On February 14th, we woke up to the news that Radiohead would release a new album The King of Limbs only six days later. The Internet community collectively whigged. Justifiably, we hadn’t heard new music from the group (aside from a couple of tracks) since 2007, which is an eternity in the blogosphere. However, a day later, the band then decided that a week’s advance warning wasn’t surprising enough, so they “leaked” the album on February 18th a day earlier than announced.
Within hours, Twitter was alight with insta-reactions, critical assessments only minutes after hitting the download button. Personally, I felt pressured to form an opinion on an album I had barely begun to unravel. And in the marathon to be first, anyone with two ears had already labeled it boring, atmospheric, and unbelievably ambient (to a fault), akin to the sound of crying whales.
But first, let’s reminisce. There was a time when we spent months with a Radiohead release until we “got” it. Remember? Wasn’t life great then, with our time, and patience, and listening? And when someone said to you, “I don’t like this album, intern,” you said back, “YOU don’t get it.” Zing! You don’t get it, the Man. You’re one of the squares. You, with your job and responsibilities and stuff to do besides listening to records for a really long time during the day following a very indulgent yet necessary nap.
For most of us, those times are no more. In fact, the very notion of this essay you’re reading now feeling like old news proves that (are we REALLY still talking about Radiohead? Dude!). We live in an accelerated culture where taking time for things–any thing–is a luxury, or lame. Sure, there’s the rock critic whose job is to listen to a pile of promos, he who has invested significant time into the Concept of the Record, but we, the working people, don’t have that precious opportunity to stare into space thinking about feelings while an album plays on repeat flowing from our Hi-Fi into our headphones. And this is why, to me, Radiohead’s ninth release is such an epic failure.
Pretentiousness aside—sure, these faint shadows of songs may take us into complex theory, jazz time signatures, avant garde brushstrokes, WHATEVER—the thirty-seven minute album wants us to believe in it’s futuristic “genius,” that if we had a time machine and went to 2032 we’d discover that this is the inevitable number one album of all time for Robot Android Music Magazine and we’re all living on Mars and Radiohead, preserved by cryogenic technology, is playing Mars Square Garden. However, this is 2011, and there is a constant influx of wonderful music flowing into our Google Reader feed begging us for our attention, rewarding us instantly with charm and charisma. So, sorry, Thom Yorke. We’re not having it.
Years ago, in 2000, when Kid A was released to equal parts ooohs and ewwws, novelist Nick Hornby wrote a review for the New Yorker, which was unpopular with critics at the time, but is still one of my favorite pieces of music journalism for its realness and honesty. The piece entitled “Beyond the Pale” spoke to the author’s frustration with a band he once felt a real affinity for. “I suspect that people who have been listening to music for decades will have exhausted the fund of trust they once might have had for “challenging” albums,” he wrote. “Kid A demands the patience of the devoted; both patience and devotion become scarcer commodities once you start picking up a paycheck.
“[And] there is nothing wrong with making albums for sixteen-year-olds,” he continued, “but Radiohead’s previous efforts had more inclusive ambitions.” Ironic that the novelist wrote this essay about one of the more accessible records in the band’s canon. Imagine his take on the King of Limbs. Needless to say, though, at the time, I thought Hornby was a lame-o.
But now, after years of perspective, I see that Hornby was wrong but he was also right. With our iPods and Zunes (why not) chock full of Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear, we now have more patience for “Challenging.” Listening habits have changed greatly in ten years and we’re collectively more advanced in our tolerance. We can accept difficult just as long as we have something to grab onto, a nugget of familiarity, a semblance of palatable humanity. Most of our new indie rock heroes borrow heavily from nostalgia and reference familiar points in our listening experience. The Dirty Projectors, for example, are nutty as hell, but there’s nothing new there. It’s a blender of Yes, Led Zeppelin, and Williamsburg.
Hornby was speaking of the reciprocal relationship of a band with its fans. And channeling his perspective, The King of Limbs is a brat of a record, intent on being difficult and provocative. Did it really take this band four years to record 38-minutes of a precious caricature of its own once great band? It’s almost as if someone took their back catalog to a butcher and asked him to slice it real thin. Limbs is bereft of any real humanity, the musical equivalent of the Haley Joel Osment’s character in A.I. (“His love is real, but he is not”).
And I want to clarify something first: I don’t care if the band records an OK Computer 2: More Hitler Haircuts, or not–I’ve been a fan of everything they’ve done up to this point and don’t feel the need to harp on an aesthetic they’ve long since abandoned. But TKOL sounds like a band tired of being itself. For a group of five men known for innovating and progressing, and granted these expectations are high, we’ve found ourselves with the harsh reality that Radiohead doesn’t care about working people. Fact.