In a SPIN cover story during the press run-up to Hail To The Thief, Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien mused to Chuck Klosterman about longevity in rock. "I'm interested in bands as beasts," he said. "I'm interested in U2 and the Rolling Stones and Neil Young & Crazy Horse….[Being in a band] is a complicated thing to do over the expanse of time, which is why I respect it so much." For Radiohead, the most revered apocalyptic doomsayers in rock, this is a disarmingly prosaic concern. For hardcore devotees, it could be deflating to hear the band's members discussing their inner dynamic like marriage counselors.
And yet: Asserting the right to exist, and pondering the absurd level of difficulty inherent in maintaining such a basic right, has always been one of Radiohead's great themes. From the moment the first of their Great Trembling Visions of the Future dawned — that would be 1997's OK Computer — Radiohead have always spoken in two voices: the screaming panic of data overload and the whimpered plea, behind it, to just be left alone. Hey, man; slow down. They are reasonable men; get off their case.
On The King of Limbs, their eighth studio album, Radiohead sound like a band that has figured out, once and for all, how to exist. In that regard, it is both an achievement and a subtle forking in the road — from here on out, Radiohead don't seem likely to struggle very much; they know who they are, and they have gotten fearsomely good at making their music. The corollary to this is the slight pang from realizing that, well, they might never truly surprise you again.
If you can listen past this pinprick of disappointment, King of Limbs offers a wide set of generously enfolding arms for you. At a serenely inscrutable 37 minutes, it is their shortest record yet, but it beams with relaxed, lived-in confidence. The music never attempts something it doesn't achieve with aplomb, offering glimpses of every facet of Radiohead's ever-fluid sound along the way. "Bloom" layers a small tumble of piano against a rippling, blinding sea of clicks and pops — once the bass line starts crawling up the center of the song, you realize with some astonishment that they have built a sensual, undulating groove from a blizzard digital snow.
They do it again on the twitching arrhythmia of "Good Morning, Mr. Magpie," which sputters like a set of cut wires on a basement floor until Yorke's voice glides in, clear and calm. Throughout The King of Limbs, you sense that Radiohead been living with the noise of their own chattering machinery for so long now that they can't imagine life without it; on "Lotus Flower," Yorke plays patty-cake with it, punctuating the piston-like hammering of the downbeat with handclaps. The second half of the record dissolves into a shimmering blue sea of sound, with Yorke's croon sailing over top like a boat pushed with one foot. "In your arms/ I think I should give up the ghost," he sings on the beatific "Give Up The Ghost" — a peaceful hymn of surrender, perhaps, to the machines he's spent years cowering beneath.