There is a reason this article is a good six months out of date. There is a reason that I find this hard to write. That reason is that I have finally had to accept an ugly truth, that truth being that the latest Radiohead album, The King of Limbs, is really not very good.
For months and months I have given it chance after chance. A maelstrom of different moods and situations to spend in its company, and yet not one of them seems to work. Earlier this year I even managed to find a time and a place for the talented, albeit maddeningly boring Sigur Ros, yet here I am faced with arguably the greatest band of my lifetime, and I am lost. Confused even.
Radiohead have always been a band who have pushed the boundaries, and with considerable success. After the relatively straight-down-the-middle success of The Bends, they released OK Computer, an absolute monster of an album and one that still regularly features in “best albums of all time” lists. The band were catapulted into stardom. Fame and fortune awaited. So, naturally they tried to commit commercial suicide.
In 2000, they released their long-awaited follow-up to OK Computer. The world awaited another doleful rock masterpiece. Except the band had decided that guitars were a bit “last millennium” and had done away with them completely. The critics, however, followed the curveball. The reviews were outstanding, and the album went straight to number one on both sides of the Atlantic.
Unperturbed by this success, the band then released an album of tracks deemed not good enough for the aforementioned Kid A. The resulting Amnesiac was another UK number 1, while it was only kept off the US top spot by Staind’s Break the Cycle, which was riding the nu-metal wave of the early 2000’s. It was becoming unclear as to exactly what Radiohead would have to do to achieve the failure they craved.
By 2003 the band seemed to have reluctantly accepted their fate. The guitars were back, there was a genuine single (in the form of the outstanding There There) and Hail To The Thief went Platinum, as expected. It seemed normal service had been resumed. And it nearly had.
2007’s In Rainbows was an outstanding album, whose only form of defence against success was the fact that it was only downloadable from the band’s website. A trifling matter by Radiohead’s standards and needless to say another transatlantic chart-topper ensued.
By this stage the band appeared to have grown tired of battling their ability. Even Thom Yorke, a man with all the media PR skills of Osama bin Laden, started giving regular interviews. This appeared to be it, an acceptance of their role in the mainstream. They played Glastonbury in 2011 and toured the US with the hunger of band looking set on self-promotion.
The new album was concise. It had no new purchasing traps. The reviews were very favourable. Everything looked in place for another success. But success never came.
The King of Limbs charted at a mere number 7 in the UK, selling considerably fewer copies than the likes of Bruno Mars and Adele and becoming their first album since The Bends not to hit top spot. So, what happened?
As elder statesmen in the music world, there are two main paths you can take to maintain your audience. The most common of these is to find a sound and stick to what you know best. This is the blueprint that the likes of U2, Oasis and Coldplay have been advocates of, and who’s to say it is a bad thing? While none of those bands are (or were, in the case of Oasis) likely to revolutionise the industry, there is little doubt that they have achieved monumental success.
The other, less well trodden route, is to constantly evolve. The Beatles and Pink Floyd, possibly the two most innovative bands of all time, were pioneers in this field, and it is here that Radiohead appeared to position themselves.
There is a whole argument possible as to which path is the best. One stemming largely from the age-old question that is regularly trotted out to performers in any art; would you rather commercial success or the respect of your peers. However, this is not an argument I have time to tackle today.
It seems strange then that in Radiohead’s case, despite receiving both success and acclaim throughout their career, their latest album appears to have achieved neither. This is arguably the first album in over a decade where they haven’t evolved their sound, and without that innovation, the end result is fairly dull. More than Amnesic, this sounds like a collection of out-takes.
It’s not that it’s a bad album, I don’t believe Radiohead are capable of plumbing those depths. There are also moments of beauty on it, such as on the wonderfully melancholy Codex, however the overriding feeling if one of disappointment and more pertinently, mediocrity.
Yet, despite all this, you can’t help but feel that the band will not be saddened by this. When the end-of-year lists come out, this album will not be topping them. Thom Yorke will not be harassed by NME for a Christmas article. The pressure on them to follow it up with another masterpiece will subside, and for exactly those reasons it wouldn’t surprise me if they create one.
It’s just possible that through relative failure, Radiohead might have found happiness.
by Harry Harland