A few weeks ago I finally picked up Radiohead’s quickly-(in)famous King of Limbs. I’d been wanting to give it a listen since its initial (surprise) digital release. (However, being a stickler for always wanting a hard copy, I opted to patiently wait until the physical release.) My primary interest stemmed from my being a longtime fan. Another part of me, though, wanted to see what all the hubbub was about – Facebook and the Twitterverse were blowing up with very mixed reviews. Most critics lauded the effort, with fans going in many directions. Friends and colleagues were in quite the tizzy. Six weeks later I finally got my chance – I love it! I gave it two careful listens that first day, and a number of others since, and my fondness has only increased.
But this isn’t a “New Listen” review…
I’m continually amazed by fans’ feeling betrayed by an artist’s (in this case, band’s) natural evolution. (Yes, I’m certainly aware that everyone can’t be a total fan of everything, but this concerns active fans.) Of course, an artist can unexpectedly change course – for reasons personal, commercial, or otherwise – and cause an uproar, the response to which could be perfectly understandable. However, often times, when discussing those heavies with long careers and extended catalogues, change is almost always inevitable. In fact, my personal Top 5 – TOOL, Dave Matthews Band, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Smashing Pumpkins – is united by their collective tendency to evolve over time. Some had smoother transitions than others – TOOL and Trane are/were smoother overall than Miles – but each one’s arc can be heard as one sonic narrative, with each new phase or “sound” including both an element of the “core” sound and an aspect of picking up where they last left off (even if it’s somewhat of a reaction to a previous approach).
Like the aforementioned Top 5, Radiohead also continually evolves. Succinctly describing their most recent release, I would say: King of Limbs is Radiohead’s next logical step after In Rainbows. Now, that doesn’t really mean anything to the passive fan, but those familiar with the whole Radiohead catalogue should understand that this denotes: more effects and electronics, less traditional instrumentation and form, more experimentation. Radiohead started with a definitive early-90s anthem (“Creep”), pivoted with a slightly more progressive but wildly commercially successful album (OK Computer), then forcefully proceeded down the avenue of electronic experimentation (Kid A through present). I could understand someone enjoying OK Computer in somewhat of a vacuum and being dumbfounded by King or even Amnesiac (these two are probably my favorites, FYI). But, if you were to listen to all of their albums in succession, you would most likely hear a single band slowly transforming.
A primary grievance is that the new album is too down-tempo. Did anyone really expect an anthemic rocker after the last few albums? Seriously? Many await another OK Computer. I can understand that to a certain extent, however that was their third album. King of Limbs is their EIGHTH studio album. They’re far beyond that stage, for good or ill. For those who felt betrayed, the “betrayal” occurred not in 2011, but rather gradually over the last decade. Similarly, Miles and Trane continually evolved. Those who expected Coltrane to play “Locomotion” in ’66 or ’67 were gravely mistaken, and likely walked out of performances and stopped buying his albums. He had moved beyond the blues – moved beyond swing – by that point. And was it that he no longer liked “that old stuff”? No. He simply transcended all earlier endeavors and was progressing beyond jazz to something greater. Returning to “Syeeda’s Song Flute” would have been a stifling distraction. The same is happening here.
Art, and the artists who create it, evolve. Just like everything else. You don’t have to like everything an artist does, not by a long shot. However, at the same token, don’t be surprised if, after 5 or 10 or 20 years, they have moved on to a different place.