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Radiohead get psychedelic with “King of Limbs”

There’s no denying Radiohead’s “The King of Limbs” is something of a puzzling listen at first. Of course, the band’s career at the forefront of contemporary music these past two decades has been marked by consistent evolution (and a couple outright paradigm shifts), so what’s most surprising is that, on the surface, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot going on with “King.” At only 37 minutes and eight tracks, not obviously breaking new stylistic ground, it might appear to be among the slightest of Radiohead’s albums.

The validity of that impression will likely depend on individual preferences, but it misses the point: “The King of Limbs” is a beautiful record imbued with a startling sense of wonder and a definite narrative focus that reveals itself over the course of multiple listens.

The album’s opening track, “Bloom,” unfolds in a lush, organic loop stretched across driving, off-kilter polyrhythms. Taking cues from ambient electronica is nothing new for Radiohead, but what’s astonishing here is the song’s full-blooded psychedelia, suggestive at times of Boards of Canada or Animal Collective. “I’m moving out of orbit/Turning in somersaults,” Thom Yorke sings; “I dive into those eyes/Jellyfish go by.” No sooner does he dive than the listener dives in with him, as the song scales a dazzling, orchestral peak Radiohead might have eschewed on earlier albums.

If “Bloom” takes the leap down the rabbit hole, the bulk of the album shows us what awaits on the other side. “Morning Mr. Magpie” definitely has something of the menace Radiohead is capable of, but Yorke’s accusations are as sensual as they are snarling. “And now you stole it, all the magic/Took my memories” reels of bewilderment, the crisis of identity in an amorphous, psychedelic landscape. The woody jangle of “Little by Little” plays out like a jaunt through the dense forest the album title evokes, replete with some of the musical trappings of psychedelia for the past forty-plus years (sitar, backwards guitar) and particularly strong bass counterpoint from Colin Greenwood. We hear why our hero has taken the trip, too: “Obligation, complication/Routines and schedules/Drug and kill you,” Yorke cautions. His unambiguous rejection of the straight world reaches fever pitch on the next track, the aptly titled “Feral,” in which all lyrical clarity dissolves into a trippy, electronically deconstructed groove.

And just like that, we’re already on the back half of the album. “Lotus Flower” is easily the most danceable track on the album, the bacchanalian rave at the heart of the forest (and the music video, which features a tranced-out Yorke noodle-dancing, suggests the band might agree). “And all I want is the moon upon a stick/Dancing around the pit/Just to see what it is,” Yorke sings in his sweetest, most yearning vocal performance on the album. But the momentary vision of perfection, of feeding heads “while the cat is away,” dissolves as soon as it’s realized. The next song, “Codex,” offers us one last grasp at delusion ó “Fantasize/No one gets hurt/You’ve done nothing wrong” ó but the invitation collapses in its own pathos as the song segues into the emotional centerpiece of the album, “Give Up the Ghost.” This, the penultimate track, is the simplest, prettiest song on the album, and quite possibly the finest. As the speaker contemplates ending it all (“I think I have had my fill”), the chorus maintains a delicate, pleading “Don’t hurt me,” as if begging him not to act rashly or selfishly at the point of crisis. Here Yorke’s cries cascade and decay into a quietly sobbing electronic bed as the song dies out.

Finally, at the end of the psychonaut’s journey, we’re jerked awake with the rousing “Separator,” the effect of which is something like the selection of “Future Reflections” to close out MGMT’s “Oracular Spectacular.” We’ve reentered our “reality,” but, as always, we can never go back all the way.

“If you think this is over, then you’re wrong,” Yorke reminds us, and it’s a fine note to close on: whatever remains for Radiohead. Whatever new material from the “King of Limbs” sessions might yet emerge, we can always go back to “Bloom” and dive in all over again.

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