Radiohead - Making the norm delightfully alien
- Feb 23, 2011
Much has been said since Radiohead surprised us on Valentine’s Day with the announcement of ‘The King of Limbs’. I’m not focusing on reviewing the music, but what interests me is why the band are always referred to as game changers and trail blazers. How have they positioned themselves this way? Is the marketing really as important as the music?
Radiohead always evoke an almost fervent, quasi-religious reaction when they announce a new album. The press stops and they make front page news. Such is the privilege afforded to the band who many believe passed on the offer of being “biggest band in the word”. In fact, it’s less a case of not only passing the baton, but rather nonchalantly declining. Radiohead are smart enough to know any such term is merely subjective… sure they can headline Reading, Glastonbury and V when the need requires, but that’s little more than an act to pay the proverbial bills, not an end unto itself. Out of contract and out of commitment they call their own shots, creatively and fiscally.
If the release process of ‘The King of Limbs’ displays anything it’s the edging away from the utterly innovative and controversial pay what you will scheme of ‘In Rainbows’. However, like said album they have kept the incentivised scheme of selling the digital album (and thereby controlling their own online leak) prior to the supply of physical product and then a cash cow limited edition. They have every control of their own supply chain. So much so, after a failed Tokyo promotional stunt, they released the album a day earlier than anticipated. If they had learnt anything from ‘In Rainbows’ it’s that the words "Radiohead" and "flash mob stunt" don’t equate to happy endings, as their planned Rough Trade in-store back in 2008 demonstrated.
Are Radiohead comfortable in this position? They certainly don’t shy away from the fact that they are uncomfortable in their skin. In many respects that’s their USP and their de facto product. One need only reference the promotional video for nominal single ‘Lotus Flower’, choreographed by the acclaimed Wayne McGregor, to see the epitome of ill at-ease confidence.
But what makes Radiohead so attractive and so appealing? I first proclaimed Radiohead my favourite band aged 14 when I came across ‘OK Computer’. This album was, in that ill-perceived coming of age way, treated by myself as divine intervention and as a gift from above. The gift of hindsight has taught me that the majesty and beauty of the band is its uncanny ability to aggregate its contemporary influences into a perceivably unique and new sound. Like The Beatles before them they have acted as a socio-musical sponge and projected this back at the world; back at their audience.
Let’s not split hairs, ‘The King of Limbs’ is audibly indebted to dubstep. Though, unlike the likes of James Blake and the XX, Radiohead have done more than adopt the blueprint of the genre. Rather they have imbued its ethos. There’s no doubt that ‘The King of Limbs’ is a dense listen in places; quite the contrast to the less is more approach of the likes of Burial, Shackleton or Mount Kimbie. The skill on Radiohead’s part is to have taken in the aural subtlety and marry it with delicateness. The skittering drums and jazz signatures are evidently influenced by Flying Lotus (after all, Thom Yorke did guest on his 2010 ‘Cosmogramma’ album). In many respects this album bridges the gap between the clinical and po-faced ‘Kid A’ and the free-form poise of ‘In Rainbows’. It’s an album to enjoy late at night, to wash over you, to be swept away with. It requires less attention of you than you of it. The melodies are understated, but grow – leave them a while and they’ll probably grow to the same magnitude of the tree which gave the album its namesake.
Nature plays a huge part of the new Radiohead canon. Whereas ‘Ok Computer’ was an existential man machine nightmare, their current output displays an organic comfort and oneness. Lyrically ‘The King of Limbs’ is peppered with natural references whilst the found sounds of birds float the bridge in-between songs. As visual display one need only reference long time album artist Stanley Donwood’s forest orientated designs (currently exhibiting at The Outsiders gallery in Soho).
Radiohead have, yet again, imbued a set of current influences and given them their own spin. They have progressed, but again in a lateral direction. It’s a trite phrase to say there is no original thought, and although somewhat true, Radiohead have yet again managed to make the norm so delightfully alien.