It’s amusing that Radiohead’s latest album has entered the world burdened with the same breathless hype that accompanied the surprise online release of its previous record, 2007’s “In Rainbows.” That record clearly was intended as a big, bold statement; it was the closest to a straight pop album that Thom Yorke and company have come since “OK Computer,” and its pay-what-you-want mp3 release deservedly garnered lots of attention. “The King of Limbs” is a different beast, or rather, tree, entirely. With eight songs clocking in at 38 minutes, it’s the group’s shortest album to date, spawning a whole Internet cottage industry of conspiracy theorists convinced that it’s merely the first installment of a longer, more complex project.
While more new music from the band is certainly not out of the question, there’s no reason to think that “The King of Limbs” isn’t a complete statement on its own. It’s certainly structured like one; the first four tracks are all filled with tension, from the queasy lilt of opener “Bloom” to the needling riff of “Morning Mr. Magpie” to the chopped vocal samples of “Feral.”
But where Radiohead would part the clouds and let its songs soar on “In Rainbows,” as in the propulsive coda to “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” or the slow build of “All I Need,” here they stubbornly avoid any moments of grandiosity. Instead, they use the back end of the album as a soothing musical balm. “Lotus Flower” finds Yorke getting lost in Colin Greenwood’s bass groove, spastically dancing away his fears, and might even qualify as sexy, a word seldom used to describe Radiohead’s music. “Codex” returns to the minimal piano balladry of “Pyramid Song,” this time subtly enhanced with muted horns. It and the following “Give Up The Ghost” might be the most tender and beautiful moments in the Radiohead catalog so far, with Yorke’s looped voice pleading “don’t hurt me” over gently plucked acoustic guitar on the latter. The pace picks up a bit on closer “Separator,” as skittering drumbeats are soon joined by twinkling African hi-life guitar while Yorke assures us, “If you think this is over, then you’re wrong.”
“The King of Limbs” is a modest, human-scale album from a band that already has proven it can do epic better than anyone. It takes time to fully reveal its charms, but after a few listens proves to be another highlight in Radiohead’s stellar catalog.