After Hail to the Thief, Radiohead had completed their contract with their record label, EMI, whom they had mixed feelings about. The band began to write again and came up with the album In Rainbows, which was their most personal album to date. While recording it, their artist friend Stanley Donwood was again present in the studio, creating artwork while the group worked on the music. Donwood experimented with photographic etching and placing photos in acid baths, as well as throwing colored wax at paper, and was heavily influenced by NASA photography.
The artwork ended up becoming the most deluxe of Radiohead albums to date, with a large slipcase and hardcover book that contained the album on double vinyl, the CD version, and a bonus CD with unreleased songs on it. There is a beautiful book of artwork included, and a lyrics booklet that also has unique (and pretty amazing) artwork in it.
Freed of their record contract, Radiohead announced the release of In Rainbows one day with no prior promotion or announcement, something that was very unusual for the music business, and they made the record available digitally right away, and let fans pay whatever they wanted for it. Many downloaded it for free, and many others, impressed with what the band was doing, paid even more than they would have. The “pay what you want” model was a game changer for the record industry, and the box set for the record won them another Grammy award for the packaging (they also won Best Alternative Music Album that year, with a performance that included a marching band).
In Rainbows had been somewhat of a return to form for Radiohead, incorporating songwriting and production elements from across their career so far, and synthesizing it into a common vision. Being who they are, of course, their next album had to be a departure.
The King of Limbs is a fairly divisive record in the Radiohead catalog. Some love it, some hate it, but it most definitely qualifies as a departure. The band created the record using loop and sample-based software programmed by their guitarist and resident tech genius Jonny Greenwood. It is very electronic in nature, and is the record in their catalog that is most like Thom Yorke’s solo career.
Stanley Donwood again would hang out with the band while in the studio. This time, he drew inspiration from more organic imagery and also 1960s radical newspapers. The deluxe edition for The King of Limbs isn’t quite as massive as In Rainbows was, but still contains beautiful artwork. There is a sheet of perforated symbols that resembles what sheets of LSD would look like in the ’60s, and the package came with a specially created “newspaper” that contained lyrics from the album, new artwork, and various phrases and fake news stories. The band were again nominated for a Grammy for their packaging, but this time lost out to Bruce Springsteen.
The band also recorded the entire album of The King of Limbs as part of producer Nigel Godrich’s From the Basement series, and released it on DVD and Blu-ray. I’ve always thought of this as the band deciding to go on tour, and realizing they have to play all these electronic songs, so now they have to figure out how to do that. Whenever someone tells me they don’t like the album of The King of Limbs, I’ll invariably direct them to this performance of the songs, and it’s managed to win over at least a few converts. The video version also includes a performance of “The Daily Mail,” one of my favorite Radiohead songs that has never had a proper release.
Five years went by after The King of Limbs release and international tour. Eventually there was some burbling up of news, that they were working on a new record, one that would become A Moon Shaped Pool (read our review here). This one would prove to be less of a departure, while also still managing to be somewhat divisive to fans. It is mellow, and textural, and very somber a lot of the time, and tackles concepts like mortality and climate change.
Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood again collaborated on the artwork, this time with weather as an element, leaving painted canvases outdoors and allowing the elements to affect the physical look and feel of the artwork. The deluxe edition is another art project, a padded hardcover book with both vinyl and CD versions of the record, trippy paintings, a bonus CD of two unreleased tracks, and even a loop of audio tape — for this record, Radiohead recorded to tape, and rather than have the tape degrade over time and be wasted, they cut it up and included a snippet with each deluxe set.
Next time, we’ll take a look at the 20th anniversary deluxe box of OK Computer that came out in 2017, which really deserves its own blog post, and a few other bits of Radiohead ephemera.