On their previous album, In Rainbows, Radiohead made radical steps in recognition of the new digital landscape of music purchasing by allowing fans to download the album from the band’s website for any price they liked. It was a bold move, and one which earned them a lot of goodwill from casual listeners and diehard fans.
This interest in the digital is clear on their latest album, King of Limbs – the eighth studio album produced by Nigel Godrich. Not only has it been released as a download a full month before the physical release, but the music itself is coated in the kind of mechanical sheen which Radiohead so expertly melded with more traditional rock sensibilities on OK Computer but which here dominates the proceedings, cut through with bursts of Thom Yorke’s distinctive falsetto.
Indeed the album bears a greater resemblance to Yorke’s solo project The Eraser than it does to Radiohead projects, consisting as it does of moody electronic and scratchy beats. Take for example the fourth track on the album, ‘Feral’.
Consisting of simply over three minutes of static-ridden, staccato beats with Yorke’s digitally stretched and echoing vocals wreathed about them, it is almost clichéd in its evocation of a night-time drive through a strange city; it almost imperceptibly builds in volume and tenor as different rhythms and melodies enter and exit the narrative.
At the end, however, the spell is broken: all sounds cease but a single tapping drum machine. Radiohead used to do this with words – a line like ‘alone on an aeroplane’ from their 1995 album The Bends is here created wordlessly, with all the fear, melancholy and freedom which such words imply extended and explored through a sonic, rather than lyrical, landscape.
That’s not to say that Radiohead are not still capable of the kinds of gorgeous ballads they have produced in the past. ‘Codex’ is a simple piano and vocals job, buoyed up by a light synthesiser touch underneath it all. But its accessibility makes its message hit home all the harder; this song, and the entire album, longs for escape, for freedom from the bonds modern life has placed upon it.
It is an album which pushes you away, which uses its claustrophobic instrumentation to break out of what it has built. ‘Codex’ ends with sounds of the rainforest which carry on into the next song, ‘Give Up The Ghost’ before Yorke’s vocals and guitar spiral out of them and he seeks absolution from an unnamed figure.
Are these sounds of nature the sound of freedom, and does Yorke’s cry of ‘I’ve been told to give up the ghost/In your arms’ mean an acceptance of dependence or just a lack of self-surety?
Radiohead are too clever by half to think they can give any answers, but they have phrased the question in such a way as to make this essential listening for anyone who feels as though the modern world has got a little too close for comfort.