Radiohead "The King of Limbs"

Yesterday, on February 18, 2011, Radiohead released their new album The King of Limbs. If you were not aware of this news, there is a good reason for that. Radiohead announced the album’s release on their official website all of five days ago. The album was intended for release through their website today (February 19), but because the site was technically ready for the release yesterday, the band decided not to wait the extra day.

Now, when an album is described as being “released”, we assume that means it is available in stores, either online or brick-and-mortar, and that it can be physically purchased on CD and possibly on vinyl. But that is not the case with The King of Limbs – yet.

The album is currently available only as a download from the official site. This brings back memories of the way the band originally distributed their excellent 2007 album In Rainbows. The release of that album’s mp3 download was announced ten days before the fact. And when the songs were made available for download on the official site, the band allowed consumers to pick their own price for the purchase. (Not surprisingly, more than half of them chose to download the album for free). On the first day of 2008, In Rainbows was released in physical CD form by the ATO indie label, with better sound quality than the previously available mp3s. (You get what you pay for).

It was quite a bold experiment in music distribution which understandably made the music industry nervous. The industry was already worried about a sharp decline in CD sales in recent years, and about how they could adapt to the ever-changing digital environment. Radiohead’s unconventional distribution method for In Rainbows had the potential to completely turn the traditional music business model on its head.

Their means of distribution for The King of Limbs is equally bold. There was almost no window of time between the announcement and the release. There is a set price for the album this time, however. The mp3 download of the eight songs costs $9 USD; the higher quality WAV files cost $14 USD. (Remember, you get what you pay for). The album will also receive a conventional release at a later date, as it is slated for release on CD and vinyl on March 28th. Also, a pricey version called the “Newspaper Album” (priced from $48 to $53) will be released May 9th. According to the site, this package will consist of:

• Two clear 10" vinyl records in a purpose-built record sleeve.
• A compact disc.
• Many large sheets of artwork, 625 tiny pieces of artwork and a full-colour piece of oxo-degradeable plastic to hold it all together.
• The Newspaper Album comes with a digital download that is compatible with all good digital media players.

Needless to say, Radiohead’s method of self-releasing their album has set off a whole new storm of speculation about how the music industry will be affected. The industry is already on shaky ground as it is. If established artists can find ways to profitably distribute their music without the help of a record label, then what will happen to record companies in the future? One way or another, Radiohead always seem to be expanding the boundaries of music as we know it.

Then again, maybe not always. Now that I’ve actually listened to The King of Limbs, I’m beginning to wonder if Radiohead are running out of new directions. Although The King of Limbs is certainly not a bad album, it breaks no new musical ground – and that’s not what we’ve come to expect from a Radiohead album. Where In Rainbows showed Thom Yorke and company mellowing with age, The King of Limbs shows them mellowing even further, and settling into now-familiar territory. The eight tracks generally consist of jittery beats, languid soundscapes, and Yorke’s eerie falsetto vocals. It’s a compelling mixture of elements, to be sure, but it’s nothing that Radiohead fans haven’t heard before. I would hardly say that The King of Limbs is a failure, especially since it gets better as it goes along. The two best songs come near the end: “Codex” and “Give Up The Ghost” deemphasize the beats found in the other tracks and possess a melancholy loveliness. The album also improves slightly with repeat listenings. However, it is likely to disappoint fans who are hoping for more of the challenging musical adventures that Radiohead have been known for in the past.

Radiohead “The King of Limbs” (self-released download) 2011

Track Listing:

1. Bloom
2. Morning Mr. Magpie
3. Little By Little
4. Feral
5. Lotus Flower
6. Codex
7. Give Up The Ghost
8. Separator

Radiohead - The King of Limbs