Radiohead’s Tipping Point?

Stereogum has a piece up this week about the perceived problems with The King of Limbs, Radiohead’s newish album:

…You get the sense critics would be even, well, more critical if it weren’t Radiohead. Why’s everyone game to grin and bear it? Or point toward a lack of ambition as an afterthought to their attempts to accentuate the positive? Most reviews — positive or negative or somewhere stuck between the two — include a disclaimer of some sort, suggesting that maybe it’s the reviewer who’s at fault, not the game-changing band the reviewer hasn’t quite caught up with … Basically, people are very polite when it comes to Thom Yorke & Co.

More important than the journalists, though, are those commenters/fans I mentioned at the beginning. It doesn’t matter what I think about King Of Limbs, it matters that more than a few Radiohead diehards seem put-off, confused, and worst of all, bored. Of course, there are the people who want Radiohead to sound like the Radiohead they first fell in love with because they’ll always feel like alienated creeps, or whatever, but it also seems like fans of the exploratory band that refuses to stand still are also yawning a bit.

Since it followed the delightful In Rainbows, and because Radiohead has released challenging but worthy work in the past, I was inclined to give The King of Limbs more than a fair chance even if didn’t grab me immediately. While the album has gotten generally positive reviews (an 80 on Metacritic), there’s definitely a sense out there that people are lukewarm about it; and maybe, as Stereogum posits, giving it a bit of a pass just because it’s Radiohead.

I’m much lower than lukewarm on The King of Limbs. I think it’s a bad album. It’s not a good sign when the highlight of a Radiohead album is Thom Yorke’s spastic dancing in the video for the lead single.

I don’t dislike the album because it’s not melodic or accessible — I like when Radiohead takes chances and pushes the envelope. I think they’re an important band because of Kid A, not because of The Bends and OK Computer — even if I like those two earlier albums more. No, The King of Limbs is disappointing because, for the first time, Radiohead sounds like they’re out of ideas.

This sounds like a retreat.

In that way, Limbs reminds me of another album by a band at a similar point in their career — a band who seemingly decided to stop pushing forward into unknown territory and instead fall back into comfort.

The King of Limbs is Radiohead’s Sky Blue Sky.

Where Wilco followed the experimentation and deconstruction of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born with a withdrawal into lazy alt-country, Radiohead has shifted to ambiance and mood-setting. The adventurous spirit of Kid A and Amnesiac is missing.

I’m not willing to say Radiohead can’t come back from this — Limbs may end up being nothing more than a minor blip in an otherwise stellar career — but it’s not a good sign that Wilco followed up Sky Blue Sky with the similarly disappointing Wilco (The Album). While continuing to play with song structure and arrangements in concert, Wilco has given up doing so on record, at least for now. There’s a good chance they’re entering a post-Vitalogy Pearl Jam career stage, wherein they remain a great live act but don’t put out worthwhile records.

And Radiohead is a similar band to Wilco in a lot of ways. They both started out making lovely but standard genre music, reached greatness of their respective forms with their second albums, then began pushing boundaries.

Now, they’re both middle aged and falling back into old habits, as middle-aged gentlemen are wont to do. After repeated listens, I can’t pretend to have any desire to listen to Limbs ever again, and I can’t really imagine a circumstance where I’ll give it a spin. Even “Lotus Flower,” which sounded good and interesting out of context when released in advance of the album, sounds like muddled mediocrity when surrounded by other songs of its ilk.

Not every album needs to be a masterpiece. Radiohead has earned the right to release something that’s not amazing. But it’s a troubling sign.

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Filed under Music Has AIDS, The Dilemma

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