Just as the Velvet Underground stood out in 1967 like a black flower in the blooming summer of love, Radiohead’s OK Computer clashed with the synthetic euphoria of New Labour and Cool Britannia in 1997. They gave us songs of alienation (and alien abduction) instead of bloated, cocaine-fuelled gibberish.
While this sparked an unfortunate trend in rock bands making comedown albums, Radiohead skipped that bandwagon. For the past decade they have consolidated their unique musical republic established by the album Kid A. No aspect of their art went unrevised. The band particularly refreshed their rhythm. Recent songs incorporate two-step, shuffle and even polyrhythm. Lead singer and songwriter Thom Yorke’s laconic, gnomic lyrics also stand out. They create image and mood where most rock lyrics fall into Bono-esque bombast.
Politically, no popular act dovetails so well with modern social movements (or social media). Though not desperately radical, the band did engage with the anti-capitalist movement – for example, their tour in 2000 was free of corporate logos. Radiohead’s website has frequently promoted demonstrations and mass movements, such as around the 2009 Copenhagen climate change summit.
Radiohead left their label, EMI, after releasing their sixth album, Hail to the Thief, in 2003. They followed this up in 2007 with the release of In Rainbows. This was released online, asking only for donations (the average donation was £4, more than bands get from typical record deals). They also frequently broadcast live sessions online. Anyone looking to get into Radiohead should check out their 50-minute film Scotch Mist.
The King of Limbs was released online in February. It is not an earth-shaking breakthrough and may disappoint some people. The restrained mood is similar to In Rainbows, and the electric, distorted sound akin to Kid A. Fans of cutting-edge dance might resent Radiohead’s appropriation of their music. Nonetheless, if you like rock music this will be one of the best albums you hear all year. I think the standout track is the opener, a spectral dub called “Bloom”.
The King of Limbs is short – its eight tracks come to under 40 minutes. Given the brevity of this release compared to the extensive haul taken to record it (18 months) I hope there’s another album on the way soon.
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