I remember when I downloaded In Rainbows and listened to it through the first time, palpably excited by the prospect of a new Radiohead record. In fact, this was the first time I'd been a fan a long enough to actually buy (or download for free) one of their albums the day it came out. I remember listening to it first time through and not being able to assimilate much except that it was different, good, and that there seemed to be a lack of... heavier numbers.
I've since listened to In Rainbows probably hundreds of times and rank it as one of their most enjoyable, complete records, though there's still a part of me that feels like it needs something explosive. A pure rocker. Some brashness, perhaps. Sure, Bodysnatchers had distorted guitars, but they were remarkably clean distorted guitars.
Unfortunately, for those expecting a return to The Bends or an introductory paragraph that actually builds to something, The King Of Limbs is not unsubtle. It is not loud, chaotic or rocking. It is, if anything, their most considered, subdued album yet and at only 37 minutes seems to drift by before you know what's just gently caressed your ears.
That is not to say that The King Of Limbs is the sound of a band coasting, or finally reaching the end of their 'progression', more that Radiohead have finally found - or returned - to a sound they're comfortable with and are now trying to hone it to sonic perfection.
To wit, opener Bloom - after a few seconds of piano trinklets - brings on the prominent bass, electro-bleeps and dub-step drumming that will be familiar to anyone who's listened to Amnesiac, immediately recalling songs such Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors. It is moody, slow burning, deceptively layered and on first listen perhaps a little - depending on your expectations - unremarkable.
Morning Mr Magpie switches things a bit with three guitars playing variations on a staccato riff, though even this is more enticing than rocking. Come opening line "You've got some nerve..." and you feel in familiar Radiohead territory, something that's oddly hard to accustom to. When they've spent most of their career confounding expectations, it's strange to hear something resolutely them.
Colin Greenwood's bass and Phil Selways's drums provide the backbone to nearly every track, with Johnny and Ed covering ocassional overlapping guitars and those aforementioned electro-bleeps. There are refreshing, deft touches such as a brass-like sound on Bloom and Codex, and even a hoover at the end of Mr Magpie, but instrumental variation is few and far between. For the most part, this is the land of mid-tempo beats and low hums.
Thom Yorke is largely in reverb-heavy falsetto-mode here, recalling Reckoner or House Of Cards. There is certainly none of angry Thom (2+2=5) or even rapping Thom (Wolf At The Door, Faust Arp); in fact on the latter tracks particularly he seems to have found a melodic warmth to his voice that would have seemed unimaginable 10 years ago. Lyrically, he is as incomprehensible as ever, but at least when you make out snippets they aren't nearly as threatening as "I will eat you alive" or "We suck young blood". 18 years and 8 albums down the line, Radiohead seem done trying to completely alienate.
On lead single Lotus Flower he even sings "And now I'll set you free, I will set you free", even if the preceding lines are "There's an empty space inside my heart where the weeds take root". Either way, for all the moodiness and chlaustrophobia this album is the closest they've come to sounding inspirational, with the closing, almost anthemic sentiment "If you think this is over you're wrong" almost enough to bring tears to the eyes, as Yorke's soaring vocals crack over an exquisite little guitar line.
The second half of the album is probably the more sucessful, with some beautiful ballads making the most of Yorke's vocal range and the busy electronics giving way to some piano and acoustic guitar. Again, it's nothing unfamiliar, but it's still damn good. If they're not as eclectic as they were on, say, Hail To The Thief, they've at least mastered their quality control.
Despite initial reservations it's hard to join all those waiting for Radiohead to trip up and proclaim this a failure, or even a dip in quality. But whilst I appreciate the return to Kid A's spacey atmosphere over the relatively radio-friendly In Rainbows, I still yearn for the explosiveness or lean simplicity of the former's National Anthem and Idioteque, and sadly the crunching guitars seem further away than ever. This is an album for late nights and good quality headphones. It is atmospheric and beautiful, but by now we expect nothing less. Hopefully it's not time to stop expecting more.