Few rock and roll bands these days elicit a global response to their every move. Sure, the world has progenitors like Lady Gaga, but there’s not a collective that captures our imagination these days. Except for one. Radiohead.
Through the years, they’ve gone from alt-rock afterthoughts to oh-no-maybe-not’s and evolved into unparalleled innovators of their craft. Whether it’s the man-machine tumble of OK Computer, or the heartbreaking disconnect of Kid A, Radiohead has made records that stand not only as critical achievements, but as unmatched classics.
Since then? They’ve stopped. It can be argued that they haven’t made anything nearly as impressive in over a decade. Amnesiac, released in the summer of 2001 is more or less a sister record to its predecessor, with songs recorded in the same sessions. It’s spotty at best. 2003’s Hail to the Thief was a return to guitar rock, but meandered and has left a small imprint. Four years later, there was “In Rainbows,” released with a week’s notice through a “pay what you want” system that shocked a fractured music industry. While the songwriting is strong, it suffered from flat production and lazy sequencing.
Radiohead’s albums are drenched in ambiguity and have always been geared by subtlety. They are not a group that cares much about hooks or riffs these days, as they did with 1995’s The Bends. Instead, they live in the abstract: grooves and textures. Friday’s release of The King of Limbs drives that home. Unfortunately, it’s colorless.
The album’s opener, “Bloom,” begins with a distant piano loop that melts into a series of blips and drum hits. Thom Yorke’s recognizable croon follows, but the song doesn’t seem to DO much. There’s a desire to hear this it build and crescendo, but the song refuses, staying firmly in the middle. And this is the problem with so much of the album’s material. It plays too much to the center and not enough to the extremes that Radiohead has excelled at. “Morning Mr. Magpie and “Feral” suffer from this same fate. “Little by Little” apes their OK Computer-era sound, but it sounds awkward, nestled in a collection of dour material.
Of course, there’s things to like with each of their releases. “Lotus Flower” is a slinky lead single powered by a gorgeous Yorke falsetto. “Codex,” a haunting piano ballad, is treated with care. The vocals are to the front, atmospheric loops sprinkled throughout, with a tasteful horn and string accompaniment to usher it forward. It concludes as a great addition to their catalog.
Still, Radiohead sounds bored. While it’s fair to assume that a band of their caliber has reached the point in its career where they’ve done everything they could have imagined musically, they must now face the challenge of keeping it interesting. Both for themselves and their listeners. This may very well be Radiohead reaching middle age. It may be painful, but they’ve got the drive to continue. It’s just now time for them to step outside of the realm of possibility and capture listeners imaginations once more.