Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Released May 8th, 2016 on XL Records
Somewhere, probably in more than a few places, there are people whose sole exposure to Radiohead is “Creep”, the 1992 hit single that kicked off their peculiar career. That song, the millstone of Thom Yorke’s life, is one of the key pillars of alternative rock and the alleged “grunge movement” that captivated everyone at the dawn of the Clinton Era. It’s also quite unlike much of the music that came after, so that proverbial person who’s been living under a rock listening to only Top 40 nostalgia can be forgiven for wondering what the fuck latter day Radiohead has turned out to be. At least The Bends and OK Computer shared a certain basic DNA with that first hit single. Kid A and most of what followed were left-field reinventions, blends of Autechre and like-minded electronic acts with the moodier, more quietly intense parts of OK Computer.
For the most part this path has been a success. Parts of Hail To The Thief dragged a little, and the hype surrounding Kid A is perhaps a bit overblown, sixteen years later. In Rainbows, though, is easily one of the best albums ever made, a gorgeous collection of eerie melodies, lush arpeggios, atmosphere for miles, and some clattering breakbeat moments to get the blood going. King Of Limbs, the followup, was almost the exact opposite, a languid, lazy album that seemed shockingly as though the band was finally running out of gas. For most bands that would be understandable, given that Radiohead had broken into the mainstream just as grunge was cannibalizing Sunset Strip hard rock. Almost all of their contemporaries had run their course and burned out by the time Radiohead made their original left turn, except for artists like Bjork, the Flaming Lips, Sleater-Kinney, and P.J. Harvey. The gilded run of excellence can’t last forever.
Radiohead is a bit different, though. There are many places where OK Computer is considered to be the best album ever made: better than Sgt Peppers, better than The Beatles, better than Exile On Main Street. People still give Kid A the nod as the best album of the 2000s, as though Funeral and The Moon And Antarctica don’t exist. They aren’t just survivors, they’re legends, the unlikeliest collection of rock ‘n’ roll gods to ever grace the world. When it looks like they’ve stumbled, it shakes more than just a few core fans. So the outcome of all of this legend-building is that there was a lot riding on A Moon Shaped Pool, an album that, following The King Of Limbs, the band expressed doubt about its ever existing. “I don’t know if we’ll ever go back to making regular albums” they said, and thankfully they decided better.
Every Radiohead album is it’s own creature and so from the beginning it can be a bit hard to get a handle on A Moon Shaped Pool. “Burn The Witch” seems like nostalgia for OK Computer, with its butterscotch strings and it’s low-flying panic attacks (and it’s bizarre, unsettling animated video). “Daydreaming” is evidence that Johnny Greenwood’s foray into producing scores and soundtracks for films is paying off in subtle dividends. “Decks Dark” and “Desert Island Disk” both mine grooves until they’re tapped out, reminiscent of the sounds they carved out on Hail To The Thief. “Ful Stop” rides a grinding bass line much like Kid A’s “How To Disappear Completely”. “Glass Eyes”, “Identikit” and “The Numbers” compress the soaring soundscapes of 1997 into a very small area and let Thom Yorke’s eerie voice haunt them. “Identikit” has a coda that sounds as though Greenwood is playing a guitar made of broken glass, and his string arrangements on “The Numbers” are equally thrilling and terrifying. The inclusion of “True Love Waits” – a song that has been batting around the band’s live sets since The Bends – makes for a stellar closing number although in a way I would have preferred seeing “The Daily Mail” committed to disc. Perhaps LP10.
The subtle way the band brings out the elements of each song is both a blessing and a curse. If they had done it in the same sort of room-filling, brash fashion that they’d managed on Kid A, it may have sounded out of place from a band entering into their third decade. At the same time, the quiet creep of the songs doesn’t quite bring out the more hypnotic, exciting moments that made Radiohead the Most Important Band Ever. There’s no “House Of Cards”, no “The National Anthem”, no “Lucky”. Instead, there are songs that are in the same league, but not at the top of that league. Maybe “Burn The Witch”, but the others are stalking through the woods behind your house rather than riding out in front of it, torches in hand, murder intent on their minds. I mean, can you imagine any of these songs soundtracking the intro to Incendies? I can’t. That’s not a bad thing, mind you, but it’s also a step away from what I like to come to Radiohead for. As far as it goes it’s a lesser album than Kid A, Ok Computer, or In Rainbows, but better than Hail To The Thief or King Of Limbs. That puts it on the level of The Bends, I suppose, and that’s better than any band their age really has a right to achieve.
AND THE REST…
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