Nobody’s twisting your arm

I guested on the Word Podcast this morning. You can listen to it via iTunes or just go here first if you like. It is the one podcast I listen to every week, without fail, as it appeals to me on every level. It is, therefore, a rare treat to take part in it, and to set the world to avuncular rights with David Hepworth and Mark Ellen, whose unbounded enthusiasm for doing just that, after all these years, is infectious. Frankly, it’s nourishing enough to listen to the old couple, let alone get to add your twopenneth. You raise your analytical and observational game in their presence. It is required. So bracing! Above is a daft picture of the three of us taken in the corridor on somebody else’s bicycle, possibly somebody off Lark Rise To Candleford.

Anyway. One of the things we discussed in the alloted hour was Radiohead’s new album The King Of Limbs. Its arrival announced last Tuesday, it “dropped” on Friday, I think, a day before it was announced to “drop”. (As David asked on last week’s podcast: why preempt it even by a few days? If you’re really circumventing the conventions of the record business, why not just release it, without any warning whatsoever?) I downloaded it on Saturday, and have listened to its fairly stingy eight tracks a number of times without judging it. I have now had it in my ears for six days, and I’m ready to say what I think of it without buckling under the pressure of the mad rush of instant reaction that has characterised its appreciation in cyberspace, and in print. Now, I love Radiohead. Without me ever thinking of them as mah favourite band, they kind of are one of mah favourite bands. I have liked them since, if not the very first notes of the first track on the Drill EP, certainly since I first saw them play to a near-deserted Astoria theatre in London, 1992, where they were the first support band on. (Their PR, the late Philip Hall, had convinced me to accompany him, and guess what, it was Creep that turned my head. I cannot find out who the main band was. Anybody know?)

I liked Pablo Honey, although its awkwardness seems less significant now. I was sent by Select to interview them, having had to do a really hard sell on them to editor Andrew Harrison, who viewed them, understandably, as just another English indie band, perhaps even grunge wannabes and as such square pegs in the effete world of Suede, St Etienne and the Auteurs. They turned out to be a lot more than that, of course. I met them in Oxford and remember fondly the thick-cut, unsliced bread which I think Colin Greenwood toasted for us, as we sat at the pine kitchen table. Off we went in a Transit van to Treforest in South Wales, where they played to a half-interested but eventually won round student crowd in the union at Glamorgan University. I interviewed Thom Yorke in the van, and we bonded over a shared past at art school. I found him smart and funny. He had that spiky peroxide hair at the time.

That was, as far as I can recall, the only time I have spent with them. I’m glad now, looking back. They had not been to America at the time, and had not been driven to the very lip of insanity by fame and fortune. I’m sure it’s a fascinating thing to meet Thom Yorke now. As it stands, I’ve spent most of their career as a fan, rather than as their priest, “sixth member” or loyal Boswell. I still think Kid A is their best album, with Hail To The Thief a close second, which seems to be a fairly unusual configuration, but there you go. Their gig at Earls Court on the Hail To The Thief tour remains one of my favourite of all-time, and that’s in an arena with fold-down plastic chairs. I was knocked out by the sheer collective industry afoot onstage, and how intricately they worked together. And Yorke is a real showman. I liked In Rainbows, although felt uneasy about not having it on my CD shelf, along with all the others. (I don’t own a physical product of it.)

The King Of Limbs is the first Radiohead album to make me feel the way I felt about REM around the time of Up and Reveal. I had gone with REM as they’d become more and more successful, and adored New Adventures In Hi-Fi, but there seemed nothing new about the albums that followed. They were fine. They were REM. They did not set my world on fire, and I longed to feel how I felt about Green, let’s say, never mind Murmur or Reckoning. Radiohead sound like Radiohead, which is no crime. Nobody else much sounds like Radiohead, after all, but as Mark pointed out in today’s podcast, the beginning of each of the eight tracks on The King Of Limbs sounds ultimately alike. I’m happy to hear a jittery refrain, and a spidery, jazz-inflected beat, and Yorke’s haunting coo, but I fear my expectations are too high for this to be enough.

There are good tracks here, like Morning Mr Magpie, Lotus Flower, Separator – tracks that the likes of The Vaccines, or Florence & The Machine, or the Cold War Kids, or the Killers can never even dream of creating – but nothing so far to knock my socks off, like There There and Myxomatosis did on the very first listen to Hail To The Thief, or Idioteque on Kid A, or Pyramid Song on Amnesiac, or Weird Fishes/Arpeggi on In Rainbows … Could it be that this is the first makeweight Radiohead album? The first stopgap? The first album they should have actually just released for free?

I will continue to listen to The King Of Limbs. That’s the difference between it – a substandard Radiohead album – and pretty much every other album I’ve listened to with great expectations over the last two years. It still has my attention. Because even a bad Radiohead album – and to date there isn’t one – would be better than most of the other albums I’ve listened to over the last two years. But on my next Tube journey I might rather listen to James Blake by James Blake. Or a shuffled playlist of old favourites. Or an old Radiohead album.

It’s a weird fish.


12 thoughts on “Nobody’s twisting your arm

  1. Personally, I find the reference to James Blake intriguing, if only because about 2 minutes into ‘The King Of Limbs’ I said to myself that Radiohead had unconsciously made his record sound clunky and awkward. Admittedly ‘TKOL’ isn’t the album to suddenly dissuade anyone who thinks Radiohead disappeared into a vortex of tunelessness around ‘Kid A’ but I think it’s another astonishing record all the same. And as for 8 tracks being ‘fairly stingy’ – well 8 tracks worked for ‘Raw Power’, ‘Born To Run’ and ‘Led Zeppelin 4’ – imho ‘Hail To The Thief’, although containing some great moments, could have done with the same pruning they’ve applied to this new record.

    But that’s the beauty of Radiohead – I imagine it’s rare to find any two fans who have the exact same set of favourites!

  2. Interesting analysis. I also think that Kid A is Radiohead’s best album (and my other favourite bands are REM and U2, closer to MOR than Aphex Twin, so it’s not a case – as Bends-purists sometimes argue – that people overrate Radiohead’s more experimental albums in a bid to be trendy). King of Limbs does have some growers, especially Lotus Flower, but it’s sparse 8 track nature truthfully makes it feel like a sequel to, say, “I Might Be Wrong” (the re-arrangment of Like Spinning Plates constitutes a new song, and “True Love Waits” is simply superb)than a proper New Radiohead Album. A year from now, I’d guess that most Radiohead fans will be relistening to KOL about as often as they do Amnesiac, supporting your verdict above.

    Interesting point about REM. In their defence, Up (arguably an attempt to do a Kid A that didn’t work, but did influence Radiohead)and Reveal were conscious efforts to try something different, even if it did result in albums that had moments that sounded more like the Beach Boys than R.E.M. “Accelerate” , in contrast, sounded all-too-like a band trying to make a record like “Reckoning”, and has, at best, two great songs (Supernatural Superserious and Hollow Man) on it. Up at least gave us Hope (REM do Leonard Cohen with drum machines! What’s not to love?) , Falls to Climb and At My Most Beautiful, whilst Reveal had Imitation of Life (REM’s last great pop song?), I’ve Been High and Chorus & the Ring. Great to see some love for G4een, too. “You Are the Everything” and “Hairshirt” must be the two most brilliant yet under-appreciated songs REM have ever done. Although REM do suffer from having some of their worst songs on their commonly regarded best albums – like Near Wild Heaven and Shiny Happy People on on Out of Time, or Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight on Automatic.

  3. Love the comparison to REM’s Up/Reveal ‘turning point’. Based on volume of output that gives REM far longer at the top before they got a bit, difficult to say about these bands, but, samey? I’ll still never forget seeing Paranoid Android for the first time on Later (and then at Glastonbury) and being bamboozled as to how five people had come up with this new remarkable noise… but if this really is Radiohead’s turning point will REM ultimately be judged the greater band?

  4. I agree Andrew, I’m a massive Radiohead fan, and I also like Thom’s solo stuff, but not as much – and this sounds like a Thom Yorke album to me. I hope we’re not entering a period like when Genesis albums sounded like Phil Collins albums. I think this suffers from, and so did In Rainbows, but not as much, a Pink Floyd-style hangup on the album as a cohesive whole – Thom agreed that Down Is The New Up was easily good enough to be on In Rainbows, but it was left off because it ‘didn’t fit’ – as if variety was a bad thing – so all of The King Of Limbs kinda sounds the same in a way. The last two tracks they released, which were from the same sessions, Harry Patch and These Are My Twisted Words, didn’t sound like that. We can only assume that there were other finished tracks that didn’t sounds like that, that would have made the album more interesting for us, left of because they ‘didn’t fit’.

  5. For all their pretentions of grandeur, the “breaking the mold”, the “beating the system” you can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of memorable songs they have made since OK Computer.

    Time to extricate themselves from their own bottoms I think.

  6. … oh, i didn’t even read that! they played earlier in the year under Cardiacs as well, June 4th with Levitation also on the bill.

  7. Totally with Cerebusboy on REM. Green, along with Document, was the kind of record that comes along once in a while and redefines your musical consciousness. Let’s add ‘The Wrong Child’ and ‘I Remember California’ to that list of sublime tracks. How sad they went on just to marking time later.

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