On 2008's In Rainbows, the band seemed to emerge from experimentalism to an extent and returned to playing their instruments in a live setting. Of course, having done that, and being Radiohead, they would have little reason to do it again. The King of Limbs again sees the group delving into electronic territory, but I think that it is distinct from earlier efforts simply because what is sonically accepted as “electronic” has changed in the past five to ten years.
Clearly, The King of Limbs is a bit of a throwback to their more conceptually dense and esoteric recordings, but I have been far more open to it than I was to Amnesiac. In fact, I find it quite fascinating. Songwriting is not totally abandoned on The King of Limbs: songs still lie at the core of every track. The way the band accompanies these songs, however, is profoundly different than they have done in the past. The clear-cut use of guitar riffs and drumset that is found in their more accessible work is replaced on The King of Limbs by a timbrally fantastic environment in which loops cast a hypnotic veil over song structure and whooshes of white noise have the same aesthetic value as pitched notes. Thom Yorke sometimes contributes echoing layers of vocal sound, but never allows his lavender crooning to stray too far from its role as an expressive vehicle. Simultaneously, bassist Colin Greenwood (who has long been Radiohead’s secret weapon) consistently provides melodic interest that is decidedly organic.
Each Radiohead album is probably best taken as a standalone project and accepted on its own merits, but any fan of the band will most likely have their favorites and where there are favorites, there are comparisons made to these favorites. When the band is experimenting, some fans wish for The Bends, and when they focus on their accessible side, things are never as good as they were when Kid A was released. The King of Limbs will, at the very least, take several listens before offering something to grab onto. For fans of their more straight-ahead work, however, there is a solution that comes from within the ranks of the band itself.
Last year, Radiohead’s drummer Philip Selway released an album of acoustic-ish songs called Familial. Superficially, it seems like an acoustic guitar album….in other words, pretty much the exact opposite of The King of Limbs. Despite being somewhat stylistically distant from this recent Radiohead odyssey, Familial succeeds admirably in many regards in what it sets out to do.
Selway has an obvious comfort with songwriter-style guitar that more pedigreed guitarists would envy. Aside from this technical aspect of Familial, though, there is a fascinating production depth that challenges its superficial simplicity. Subtle whispers, strings, and alien keyboard sounds enliven Selway’s breathy delivery throughout the entire recording. These ornamentations are not necessary to the songs, but are integral to the experience. As a result, Familial seems to capture a mood that might seem familiar to fans of Radiohead's early atmospheric work.
It stands to reason that Selway could make a compelling solo album. When you have been mentored by Neil Finn, collaborate with members of Wilco, and um, are freaking in Radiohead, it seems that doing a solo album with idiosyncratic songwriting and production depth would be more than possible. What is really impressive about Familial is not that Selway plays guitar so well, or that his voice has such character, or even that he writes such compelling songs. What really blows my mind is that, according to interviews, when he started on the album, he “was not even sure if he could sing.” Considering the results on Familial, I find his humility and gratitude for its success to be refreshing.