Even five months after it dropped, Radiohead‘s latest album A Moon Shaped Pool is still getting lots of love across the world, and rightfully so, because it’s an incredible album. What it isn’t however is a “return to form” as so many people seem to incorrectly label it.
A lot of the album’s love seems to come from the fact that it’s a departure away from the “mechanical” and “unfriendly” sounds of their previous album, The King of Limbs, and sees them moving back into warmer, ‘human’ sounds and instrumentations.
Personally, I think that’s bullshit and hence I’ve picked The King of Limbs as my choice for an album worth revisiting.
Before going into the album, I’ve first got to debunk the whole ‘return to form’ argument that sits over A Moon Shaped Pool. As any serious listener of the band knows, they’re a truly formless band who pursue a different sound and direction on every album. Surely it’s pointless to talk about the form of a band who can release three wildly different albums, The Bends, OK Computer and Kid A in succession?! Now onto The King of Limbs…
Radiohead pull no punches with the record, and make it known right from the opening track ‘Bloom’ that they’re experimenting with an entirely different sound and style on this one.
At first listen the track is undeniably, and perhaps intentionally, overwhelming. A simple but heavily manipulated piano line is quickly overshadowed by bizarrely timed bleeps, a messy drum pattern, sparse bass notes, flugel horns and more and more seemingly incongruous layers. It’s a bit of a musical overload and a huge departure from the big, riffy rock tracks that usually open their albums (’15 Step’, ‘2+2=5’, ‘Burn the Witch’, ‘Planet Telex’, ‘Airbag’).
Whilst their opening tracks are usually their most straightforward, ‘Bloom’ is the exact opposite of that, repelling you rather than reeling you in.
But then you listen again and, much like the name suggests, the track begins to unfold and reveal its true mastery to you. The drums aren’t messy but rather polyrhythmic, the sounds aren’t random but rather perfect loops.
Radiohead have always been a band who improve with each listen, but The King of Limbs takes this idea to a whole new, and initially frustrating, level. It’s like an intricate puzzle, which takes a long time to solve. But to truly appreciate the puzzle (and potentially take my crappy metaphor too far), you need to admire the complexity of its creation.
Rather than writing and developing the album through live performance as the band had always done previously, they wrote it in seperate parts, each recording and creating their own individual loops and samples which were then mixed, manipulated and edited together. The band’s attention to detail throughout this process was so great that member Johnny Greenwood even wrote a piece of software to help with it.
This technique allows the band to take what are, arguably, some of their simplest ideas yet, such as the groovy synth bassline in ‘Lotus Flower’ or the haunting guitar plucking in ‘Give Up The Ghost’, and expand them into complex final products by adding layer upon layer on top.
The downside of this process, and indeed the factor that seems to sully The King of Limbs for many listeners, is that this makes the album sound mechanical and overly processed.
Although it’s been a longtime since Radiohead have sounded like five dudes playing in a room (after all, anyone can play guitar…), this album admittedly doesn’t sound human at all due to the unique process used to create it. Although the loops were all created by the members, the way they’re mixed together makes it easy to forget that.
Luckily, there’s a solution to this problem – From The Basement. If you haven’t seen it yet, and you’re still unsold on the album, you should drop what you’re doing and listen/watch immediately.
The live album/video sees the band performing The King of Limbs live in their producer Nigel Godrich’s basement. These live versions bridge the gap between the album and their earlier work, with the songs sounding much warmer and more human than the studio recordings by having the members all play them together. ‘Little by Little’ is a particular highlight, taking on a friendly and funky groove which is nowhere to be found in the original.
Although it may be cheating using an alternate recording to defend the album, the truth is that the two versions work perfectly in tandem.
The original studio recording serves as a testament to the band’s creativity and desire to push the envelope, and the basement recording perfectly demonstrates the musical synergy and rapport that they’ve developed over two decades of playing together.
From The Basement also allows us to properly appreciate the complexities and technicalities of the original, with two drummers and a variety of different instruments required to recreate it. Plus, it gave us two of the band’s best recent songs which were held off the album; ‘The Daily Mail’ and ‘Staircase’. Although the latter’s epic and unprocessed horn crescendo wouldn’t have fit into the album, it works perfectly in the live session, truly showing how different the songs are in this context.
Interestingly, this ‘warmer’ sound achieved in the basement is actually present on one track on the album; its closer ‘Separator’. After half an hour of loops, samples and sonic experimentations, Radiohead finally give us a track which sounds like the In Rainbows follow-up that everyone expected. Rather than sounding like a mix of disparate sounds, the song actually sounds like it was written, and performed, by a band.
With its syncopated but natural drum beat, playful bassline, minimal guitar work and relaxing lyrics, ‘Separator’ is a surprisingly friendly song (an adjective not often used in relation to modern Radiohead). It’s the perfect way to close the complex album and a reward for listening to their strange experiment.
The band are still here, and they can still make music like they used to, as long as we’re willing to let them push the envelope now and then and show us what else they are capable of. Now go ahead and give it another listen…