Let's be honest: For great swaths of the music-buying masses, a new Radiohead album matters very little. But for a select sliver of fancy-headphone wearers, fresh mind-warping product from the Brit overthinkers is still cause to take a premeditated sick day, a dizzying chance to spiral down Thom Yorke & Co.'s sonic rabbit hole once again.
The King of Limbs, the band's eighth studio album, was a surprise for most folks. It arrived unannounced — poof! — via digital format a couple of weeks ago, and won't get a proper CD and vinyl release until March 28. There's also a mythical "newspaper" deluxe edition on the way May 9, which will include 625 pieces of artwork. That "sliver" of fans just shivered in geek glee.
Radiohead was born in the late '80s — and seemingly born again in 2000. That's when the crew deconstructed its melodically prickly, but relatively accessible, sound (the song Creep, the album The Bends, etc.) and released Kid A, which symbolized a bold leap off the thematic high dive into murkier, brain-schmooshing waters. For some, Radiohead was lost forever; for diehards, things were just getting good.
Since then, the Oxfordshire quintet has handled all facets of its career — including its snubbing of major labels for a DIY revolution that allowed listeners to pay what they wanted for 2007's In Rainbows — with polite disregard for convention.
But a funny thing happened on the way to doing whatever it darn well pleased: Radiohead is once again using likable populist strains in its music, a creative decision that has nothing to do with commercialism, and everything to do with the fact that these guys are unpredictable.
The King of Limbs is an eight-track beauty, with a magisterial, even Pink Floydian, piano ballad called Codex anchoring the enlightening 37-minute experience. There's nothing glitchy or bleepy about Codex. Instead, Yorke unleashes his tender gnomic croon and insists, "Jump off the end / The water's clear and innocent." He's probably not talking about hurling off the dock at summer camp, but there is reassurance in his voice nonetheless.
Yorke once admitted he often writes songs, or at least song titles, based solely on how words sound when linked together. That's a thoroughly Seussian idea, isn't it? So it's always tough to gauge theme and intent with these dudes.
But there seems to be a pervasive feeling of homeostasis here — a floating evenness urging listeners to relax. "Gather up the lost and sold in your arms," Yorke quavers on Give Up the Ghost, a slow, organic gallop that wouldn't be out of place in a postapocalyptic western.
It's not all slo-mo, though. Radiohead genially halves the record like a party platter: fast stuff in front, mellow stuff on the flip side. Morning Mr. Magpie has a rickety beat and a whiff of the Fab Four's bittersweet best. Little by Little grooves on complex Middle Eastern rhythms.
All that said, this is a 21st century Radiohead record, so don't expect easy-bake Coldplay pap. Jonny Greenwood is still being asked to make his guitar sound like anything but. And maybe we're so used to Radiohead tossing out puzzle pieces that even a shred of order is cause for headlines.
Whatever the case, The King of Limbs is relatively lush, soothing, even singable. Enjoy it while you can. There's a decent chance this band's next album will be made using nothing but toilet brushes and kazoos.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at tampabay.com/blogs/poplife.