Radiohead has made a career out of blowing up their previous album’s sound and exploring whatever (usually obscure) genre they’re into at the moment. Their eighth “surprise” full-length, The King of Limbs, doesn’t break from that tradition — which is to say, it bears little resemblance to 2007’s lush, immediate-gratification machine In Rainbows. Instead the ’head has released another “difficult,”electronics-driven record that will add more fuel to the “emperor has no clothes” fire that re-ignites with each new album. Hey, haters, put down your torches (or, uh, Twitter accounts): It’s not that the emperors have no clothes — you just don’t like what they’re wearing right now.
Like the ancient, thousand-year-old U.K. tree it takes its name from, King is most definitely a grower. Frontman Thom Yorke warns us right away what’s about to go down on album opener “Bloom,” moaning “I’m moving out of orbit” over dizzying clicks, glitches, beeps, and a killer bassline from King’s MVP, Colin Greenwood. All the Flying Lotus-style techno textures reach their peak on the instrumental “Feral,” an neat but skippable intermission á la Kid A’s “Treefingers” (suggested alternate title: “Filler”). But then the gears shift. In stark contrast to the digital chaos of the first half, the back end of King is hauntingly human. The excellently groovy “Lotus Flower” slows the tempo, and piano dirge “Codex,” one of their best recent ballads, slows it even more. “Give Up the Ghost” is another instant classic: A spectral choir of weary-sounding Yorkes loop and layer, pushing toward a big-screen finish arranged by resident genius Jonny Greenwood. In fact, album closer “Separator” feels a bit like an anticlimax: Atop a brisk, syncopated beat from drummer Phil Selway, Yorke sings, “If you think this is over, then you’re wrong.” But then, the album actually is over — and much, much too soon. Radiohead always leave me wanting more, but this time, I literally wanted more. That disappointment didn’t stick around after a second, third, sixteenth listen — but I’m anxious to see what clothes the emperors try on next.