up to sunrise after a long night at the club; an evanescent “blue hour” moment. Artists such as Burial, Bonobo and Four Tet come to mind.
The band even physically encapsulated that very same fleeting, transient vibe of the music in the physical vinyl release. Dubbed the “Newspaper Edition,” the album was first teased with a newspaper handed out on the streets of NYC and the UK titled The Universal Sigh, that featured collages of poetry, short stories, and visual art. The vinyl itself came with another newspaper style art book, a 625-tab sheet of blotter paper, and two clear vinyls. Newspaper was chosen because of how it predictably yellows and fades over time; coming back to the whole notion of capturing an elusive futuristic sound before it fades into memory.
The exploration of this new style continued in the year following the release of TKOL with a continuous series of electronic remixes that culminated in the TKOL RMX 1234567 release. Artists such as Four Tet, Caribou, Mark Pritchard, Shed, Jamie XX, Modeselektor, SBTKRT and many more did their thing with the album tracks. While disjointed and filled with some bizarre sounding remixes that many dismissed out of hand, the collection contains some of the most unique sounding electronica you can find. This style would ultimately evolve and become a jumping off point for Thom Yorke’s future eras of solo/collaborative projects (i.e. collaborations with Modeselektor, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes and more).
That brings us back to today – 10 years later. While still polarizing and a point of heated debate amongst the Radiohead faithful, The King of Limbs owns its distinct place within the band’s discography; I would even argue it is one of their best records. Considering that another record has been released since, fans have allowed TKOL to exist as it was meant to be, rather than forcing it to be another In Rainbows or OK Computer. The record explores a very brief period in electronica from the perspective of an arena rock band in a way that has yet to be done by any other artist. The Universal Sigh publications will eventually disintegrate with time but The King of Limbs is not going anywhere and continues to perplex and wonder listeners a decade on.