Bands that embrace the medium of the internet tend to use it as a promotional tool, a platform for developing its brand or for communicating with its audience. But I remember when I first visited radiohead.com, around the turn of the century, when the website was a frustrating labyrinth of mysterious links and cryptic critiques of modern consciousness. As a branding or promotional tool, the site was essentially useless, but Radiohead’s identity only functions as a brand in spite of itself. It’s this “in spite of itself” that begins to explain why the band’s attitude hasn’t poisoned its success.
Radiohead are constantly in the process of defining and redefining what it means to make great albums, to refine a sonic aesthetic, to carve beauty out of elements and ideas that have real weight. But throughout this process of definition, the band constantly struggles against being defined, not only by categories and systems that have nothing to do with its work, but also by the characteristics that the work itself has brought into being. It is a strange, advanced sort of perfectionism, a persistent dissatisfaction with existence that expresses itself more strongly in The King of Limbs than it has in any of their work in years.
Radiohead’s indifference toward the internet as a mechanism of self-promotion continued with In Rainbows, with its infamous “pay what you want, even nothing” introductory pricing scheme, and with The King of Limbs, whose arrival was announced online mere days before the initial release. Far from encouraging a long, potentially profitable buildup of hype, and equally far from some other bands’ contrived attempts at going viral, Radiohead’s use of media could be understood as a deliberate misuse, an inversion of media’s conventional functions. And it’s not just technological devices, but musical ones too. Radiohead’s reputation as musical pioneers rests not on specifically musical innovations — strictly speaking, there isn’t any single thing they’ve done that hasn’t been done before — but on their determination to hold their own strengths and charms at arm’s length. This force of denial allows them to avoid getting trapped by their own successes; this coquettish attitude toward the trappings of their notoriety strengthens their seductive power over their audience, despite their seemingly deliberate attempts to negate it.
“I’m such a tease, and you’re such a flirt,” Thom Yorke sings on TKOL’s “Optimistic”-like third track “Little By Little.” But the song isn’t sexy or playful at all; its guitar-driven harmonic sequence is languid and sullen, with Yorke delivering his disjointed lyrical musings with fatigue-tinged grace. “Routines and schedules drug and kill you,” he sings, although he’s already communicated by his tone that he’s not out to preach against the ills of society. Even on “Morning Mr Magpie,” where he opens the song with a cry — “You got some nerve coming here,” and later, “You’ve stolen all the magic, took my melody” — the music underneath him doesn’t sing out with matching indignation. The drums, both here and elsewhere on the album, settle into a hi-hat-heavy groove filled with inner syncopation, producing an undertone of agitation and dissatisfaction that, significantly, never gains the upper hand. And as much as TKOL’s beats reflect a sense of slow-burning, unresolved anxiety, the creepy, studio-enhanced ambience that rises from the silence and swirls around Yorke’s delay-saturated vocals expresses an otherworldly premonition of peace. Neither of these tendencies ever drown the music; for all of Yorke’s concern in “Magpie” that the titular (possibly symbolic) bird might rob his art of its soul, the machinery of the song itself renders such appropriation nearly impossible. Its melody is the only straightforward thing about it; every other element is so riddled with irregularity that any imitator would make a fool of him or herself.
Within Radiohead’s oeuvre, TKOL most closely resembles Kid A and Amnesiac, the double-headed phoenix that rose out the ashes of the band’s turn-of-the-century identity crisis. The only thing missing this time around is, well, the identity crisis. Both Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows featured songs that had been gestating in the band’s repertoire for years; whenever Radiohead feels unsure about releasing a song (see The Bends’ “High and Dry”), it’s usually because the song sounds too much like a song: a catchy chorus, a symmetrical and easy-to-follow system of verses, little nuggets of melodic material that any distracted listener might put in their pocket to save for later. But then again, there’s Yorke on TKOL’s de facto single, “Lotus Flower”: “I will shape myself into your pocket/ Invisible, do what you want.” It’s irony, pure and simple; although “Lotus Flower” boasts moments of unadorned beauty, its structure does everything possible to avoid winding up in someone’s pocket, everything possible to avoid becoming an accessory to a stranger’s whims. The song avoids exact repetitions, and few of its phrases submit to conventional lengths. One section in the middle — “We will shrink and be quiet as mice/ While the cat is away, do what we want” — is so at odds with the poetic atmosphere that dominates the rest of the song that only a distracted, inattentive listener could fail to perceive the tension between surface and intent. Yorke’s eyebrow-raising dancing on the song’s official music video is only icing on the cake; when they’re being completely honest, Radiohead are incapable of producing a lovable pop single without indicting lovable pop singles everywhere.
Of course, you could argue that everything I’ve written so far only describes TKOL’s first five songs. The opening tracks’ deliberate but restrained sense of anxiety all but disappear with the dawning of “Codex,” an unforced and meditative invitation toward surrender. “Jump off the end” comes across as a narrative instead of as a command; “the water’s clear and innocent” closes the book on the meaning of action instead of pretending to start writing a new one. And for those who accuse “Codex” of being vague or forgettable, despite its stately avoidance of pretension (how many bands know how to employ strings and horns without beating you over the head with the fact that they’re using strings and horns?), the plot thickens. “Give Up The Ghost” pairs bare, simplistic refrains with an acoustic guitar backdrop that is all the more pleasing for its lack of ambition. When Yorke moans “what seems impossible,” he points not toward a world of systems and confused relationships that Radiohead’s actions are constantly trying to upset, but toward a world beyond consciousness, either in dreams or in death.
So once album closer “Separator” begins, once the lyrics adopt a narrative that’s been lifted from a dream, once the music resumes the treble-rich backbeat style of the album’s first half, the listener should notice that the juxtaposition of the music’s restless body and imperturbable spirit is meant to raise a certain question. None of the things that Radiohead spent their career dismantling could possibly substitute for the answer; although, even after several tracks with impassioned lyrical sloganeering and ambitious, studio-enhanced sonic bluster, they don’t seem to have an answer themselves. “Separator” features Yorke playfully taunting the same audience that, yet again, has been led bewildered into a wilderness: “If you think this is over, then you’re wrong.” Well, what’s next?