My wife, Tara, told me to sit down and write a piece for Alt Revue. “Something about Radiohead or Thom Yorke,” she said.
Where do I begin? I thought. I just finished a short story collection based on their album, A Moon Shaped Pool, but that was fiction. Yes, I listened to the album many times, can argue about its greatness and the relevancy of the band, but plain and simple, I do not want to write about it.
What about the Radiohead show I recently went to? It was the first time I was in the pit, and when they played “Daydreaming” and “Desert Island Disk” I saw the light show from a new angle.
It was beautiful, perfect, the reason for my version; a soft, sweet, sad story of a man pining for a love he would never know. I am not afraid to admit I shed a couple of tears. Yes! Write about live Radiohead. But that is not as easy as it sounds. I love the band. I think they are extraordinary and continue to create albums that stretch their limits. However, I am also a Phish fan. Ok, make your jokes and mock me, but please keep reading. Phish is a touring band. Each show is different. They create set-lists based on moods, humor, settings, dates, and the scene; they combine rock, jazz improv, and performance art; and they live for the road. Radiohead is a concept band whose best work comes from the studio.
I felt stuck. What am I going to write?
Digging through memories of recent conversations and reflections, I came across a thought I had while driving to pick up my son, Cirus, from Camp. I was alone in the car, listening to The King of Limbs – Live from the Basement. The windows were rolled up, the volume slightly louder than my family would have approved, and I was enjoying the winding Hocking County roads. The moment was a perfect balance of excitement to see my son, a moment’s relief from worries, and some of my favorite music.
God I love this album, I thought.
“Wait,” you say, “I’m reading an article about The King of Limbs? I’ve already done that, and they all say the same thing, ‘TKOL is one of Radiohead’s worst albums, if not the worst.’”
“The toughest-to-love Radiohead record to date, Limbs is a tightly wound (if frustratingly diffuse) assemblage of looping drumbeats, spectral vocals, and lockstep guitars…and all with nary a decent hook to be found (believe us, we’re still looking). Devout ’head-heads will likely make the case that Limbs is best enjoyed as an atmospheric grower; the rest of us will have to settle for the small pleasures here (like the shuffling psychedelica of “Little By Little” and the jittering rhythms of “Morning Mr Magpie”), and leave the rest of King of Limbs at arm’s length.”
*Raftery, Brian. “Every Radiohead Album, Ranked in Its Right Place.”Wired
Fair enough. I have heard this sentiment since the release of “TKOL.” People don’t love it. I wouldn’t go so far to say people hate it, but I have heard, “There is no feeling. It’s cold and distant like a bad relationship.”
Hold on. Wait. What was that? “It’s cold and distant like a bad relationship?”
Pull up the album and start at the beginning with “Bloom.”
“Open your mouth wide/The universal sigh/And while the oceans bloom/It’s what keeps me alive/’So why does this still hurt’/Don’t blow your mind with whys.”
Imagine if you will, a couple standing outside. It is a summer night. They are on vacation, far from the stress of their lives. One is absorbing the feel of the ocean breeze, the clear sky and more stars than one could ever imagine. Yet the other, quiet for a long time, says, “So why does this still hurt?”
The first person does not answer, trying hard to find peace, that moment that “keeps me alive.”
This is the first song on the album. It is true we don’t know why they are hurting, but that doesn’t matter. Together they hurt, and although one is trying to move “out of orbit,” the other is stuck. That is what the audience needs to know.
So those are the lyrics to one song. Maybe there is a little meaning, but what about the ticking looping drumbeats and all the weird sounds ‘with nary a decent hook to be found’ throughout the rest of the album,” you say. Again, I was alone in my car, trying to come up with an answer to why I tell people I love The King of Limbs, and then it hit me. “Staircase,” not officially on the album but recorded during the same period, was playing in the background. I focused on the sharp metallic click playing on the upbeat. It was perfect because it kept the momentum going forward. Then I recognized all of the other sounds happening around it. “Yes,” I may or may not have said out loud, “The King of Limbs replicates the noises in my anxious mind.”
“What does that mean?” You ask. I will tell you.
TKOL is the album before A Moon Shaped Pool, which is unarguably the most intimate Radiohead album. While AMSP shows the aftereffects of a breakup, The King Of Limbs is the stressful period before it. It is the beginning of the separation as shown in the lyrics of “Bloom.” The music emulates the stress and anxiety. It is nervous, scattered energy.
Work your way through the rest of the album. Listen to “Morning Mr. Magpie.” There is anger.
“Little by Little.” Listen to the lyrics. “Turned so nasty now.” “I’m such a tease, and you’re such a flirt.” “Obligations/Complications/Routines and Schedules/A job that killed you.” It is a song that takes us into the depths of a relationship that is cracking, little bits by little bits. “Feral” as defined: In a wild state.
“Lotus Flower.” “Codex.” “Give up the Ghost.” Listen to them. Give them a chance. If nothing else, read the track listing. It can be read like a poem. The last line, “Separator.”
Brian Raftery* was correct, “Limbs is a tightly wound assemblage.” It speaks to the hard moments in a relationship. The ones people want to deny. Maybe that is the real reason Raftery believes it should be kept “at arm’s length.”
Jesse R. Stow lives in Athens, Ohio. Bartender, middle school cross country and track coach, and writer. MFA from Goddard College.
* Raftery, Brian.“Every Radiohead Album, Ranked in Its Right Place.” Wired, 6 May 2016, www.wired.com/2016/05/radiohead-albums-ranked.