Every new Radiohead release seems to create a crisis among critics.
The big, unspoken fear in the subtext of most Radiohead reviews concerns winding up on the wrong side of cultural history. This anxiety is not new, and the reviews of Radiohead's decidedly iconoclastic output are the latest incarnation. The question Radiohead has been staunchly asking since Kid A is whether listeners will continue to accept their musical paradigm shifts; all the critical hagiography only sweetens the deal.
At times, the willfully obtuse, hauntingly inviting and utterly confounding The King of Limbs sounds like a parody. Radiohead's professed disgust for traditional rock music (verse-chorus-verse structures, etc.) is sometimes carried to extremes—to the point that Phil Selway's drumming often sounds like programmed drumbeats. Also, it takes real aplomb to use space on an eight-song album for a mostly instrumental, doodling, vapid soundscape like "Feral."
Yet Radiohead are no whimsical or amateur fools, and much of The King of Limbs sounds better under repeated inspections. The jangly, tense rhythms of "Little by Little," the resigned, lush fragility of "Give Up the Ghost" and the snaky, vibrating funk of "Separator" are accomplished, virtuosic performances. Even that which seems mundane, like the prickly "Morning Mr. Magpie," blossoms over time.
Still, the moments of artistic integrity and deftness make Radiohead's recalcitrance more aggravating. For instance, the staccato digital opener "Bloom" has great moments of spooked beauty, but it's masked under aggressively cold beats. The King of Limbs is a middling release.