A cursory listen of The King of Limbs seems to suggest that Radiohead is still trapped in the same glitchy, stuttery-percussion obsession they’ve been nursing since Hail to the Thief (and eventually perfected on In Rainbows), but as with any Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood-led record, first impressions can be deceiving. While The King of Limbs isn’t some severe departure from the layered, synth-n’-guitar-drenched despondency we’ve been hearing from the band for quite a while now, it does exhibit a shift in tone away from the seething disillusionment of Radiohead’s last few records. The album is a retreat of sorts, the musical equivalent of curling up into a reflexive fetal position and entering a calmer, more pensive world. But history often repeats itself, and Radiohead is no exception: The King of Limbs is to In Rainbows as Amnesiac is to Kid A—a soft-spoken twin that is perhaps gentler, subtler, and lacking in its predecessor’s meaty hooks, but no less disquieting or artful.
As is to be expected, Radiohead prefers brevity over grandiosity. The King of Limbs is a sparse eight tracks of clicking drumlines, disjointed synth loops, and dour noise, with nary a moment of wallowing melody or even diversionary experimentation filling the ranks. Yorke is on his best behavior here, avoiding his usual manic screeches and seizures in favor of half-whispering most of his vocal parts. His new tone matches the reserved, almost restrained volume of the record: This is Radiohead for a rainy Sunday morning, their post-OK Computer minimalist synth-rock filtered through an organic, relaxed production.
The appropriately titled “Bloom” begins with a cloudy piano refrain and evolves into a bubbling daydream perfectly suitable for time-lapse nature footage. If the last few moments of In Rainbows‘s “Videotape” were extended for another five minutes, it would probably sound much like “Codex,” where a plodding piano chord progression mutates to complement Yorke’s ghostly wail.
Still, there are marked signs of the band’s musical evolution in The King of Limbs‘s quietest moments. Haunting strains of folk resonate throughout “Give Up the Ghost,” a purposeful track that paints its relaxed desolation with a simple, frontier-esque acoustic guitar. Once you hear the soft, chilling patter of “Little By Little” or “Lotus Flower,” it becomes clear that Radiohead has completely abandoned the shadowy, angular world in which they’ve dwelt for the past decade. The King of Limbs finds Yorke and company preparing to forge a new path while taking a pensive look at what has gone before. It is, essentially, a transitional record, capturing one final, serene moment while simultaneously anticipating the coming storm—an intake of breath before the band’s next big creative exhale.