Thom Yorke’s tree surgery

I stopped listening to Radiohead at the end of the 1990s and I don’t really know why. I never consciously cut them out. Perhaps the band’s near-U2 levels of hugeness, at that time, put me off. Or did the Herculean OK Computer feel like an unrepeatable peak? Even the name-your-price pull of In Rainbows didn’t tempt me back in the mid-noughties (although I now realise its dreamlike textures would have been right up my 2007 alley).

I suppose that generally I consume my electronic noodles voice-free and Thom Yorke’s vocal gait is so distinctive it’s hard for it not to dominate. But that aside, and despite OK Computer ’s unique brilliance, I find that only The Bends and Pablo Honey survive like fossils in the strata of my iTunes library. So here I am in 2011, listening to the new Radiohead album – their eighth – The King of Limbs. Named after an ancient oak tree, it bears a cover which brings to mind forest ghouls as painted by Graham Coxon.

Opener Bloom sounds like an itchy Four Tet scraping moss from twigs as Thom Yorke tumbles through hedgerows before the Foalsian thrum of Morning Mr Magpie promises, in title at least, something cheerful. But it sees Yorke snarling the song’s salutation with a “Hitler hairdo” disgust before that familiar major-to-minor vocal motif kicks in, and I know I’m listening to Radiohead again.

It’s possible Yorke is having a pop at greedy bankers here but instead of the national debt, there is a more important deficit concern: “They’ve stolen all my magic, and took my melody.” And melody, compared to the chart-busting tunes of yore, is in deliberate short supply. Lotus Flower, with its accompanying Yorke-does-Jamiroquai video, is the closest thing to a “normal” song here. For all the delicate droplets of sound, shifting like fractals, there is a shunning of structure on each track and on the album as a whole. It drifts along on a lonesome wind, albeit with the birds tweeting (on the mesmeric Codex) and some gentle stoking of the campfire.

Feral is a shuffling, dubby mix of cut-up vocals with unexpected mini-hooks which wouldn’t sound out of place on the Gold Panda album. There are glimpses of Caribou here too, although The King of Limbs makes the Canadian math raver’s 2010 LP Swim sound like barn-storming pop.

If Radiohead have chosen to skulk in the woods all these years to escape the Karma Police, then they have certainly carved out a sound that is truly distinctive and unmistakably theirs. And in doing so it seems they have gently flicked Vs at the music industry, while beckoning their legions of fans along unmapped forest paths. Perhaps the lost years are over for me. Yorke, take me to your treehouse.

Anna Doble

A version of this article first appeared in the Spectator Arts Blog, February 2011

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