Radiohead's 2000 masterpiece, Kid A, came with a song called "How to Disappear Completely." On the band's eighth album, Thom Yorke has a new magic trick up his sleeve. "I will disappear," he sings. "I will slip into the groove." Yorke sings that line on a track called "Lotus Flower" over gray electronic scrapple and the iciest version of a good-footin' James Brown hustle imaginable. It sets the tone for Radiohead's funkiest record, and one of their most elusive. For these guys, disappearing completely and disappearing into the groove are pretty much the same thing.
The King of Limbs defies the sort of grand expectations Radiohead tend to invite. At eight tracks in just 37 minutes, it's the band's shortest album (the brevity is shocking, since it's been more than three years since its last, 2007's excellent In Rainbows). Limbs is also almost totally free of the elegant guitar surge or big-stroke balladry that give Radiohead records their scope and heft. Many tracks recall the obtuse beat science they cooked up on 2001's Amnesiac and 2003's Hail to the Thief. But even those records had a few driving, granular rockers. Limbs keeps the intensity at a low boil, working the body as it follows strange logic down alleys it has no interest in coming out of — the drum circle on "Little by Little" sounds like pencils banging on bedsprings; on "Give Up the Ghost," Jonny Greenwood turns his acoustic guitar into a rhythm instrument, banging its frame as strips of Yorke's frayed falsetto get layered over each other like a hog pile of ghosts.
At times, there's a surprising contentedness in this kinky escape. Limbs' closing track, "Separator," seems to be about death (can't disappear any more completely than that), but it's as serenely gorgeous as anything the band has ever done. A clipped, crisp boogie and soft bass pokes from Colin Greenwood set the table for gloaming keyboards and Jonny Greenwood's watery, inverted guitar figure. Yorke croons about being sucked into the world after a long dream: "I'm free of all the weight I've been carrying." Elsewhere, the view from Yorke's funky space station is much darker, even brutal. On "Morning Mr. Magpie," Philip Selway twists the beats into angry pretzels, like the Meters gone post-punk, as white noise hisses below. "Now you've stolen all the magic/Took my melody," Yorke fumes.
For the most part, though, The King of Limbs lingers in states of emotional and physical in-between-ness — blooming, diving, flirting, floating, falling. The album's most striking moment might be "Codex," an invitation to leap into the unknown that recalls classic Radiohead more than anything else here. It's just Yorke at the piano accompanied by what sounds like a very depressed EKG machine; the melody luxuriates in pillowy ache, the lyrics are at once reassuring and creepy: "Jump off the end/The water's clear and innocent." Maybe it's about a drowning, maybe it's about a swimming lesson. The fun is in not knowing. Taking the plunge into this band's mysteries is one of rock's true pleasures.
Watch "Lotus Flower":