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Radiohead's The King of Limbs: What Happens When 'Serious Listening' Is Your Brand

It must be strange to be Radiohead, the most extraordinarily, absurdly popular art-rock band on the planet. (Popular way out of proportion to the kind of music they're interested in making, or the level of fame they seem interested in having.) It would certainly feel odd — knowing how much obsessive attention people will pay to anything you release — to put out something like their new album, The King of Limbs. This isn't music that's asking for a ton of attention. It almost feels like the lead-up to a "bigger" release — one of those records on which a band casually introduces fans to new ideas they've been working out, things they might hammer home later. The eight songs here are less like an album and more like two EPs in a set: one of spectral, understated ballads, and the other of spectral, understated takes on left-field electronic music. It's not the sort of thing that would normally be an event.

But it's Radiohead, so it is. They don't have much to complain about in that respect: They're the one band who can self-release music like this and have people lined up to put down money for it, and that gives them a whole lot of freedom. So can we just take a moment to marvel at how totally unlikely this is? Radiohead have a large, broad, devoted fan base, on a scale most proper pop stars struggle to muster. They have this while making a kind of music that, when it's coming from anyone else, tends to get dismissed as marginal, obscure, and pretentious, or even a pointless, hookless, self-important snooze. They're the one act normal rock fans trust to introduce them to sounds and ideas from further afield — from electronic music, experimental music, contemporary classical, wherever. No other band makes so many fans turn quite so studiously patient and open-minded. It's as if the world has agreed that this is the one flagship group everyone will turn to for that experience — the band people will enjoy taking seriously, approaching slowly, and pondering as art rather than entertainment. The whole concept of "serious listening" has somehow become this one act's brand. How improbable is that?

The funny part is that they basically trained the world into this, by spending their career moving in the opposite direction from most of their peers. Most bands like this start off as something marginal, then grow into popularity. Radiohead kicked off by proving they were a good big rock band — then started pulling their many fans, some of them kicking and screaming, off into new places. They taught people how to enjoy that. They made music good enough to satisfy their left-field music-geek peers and their everyday fans at the same time. Their main emotional register — which sits somewhere between abject world-weariness and a kind of itching, wriggling-in-your-skin discomfort — has turned out to be more relatable, to more people, than anyone would have guessed. And their election as the arty rock group of consensus means we get to watch something really rare and amazing: A band that can do whatever it wants, and do it really well, and have it matter on a big scale. Maybe it's a little arbitrary that this band is Radiohead, who are far from the only musicians doing things that are high-minded or sonically inventive — but it's a very cool thing to have one act like this be "big."

So this week we got another rare and amazing sight: Loads of people excited to listen to, think over, and talk about music like the stuff on The King of Limbs — a coy, unobtrusive record I'm still pretty sure will lead to strange and illuminating arguments. The second half is easy enough to digest: These are foggy ballads that will be moderately pleasing to people who like Radiohead to sound like Radiohead, and somewhat boring to all those who have, by this point in this sentence, already decided it sounds boring. It's the other half that's interesting to talk over. How you feel about it might even depend on which part of the music you're used to focusing on. If you listen to Radiohead for the sound of guitars and Thom Yorke's voice, the first four tracks here might strike you as vague and wandering: As voice and guitar go, it's just an ongoing tumble of the odd arpeggios and plaintive moaning that's a default mode for the band. (One track starts with the line "You've got some nerve," which is surely the most Radiohead-y opening lyric ever.) No, what's fascinating is what's going on with the rhythm section, or what used to be the rhythm section. Here, it sounds like it's been edited, warped, mimeographed, layered, and collaged; it clops along like a broken jazz combo, or shushes offbeat like a heart murmur. It's a neat development.

It's also just another instance of Radiohead listening to more obscure music than part of their audience. Others of their fans will be listening to this stuff and teasing out comparisons to minimal techno and dubstep producers, different varieties of living-room electronic music, and the rhythmic exercises of old German psychedelic bands. (So far, I’ve seen references to acts like Flying Lotus — with whom Yorke's collaborated — Ricardo Villalobos, Four Tet, Mount Kimbie, and Can, all of which make sense.) The front half even ends with one song, "Feral," that goes ahead and breaks from the idea of a rock band: no guitars, Yorke's vocals chopped up into cavernous echoes, looming bass. It's my favorite thing on here; some other people seem to think it’s an incoherent time-waster. That's what happens when you serve an audience this broad, and people come to you with so many different expectations.

The whole album's very, very understated, to the point where it leaves you with two main options: Either you find it gorgeous or you don't much notice it at all. Sometimes I think this is shaping up to be Radiohead's big conundrum, or maybe even the corner they've painted themselves into: the possibility of making museum music, stuff that strikes everyone as impressive and sophisticated and admirable, but can't really reach out and grab anyone in particular as much as it might like to. I'd love it if this understated little release really did turn out to be the warm-up for something grand — if those clackety rhythmic ideas they're toying with up front came bursting out on their next release, with a little less of the beautiful weariness and a little more of that itching-in-your-skin frustration. But Radiohead's unlikely popularity means they get to do whatever they're inclined to, safe in the knowledge that the bulk of their fans will follow studiously along: Right now they have very little incentive to try and "burst" anything on anyone, if they're not in the mood to. (Start insisting on something in particular, and you'll wind up like one of those poor, stubborn souls who, sixteen years later, are still annoyed the band's not rocking out like they did on The Bends.) It's both the great beauty and the slight danger of being the popular music world's official "serious listening" — you can hang around just making beautifully wrought seriousness for its own sake. Which might be good or bad, depending.