Thursday, February 24, 2011

On The King of Limbs, reactions, etc.


The following are thoughts on the reception of The King of Limbs. You'll note that I don't take much time to discuss the actual music--but know that I've listened to it, a lot, and I think it's phenomenal.


As most citizens of the first world by now know, Radiohead's eighth LP proper emerged last week. Announced and released in a fashion similar to In Rainbows (save for the pay-what-you-want format), the band gave us mere days to prepare for the thing to drop. Announced Monday, it leaked Thursday and dropped Friday. (If only I'd known when I wrote this post that it'd be less than a month before I heard a new Radiohead album!)

Should we have expected another In Rainbows? Surely by now we know that expecting "another" anything out of Radiohead is a foolish enterprise, unless it's "another sidestep of our expectations." What we were given was an eight song LP that clocks in at under forty minutes. Reviews overflow with descriptors like "subtle," "challenging," and "subliminal."

Social media was abuzz Friday morning with praise/criticism. As expected, complementary reactions swirled like a pair of swirling dragons: "Radiohead has done it again!" and "What the hell is this?" Kneejerks all around! This was especially evident in the dissenters; I can't tell you how many "Am I the only one who doesn't get Radiohead?" tweets/comments/statuses I scrolled through Friday morning. I don't bemoan the fact that someone doesn't like Radiohead, but this whole "I'm guess I'm just different and I don't care, flame on!" mentality is both stale and tiresome.

Thankfully, hipster scribe Chuck Klosterman was there to lend some cutting sarcasm to the situation:
"I'm sure Radiohead is depressed about these reviews, since they obviously make albums for people to listen to once at 9:20 am on a laptop." - @CKlosterman
Precisely. Now that virtually all access barriers have crumbled, music consumers have grown lazier, angrier and less patient than ever; and this was painfully evident last Friday morning. "How dare Radiohead not make an album as immediately accessible as In Rainbows! They're back to all this electro-nonsense! They're trying to isolate their fanbase! Sure, I'm only halfway through the fourth track, but the Twitterverse must know of this injustice!"

Part of the problem, as suggested in the above faux-diatribe, is that In Rainbows was so accessible. Radiohead reclaimed a lot of listeners who'd (shortsightedly) dismissed the band as space-age electronica; fallen angels of alt-rock. In Rainbows lacked the kind of great experimental departures that bred those criticisms. The result was a gorgeous, moonlit album, deemed acceptable by the Bends crowd. In fact, it tied with Kid A in a HSW Reader Poll as Radiohead's best. But it would seem the band shattered that trust with a comparatively strange album. This must seem like an egregious bait-and-switch to those who were cautiously willing to re-accept the band.

The problem with this is that, all things considered, the album isn't that strange. Out of the eight tracks, only "Feral" is oblique enough to warrant any comparisons to Radiohead's oddball offerings. Yet so many are crying foul. Why? I can't help but think that, in the minds of so many of these folks, Radiohead is set up for failure. And I'm not claiming that no one is allowed to dislike Radiohead. My point is that people let this band piss them off--and that's what confuses me.

Is it the atypical announcement and release strike you as pretentious? It shouldn't. It isn't any more of a "stunt" than a months-long marketing campaign. Think of the U2s and Coldplays of the world: a new album means ubiquitous banner ads, late-night appearances, advance singles. God forbid when the biggest band in the world decides to quietly announce and self-release its album

I've also seen a few folks gripe about the length of The King of Limbs. At 37 minutes, it is the shortest Radiohead LP to date. I'll point out that In Rainbows was only five minutes longer (although it had two more tracks.) I understand it might seem unsatisfying that we had to wait over three years for 37 minutes of music, but it seems silly to hold it against a band who famously scrutinizes what they put to record. The band have been very candid about their disinterest in longplayers; based on their own rhetoric, 37 minutes seems generous.

And then of course there are the pity-starved "I must be the only one" folks. No one is the only one who thinks anything, especially when it comes to taste. I realize it's just e-posturing, but it's carried out in a way that's lazily provocative. I'd argue that there are better ways to distinguish yourself.

Finally, there are those who just aren't going to like the record. And believe it or not, I totally understand. This kind of music is most definitely not everyone's bread and butter. But a social media gripe-a-thon after one listen is about the saddest thing I can imagine.

My own pet peeves aside, where does this leave Radiohead? Critically, the reception has been positive, but not overwhelmingly so. Noted Radiohead sycophants Pitchfork only gave the album a 7.9 and conceded that "the band's signature game-changing ambition is missed." But it's the paragraph that prefaces that statement where the writer perfectly sums up what, in the post, I was trying to communicate:
"A trawl through message boards and social networks leaves the impression that many disappointed fans are still struggling to make sense of the gap between the greatness of the thing they got and the genius of the thing they thought they might get. It's in that gap, when assessing the album overall, that it's easy to get tangled up."
That might be giving a bit too much credit to the disappointed camp--but the sentiment is there. It all boils down to time.  Klosterman's point with that tweet was that this band isn't interested in recording bright, shiny, fast food music. This is one of those albums that will take a bit of patience and acclimating if you're going to experience a payoff. Maybe you won't--maybe you'll listen to it 100 times and find yourself no more convinced than the first time you heard it. But if you get up in arms before you allow yourself an adequate amount of exposure, then frankly, you don't deserve the payoff. And in the long run, that mentality will cost you a lot of satisfaction.

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