AlmostAGhost’s Best Albums Of 2011 – #3. Radiohead – The King Of Limbs

The King Of Limbs
don't blow your mind with why

In the first season of Mad Men, Don Draper tells a room of hippies that the “universe is indifferent.” This bums them out, but it does get to the heart of Don Draper — this idea is how and why he feels free. (Sorry if you don’t know the character.) Similarly, on The King Of Limbs, Radiohead’s universe is a tumultuous one, and probably also an indifferent one. From within that tumult, Thom Yorke, as always, is trying to feel free.

The first few tracks depict the universe. Oceans bloom, jellyfish float by, the universe sighs. A no-good magpie steals memories, magic, melodies. “Obligations / complications / routines and schedules / drag and kill you,” Yorke sings on the dark “Little By Little.” These are hardly unusual depictions for Yorke, who regularly writes of the havoc in the universe in his songs, from car crashes to ice ages to spinning plates to weird fishes and worms. Metaphors? Sure. But also a world in constant upheaval.

That’s all well and good, but it’s just a set-up for the second half of the album. While this havoc goes on all around, Yorke keeps confronting it head-on. “And while the ocean blooms / it’s what keeps me alive,” he recognizes. This confrontation leads to a freedom, a state of mind, where there’s nothing to fear and nothing to doubt:

– “We will shrink and be quiet as mice / While the cat is away / Do what we want”
– “I will shape myself into your pocket / I will shrink and I will disappear”
– “Jump off the end / Into a clear lake / The water’s clear and innocent”
– “I think I should give up the ghost” (a phrase defined as “ceasing to exist” on
– “Finally I’m free of all the weight I’ve been carrying”
– “Put the shadows back into the boxes / I have jettisoned my illusions” (on a b-side that didn’t make the album; shared below)

Those are all from the last four songs on the album; and clearly tie them all together. He is free. I’ve read a lot of different interpretive angles about Limbs, from climate change to suicide to dreams to Buddhist rebirth to whatever. And I’m not going to try to get that specific on it (besides comparing it to Mad Men, of course). But that is to say, these are some pretty deep songs when you look at them closely. (Just like Mad Men.)

Musically, of course, Radiohead keeps expanding their sound. My understanding from following them for so many years now is that after every album, they nearly break-up, and then totally rebuild how they create music. The end result may stay the same (killer songs), but the process evolves. The King Of Limbs seems to me to borrow a lot more from electronic music (that gorgeous “cat is away” break in “Lotus Flower,” the creative drums/percussion on “Separator” and “Bloom,” the vocal loops of “Give Up The Ghost,” etc.). In some ways, this is the Radiohead album that feels less like a band performance than ever before; but perhaps that was in reaction to their last album, which totally felt like that.

I’ll be honest here too: out of all Radiohead albums this is probably the one I’ve obsessed over the least. It’s still better than most everything out there though, and that’s why it’s one of the best albums of the year. I won’t claim to be unbiased on this list–it’s Radiohead and I’m me and they’re going to be ranked high. Regardless, I’m sure everyone I know who might possibly be reading this probably has already heard The King Of Limbs. (If not, why are we friends?*)

Radiohead “Supercollider”

Radiohead “Separator”

*lol j/k**
**sort of

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