Thom Yorke jerks around in the video for Lotus Flower, the first single from Radiohead's just-released eighth studio album, The King of Limbs, like someone only just discovering that the body's job is to move.
In the clip, choreographed by the British kinesics expert Wayne McGregor, Yorke shakes, wobbles and nearly drools to the song's needling dance beat, sometimes elegantly loosening up, only to shake back into awkwardness.
The singer's moves and bowler hat recall the comedians of the silent film era, when onscreen human motion still seemed artificial, almost surreal. It's a typical Radiohead moment, a visceral expression of the struggle to stay fully human in a world both enhanced and corrupted by technology.
Yet it's new too, mostly because of the music behind Yorke, and specifically the sound coming out of him: His falsetto has never sounded this relaxed, as he sings about dancing, the joy of releasing energy, "just to see what gives." In some dark imagined disco, this song is getting people on the floor. Radiohead, it seems, has become a dance band.
Well, not entirely. The King of Limbs, which was abruptly made available Friday for download via the band's Web site, Thekingoflimbs.com, can be heard from several angles. Fans and critics have already been registering wildly divergent reactions: Some think it's one of the band's best efforts; others find it too low-key or similar to previous work; a few consider it awfully doomy; and others wish it were less abstract. The stature and skill of this band allows for so many interpretations that even a decisively unpretentious work like this one sends listeners wide to find its headwaters.
A strong emphasis on ambient electronics connects this set to the more experimental strain of Radiohead's music that emerged with the 2000 album Kid A. Jonny Greenwood keeps the guitar grandiosity to a minimum, letting the rhythm section of Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway take the lead in the music's dances with machines. Feral is an up-tempo dirge, if that can exist, crumbling into dream dust; Separator relies on an intricate build that touches on jazz and 1970s soul.
The second half of this fairly short eight-song release includes some meditative ballads that lend the whole project a calm, wistful tone. But even in Codex, the sensual power of these songs tempers Radiohead's frowny brainiac tendencies.
Some songs are actually quite funky too. Morning Mr. Magpie and Little by Little both bear the mark of Flea, whose bass contributions got Yorke dancing madly in the solo sets he performed in Los Angeles last fall, and a hint of Timbaland's influence sneaks in on a few tracks.
The music's enveloping resonance colors Yorke's lyrics; even when they go morbid, they seem less concerned with demons than with ghosts. "Open your mouth wide," he sings in Bloom. "Don't blow your mind with why." No harm, it turns out, in sometimes letting the bones (or once in a while, the booty) lead.