Nobody ever accused Radiohead of taking its job lightly. In a December 2002 webcast, the band premiered a bluesy number, “Good Morning Mr. Magpie.” Or maybe it would be called “Mornin’ M’lud.” In any case, the tune didn’t appear on 2003’s Hail to the Thief. Two years later, an online image showed guitarist Ed O’Brien and singer Thom Yorke fiddling with the song on acoustic guitars. As Radiohead continually toiled on 2007’s In Rainbows, “Morning Mi Lord” could be seen scrawled on a blackboard in the studio. Again, it failed to make the cut.
Finally, eight years past its debut, “Morning Mr. Magpie” arrives on the band’s eight-track eighth album, The King of Limbs. And it’s utterly unrecognizable, with twitchy dueling guitars, contrapuntal bass jabs and crisp polyrhythmic percussion. In other words, it’s Afrobeat.
Just as Kid A reduced the millennial angst and electronic influences of OK Computer to their abstract roots, so too does Limbs serve as a sequel to the romantic, groovy Rainbows. Yet, as progressive and detail oriented as Radiohead gets here, the Oxford quintet has never sounded so gorgeous and carefree—sexy even.
“Slowly we unfurl like lotus flowers,” Yorke sings in his perfected falsetto on “Lotus Flower.” Following that notion, the record slowly exhales and loses density from its knotty opener, “Bloom.” The first half sounds like a room filled with reels and reels of tape being slurped into a great wooden machine. “Bloom” alone features dozens of little working gears—it might take until the fourth listen to notice the orchestra. In contrast, the second half, especially “Codex,” is simply knee-weakeningly lovely.
The influence of glitchy electronica remains, but Limbs, named for an oak tree, is largely organic. Birdsong can be heard on two tracks. Yorke sings the body electric, repeatedly using images of water, sea creatures and dreams. Most impressively, Radiohead has reinvented itself without seeming self-important. Limbs is a modest, perfect little album that demands headphones and the repeat button.