by Ian Newman on Feb.22, 2011
On Friday 18th February 2011, four days after it’s existence was first announced and one day earlier than promised, Radiohead, a band known for their strident anti-capitalist stance, released their eighth studio album The King of Limbs online. This event occurred in the same week that protestors took to the streets in Libya, Bahrain, Yeman and Morocco following the fall of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubark, from power. The protests in the Arab world were to a large degree facilitated by social media networks such as facebook and twitter. One strategy the Egyptian government adopted in the final days of their regime was to close down the infrastructures that supported the internet; in spite of this protestors stayed in touch with each other using proxy servers in foreign countries. When Muammar Gaddafi’s government prevented foreign journalists from taking pictures of the conflict as Libya’s people took to the streets, videos appeared on YouTube showing the scenes the Libyan leader didn’t want the rest of the world to see.
On February 8, before the new album was announced, Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien posted an entry on the band’s website saying “I have become increasingly excited over the last 3 months about the possibilities of this form of communication. Yes I am very slow out of the blocks. It’s in the arena of public protest that it seems twitter and facebook are increasingly the means by which popular movements throughout the world are able to come together and mobilise.” Radiohead self-consciously launched their album, which was publicized largely through those same media outlets that were enabling the revolution in the Middle East, into a world that was witnessing the power of social media to bring about political change. The release strategy was an unequivocal political gesture. The question, though, is what the politics of this gesture were. What does it mean for a band, whose success depended on the corporate structures of the music industry and the comodification of musical talent in the mid-1990’s, to simultaneously take up an aggressive anti-capitalist stance, while championing social media networks that themselves enabled the overthrow of political regimes that were most resistant to advances of capitalism? (While it is not always clear that anti-autocratic demonstrations are explicitly pro-capitalist, the repeated refrain is the desire for “liberty,” a term that in the twenty-first century has become synonymous with the freedom to consume; political liberty and economic liberty have collapsed into a point of non-differentiation).
Radiohead are well-placed to examine the contradictions and ambivalences of this moment of late capitalism and their perverse position within its logics. It is precisely this that their release strategy exposes: first they announce the political expediency of social networks 10 days before the release of the album; next they publicize the album through those same “democratic” channels, knowing full well that those channels, for all their apparent democracy, will support the musical elite who have made their name in the non-democratic era of corporate old media; then they undermine the authority of those channels by releasing the album earlier than announced. Their release strategy exposes the lie of the internet’s promise of democracy even as it champions the democratizing effects of social media.
The effect of this release strategy is to register the halts and surges of time – a shock announcement after four years of relative quiet, the building up of feverish anticipation until the release date, followed by the further twist of an early release so that even the brief window of anticipation cannot be fully experienced. It’s the release strategy of a band that knows they are bigger than the vicissitudes of time; the precise timing of the release will not matter to the success of the album. The band fully exploits its status as one of the world’s most influential musical ensembles, demonstrating that the release of the album will be the most talked about event of the year regardless of when it is released, and whose chain they yank. The normal logics of time – release dates, lengthy publicity campaigns etc. – no longer apply.
This surging forward and halting back of time is the form that their music characteristically takes. The opening track of the new album opens with a cascading piano figure, slightly out of phase like an early Steve Reich piece, or the frantic peel of ambitious bell-ringers whose changes are not quite in synch, that circles round the right and left channels. The track’s title, “Bloom,” likewise signals a temporal instability when juxtaposed to the name of the album, The King of Limbs, a reference to an ancient oak tree in the Snavernake Forest in Wiltshire. The flourishing of new growth from an ancient gnarly past, is as rich a symbol of the contemporary political and technological landscape as one might expect from a band which specializes in indirect allusive language. With a couple of guttural throat-clearings, a transparent rhythm introduces a two note figure – a falling major second – which leads into a stuttering, tribal snare drum and tom rhythm that reverberates in the mix, as if live instruments are only a distant echo in the electronic soundscape.
Two descending sequences from a satisfyingly full bass guitar fill out the sound. A reassuringly familiar bass sounds swells against the jittering machine noise of the percussion as Thom Yorke’s sardonic croon invites you to “Open your mouth wide,” the “wide” sustained across several measures and echoing as if opening up an unfathomable space in the universe, fulfilling his own instructions as he utters them. They’re a dentist’s instructions but we don’t yet know if this is a dentist we can trust. The prosaic instruction is swathed in reverb and suggests that opening our mouths may make us vulnerable, exposing ourselves to the discovery of cavities and caverns in existence that need filling. “The universe will sigh” Yorke continues. It’s clear that this is not a regular visit to the orthadontist’s chair, but yet we sense it’s not the nightmarish visions of Kid A, the kids aren’t being cut in half here, the sighing universe is somehow in tune with our gaping mouths.
The frenzied, static rhythms and alternating two-note patterns continue as if going nowhere but held together and driven forward by that reassuringly full bass sound. “And while the ocean blooms” Thom continues, alluding to the track’s title, “It’s what keeps me alive.” What does the “it” refer to here? Is the speaker’s life sustained by the blooming ocean or by the sighing universe? It doesn’t much matter. What matters is that we’re in a vast landscape, the natural world of the Romantic poets can no longer sustain the illusion of the human subject’s ability to transcend, to become godlike. Here the natural world is larger and more terrifying. It’s full of echoes and empty spaces, a large cosmic ocean. But it is the terror of the infinite that sustains the speaker. It is a productive fear, or at least our identities have been forged in the fear produced by a godless universe. But if this is who we are, beings sustained by a sense of our own insignificance, why, he then asks, does it still hurt? An unanswerable question, one of many the echo chamber of the universe will throw up. It’s pointless trying to answer it. “Don’t blow your mind out with whys.” Unanswerable questions are inevitable the song suggests. We could torture ourselves trying to answer these questions or we can go on living, knowing they are there, but resigning ourselves to the fallibility of reason. The song suggests a quiet contentment in the face of the nightmares of the post-industrial age. We have struggled against the machines and we have not won, but perhaps the machines aren’t quite so bad as we feared, or if they are maybe it’s the fear that keeps us functioning, that drives us forward. We are like the bass of the song, the reassuring sound of humanity that makes sense of the relentless electronic noise of the machine age.
Thom starts up his famous falsetto for the first time this album, not the ghostly high notes, but a lower register, singing a simple “oo.” It’s peaceful and melodic against the rapid fire of Phil Selway’s snares. And then it’s joined by one of those odd tremolo sounds Johnny Greenwood seems to specialize in. His ondes Martenot, no doubt, first low, echoing Thom Yorke’s vocals, and sounding like some kind of string instrument, but then higher, sounding more like the Theremin from the Doctor Who theme. Thom and the Martenot perform a little duet: man and machine in harmony. But it’s brief – just a few measures – and then brass instruments join with another falling bell-like peel. Then the brass climb back up, a few stuttering steps at a time, until a trumpet holds a high screaming note and the tribal rhythms stop as a sound like a submarine sonar pulses through a moment of suspension… and then we’re off again.
“I’m moving out of orbit,” Thom sings; then a pre-echo, “turning in somersaults,” as “orbit” is sustained, a note held out over vast swathes of space and time, as “wide” had opened up the universe in the first line. Then the pre-echo is taken up as the main line. Echoes are occurring before the line is articulated. Time is turning in somersaults as the speaker slowly tumbles through a gravity-less universe. A trumpet echoes a figure oddly reminiscent of Beats International’s ‘Dub Be Good To Me’. Thom sings some more creepy nature images, “a giant’s turtle’s eyes / As jellyfish go by.” We’re in space; we’re in the ocean. This is the landscape of 2001: A Space Odyssey combined with The Blue Planet. We are falling through some kind of atmosphere that is not designed to support human life, but we’re here, we’re surviving, we bloom in spite of these conditions. The rhythmic textures of the track drop out one by one, just as they had built up at the beginning, finishing on a unresolved sustained note from the bass that has been our human contact through the oceans of space, as a final sound loop fades out.
But there is another element in the mix too, a subtle Nigel Godrich-y flourish that appears 25 and 37 seconds in, and then again at 4:50 and 5:04. A slight sonic wobble, a quiver in the edifice of sound that reminds us that the whole song is delivered to us electronically. A twist of a knob on the recording deck, or a fluctuation in the delivery channels that make this album – and the new political order – possible, can warp sound, or nature, or the entire universe. The illusion of being at peace with a universe ordered by machines is a necessary lie, and it’s a fragile one, it can warp out of shape at any moment. The ancient oak tree, the King of Limbs, reminds us that the blooming new world order has existed for just a brief moment, it hasn’t yet established its roots. Fluctuations remain inevitable.