Radiohead, who dropped their eighth record, “The King of Limbs,” last Friday, have gotten a lot of attention in recent years for being very perceptive about the way we consume pop music today. By collapsing the window between announcing a record and releasing it, they’ve managed to flank leakers. By pioneering a variable pricing model, they entice casual listeners, while siphoning off superfans’ surplus income with various bonus features. And by operating without a traditional label, they seem to have figured out how to prosper in a world where no one pays for music. But beyond the messy business of selling records, Radiohead seem to understand the way people actually listen to music better than almost anyone else in the earbud era.
Back in prehistory, before records were widely available, music was an essentially communal experience, something you went out of your way to hear in a public forum. And then in the days of vinyl, putting on an album and sitting down to listen to it in front of a stereo system demanded your full attention. But nowadays, when we can all carry 15,000 songs in a five ounce metal box, most of us use music as a personal soundtrack, something we pop on because it fits a mood. “The King of Limbs” is not a particular songy album. There is nary a hook to be found, and Thom Yorke’s vocal melodies aren’t exactly hummable. But the record does an incredible job of creating a pensive atmosphere to hang out in.
Since they released “Kid A” way back in 2000, Radiohead have borrowed plenty of ideas from electronic music, but “The King of Limbs” wears the influence of contemporary dance experimentalists more than any of their previous records. The stuttering drum loops that form the basis for “Bloom,” “Little By Little,” and “Lotus Flower” sound a bit like the jazz-influenced work of L.A. beat-genius Flying Lotus, whose last record Yorke guested on. On “Feral,” which is the most interesting if not the best track, Thom Yorke’s vocals are chopped, distorted, and pitch-corrected into ghostly phonemes, like the samples in the work of English producers James Blake and Burial. Even on the beautifully spare piano ballad “Codex,” the record echoes the anomic, faintly post-apocalyptic atmosphere of dubstep.
So like dance music, “The King of Limbs,” gets its power not from melody, but from the way it sinks into and then alters your consciousness. But while club music depends on dynamic shifts, these songs get their power from maintaining a particular liquid, downbeat groove (a bit like an even more depressive version of the last Caribou record) and crafting a particular texture. Listening to this album, you feel enveloped instead of propelled forward.
I’m guessing this record will be fairly divisive, even among Radiohead fans. It’s certainly not for fans of the band’s 90s-era hard-charging guitar rock. But I think “The King of Limbs” will ultimately be recognized as a stroke of brilliance. The key is not to mind that the album is fairly homogenous or that the songs don’t grab the listener. This is a record that you listen to for a mood. It’s hard to capture that mood in words – it’s melancholy without being morose, jittery without being spastic, and oddly enough, pretty funky. The production is masterful, and it’s easy to get lost in layers of sound, but at the same time the band doesn’t demand your attention. “The King of Limbs” lends itself to the background, and slowly slips a bit of austere beauty into your day.