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Saturday, May 12, 2018

Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool


1) Burn The Witch; 2) Daydreaming; 3) Decks Dark; 4) Desert Island Disk; 5) Full Stop; 6) Glass Eyes; 7) Identikit; 8) The Numbers; 9) Present Tense; 10) Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief; 11) True Love Waits; 12*) Ill Wind; 13*) Spectre.

General verdict: TWell, at least Radiohead with strings is an improvement over Radiohead with pings.

With this odd speeding up of time, I am not even sure that most of us realize just how old Radio­head were in 2016 — but it has actually been twenty-three years since the release of their first album, meaning that if they were The Beatles, Thom Yorke would already have been shot dead by some irate hater of King Of Limbs, and Jonny Greenwood would be producing Press To Play Another P. T. Anderson Soundtrack, with somebody like, say, Ed Sheeran playing guest guitar and co-produ­cing where possible. Fortunately, times have changed, and all these guys know better than to embarrass themselves that badly. However, one thing that has not changed, amazingly, is that much of the musical establishment is still looking up to them to provide direc­tions, set trends, blow minds, and remind us, the hoi polloi, of reasons why music matters. And not in the same way that Rolling Stone looks up to Bruce Springsteen or U2, either: if you are a man of good taste, you are probably supposed to sneer at Bruce and Bono, but Radiohead still remain a fearful icon, largely beyond reproach.

Truth be told, A Moon Shaped Pool was a comeback of sorts, but then again, it probably did not require that much of an effort to rebound from the limp lethargy of King Of Limbs — all that was needed was a conscious snap: «Let's rebound from the limp lethargy of King Of Limbs, OK?» The opening guitar and col legno string rhythms of ʽBurn The Witchʼ are precisely that kind of snap, marking the most exciting start to a Radiohead album since... okay, never mind. The album in general seems like a very deliberate course correction, and in many spots it aligns itself thematically with Kid A and even OK Computer rather than anything they did later — not co­incidentally, with quite a few of the songs going back to very old ideas, chief among them ʽTrue Love Waitsʼ that we have been hearing live almost for decades now (see I Might Be Wrong), but somehow it was not until 2016 that they agreed to have finally found the appropriate studio arrangement for it.

A prominent component of the sound here is the London Contemporary Orchestra, which is no doubt connected to all that extra experience that Greenwood has amassed while working on his soundtracks — a very welcome component, I'd add, because at this point Jonny is able to do much more thrilling things with strings than Thom is with electronics. It is the orchestra that makes ʽBurn The Witchʼ really memorable, and adds depth (and sometimes even hooks) to many other songs; although I still have a lurking suspicion that Nigel Godrich (who may have been distracted by the recent death of his father) had much less of a hand in the orchestration than Jonny did, which is a pity: Nigel's work with strings on Beck's Sea Change had some of the most inspired and magnificent ideas since Paul Buckmaster, and overall, A Moon Shaped Pool loses in comparison. Still, a fresh twist is always welcome.

Then again, ʽBurn The Witchʼ is the best song on the album, and even that one does not cut very deep. The subject matter is Radiohead's favorite topic (society's pressure on the individual, the works), but the entire song is essentially one concentrated pull, a tension-raiser, but not a tension-releaser. The menace and terror are subtly hinted at by the relentless string onslaught and by the ironically tender, sly "we know where you live", but I cannot do anything about it if it all sounds like a prelude to something potentially grander, more massive and terrifying... something that never comes. (Ah, weren't things different in the good old days of ʽParanoid Androidʼ?). The song still gets its due thumbs up for the cool sonic textures, yet it is also pretty emblematic of the entire album: A Moon Shaped Pool almost completely consists of musical foreplay that very rarely, if ever, grows into something more... umm... vital.

For instance, I will be the first to admit that on ʽDaydreamingʼ, they almost succeed in inventing a new type of sound — a sort of multi-layered anti-minimalism, where a solitary, minimalistic, sonically «warmed-up» piano line is attenuated by what sounds like miriads of sparkling, scintil­lating electronic ripples, in an odd way that I cannot directly associate with any of their predeces­sors. The contrasting string wailings at the end and the funny multi-tracking of real and string-imitated snoring are in themselves an exquisite coda to this sonic painting; and I would dare to assert that there is more pure invention going on in this track than on anything they did for King Of Limbs or even In Rainbows. But in terms of deep-reaching emotion, the effect is still tepid and fluffy — probably because that main piano melody... well, it sounds like something that even somebody like Harold Budd could have knocked off in his sleep (although, admittedly, Budd's music usually does sound like it was written while sleepwalking). Thom is just cooing along about dreamers who never learn and white rooms where the sun comes through, and then, of course, there is some symbolic message you are supposed to catch, but forgive me if I am too lazy to draw up the necessary mental links between "we are just happy to serve you" and the entire history of literary, musical, and philosophical thought in the past hundred years. I am just happy enough to realize that the song does not suck — which is still not enough to turn it into a neo-psychedelic masterpiece.

Rinse now, rinse and repeat for just about every other song in this moon-shaped pool. The sound, oh yes, the sound is good — now that they no longer think of themselves as electronic gods, the balance between regular rock instrumentation, electronics, and string arrangements is as perfect as it gets. But the band's ability to raise sonic hell has not returned, and even the most «rocking» songs still sound locked in a test tube — ʽFul Stopʼ is relatively fast and features a loud, suitably grumbly bassline, but its problem is the same as in ʽBurn The Witchʼ: the entire song is one non-stop monotonous ride towards the edge of a cliff, and once you've reached the edge, we fade to black and the credits start rolling in. Gimme some closure, goddammit!

I would be only too happy to see A Moon Shaped Pool start up a process of artistic healing; as far as I'm concerned, from 2001 and all the way up to 2011 Radiohead were sick, and this record is their first in a long, long time that offers glimpses of recovery — should we thank Paul Thomas Anderson for that? — by returning to more lyrical and emotionally accessible territory. However, much of the damage may have been irreparable: Greenwood has forgotten how to rock, Yorke has forgotten how to sing like a human being of flesh and blood, and the band in general has become way too obsessed with having to maintain their towering reputation — a slave to its towering reputation, really. At least we have to thank them for finally working out that arrange­ment for ʽTrue Love Waitsʼ — whose wobbling verse melody, with that wonderful swoon from complaint to consolation, is a nice reminder for us that there used to be a time when Thom Yorke knew how to write heart-wrenching vocal hooks.

If you have the deluxe-whatever edition, you also have a chance to hear ʽSpectreʼ, Radiohead's ill-fated attempt at delivering a Bond theme song — admittedly, asking Radiohead to write a Bond theme song is a bit like asking an ISIS leader to star in a condom commercial, but still, you gotta appreciate the effort. It is in the same style as the album, with ominous strings all over it, but it is much better suited to a world in which James Bond suffers from acute illness anxiety disorder, listens to Messiaen in between kills, and has all his one-liners quoted from Schopen­hauer (like "after your death you will be what you were before your birth!"). Come to think of it, that movie would still be tons more exciting than A Moon Shaped Pool.


  1. Yes, I was pleasantly surprised by this one, after Kid A and Hail to the Thief only grew off me over time. What does it say about this band, though, that their obligatory "breakup" album is easier on the emotions than previous efforts?

  2. George is right. Since the end of the last century is difficult to (emotionally) connect with Radiohead. After OK Computer only a few songs from Kid A succeed to make you feel something. I know that for many people these guys are a mixture of Mozart and Buda. But not. They are not that good.

    1. Kid A is one of the greatest albums I've ever heard tbh

  3. A theory of why George's emotional paradigm runs counter to the development of younger folks such as myself who really admire Radiohead: at the very least, they are admittedly attitude- and style-savvy, and they came up in an era where both those quantities were very conflicted and in flux. The great irony/earnestness dichotomy of the 90s was being split, and social media began allowing for greater permutations of the self, many of which contradicted each other (the way that one group of friends can be good for fooling around and another for introspection).
    Anyway, I posit that Radiohead's great strength (which George perceives as a lack of unity, energy and catharsis) is precisely this sort of fractured sensibility. The multiplicity of tones and attitudes that they achieve with their weird abstract narratives and futuristic studio sounds could arguably be seen as undermining one another and distracting from whatever one qualifies as "pop hooks" and "rock and roll excitement", but, far beyond their pretentious posturing and lofty status, Radiohead just knows time and time again how to concoct all sorts of cognitive dissonance and relistenable turmoil over a surprisingly large span of genres. Often in the same song they have bits and pieces of composition and message that are pointedly their worldview, but one which is easy and fascinating to recontextualize depending on how the listener is feeling. The universally likable 60s strategy of a tune as a roadmap to a certain psychological outcome is long gone with the monoculture currently blown to bits, and Radiohead is the most astute soundtrack to its aftermath: Everything at once, confused and confusing, but with an undeniable logic and talent to the performance, sonics, and packaging that keeps millions of fans coming back.
    Did that make any sense?

    1. Umm... not as much as it probably intended to. (Like, I'm not sure what is meant by the "great irony/earnestness dichotomy of the 90s" - was it really so much greater than, say, in the late 70s?).

      One argument that I frequently discern among Radiohead defenders (and which seems to also be present here, somewhat buried in the flow) is that, somehow, Radiohead are supposed to be THE band, by definition, that showed the world - or, at least, one particular generation - how to go beyond the "pop hook" format and find beauty and meaning in something less formulaic and more unpredictable. But while I can easily see how that process could have been mind-blowing to young people living their lives totally out of historical context, I cannot as easily see how that achievement would still hold up in retrospect. I mean, "going beyond the pop hook" is a process that began at least with the psychedelic revolution of the mid-Sixties, and mini-generation after mini-generation after that has shown, time and time again, how it is possible to deconstruct the song structure to mind-blowing effect - from Hendrix to Grateful Dead to prog rock to electronica to ambient to Cocteau Twins and Talk Talk and whatever. My acquaintance with Radiohead began already AFTER I had accumulated all that experience - which, I guess, is the reason why my mind was never blown with Kid A, much less everything that came after it. As for the "multiplicity" argument, while it is true that Radiohead experiment with plenty of genres, as far as my mind tells me, they always reduce all of those genres to the same type of "Radiohead idiom" - that cold, melancholic, plaintive, desentisized world-weariness that really gets tiring after several albums in a row. Heck, I'd say that Cocteau Twins, no matter how limited their musical idiom is, are more diverse than Radiohead, because they can at least transmit a far wider emotional palette that runs all the way from limitless joy to terminal sorrow. Why aren't Cocteau Twins ever extolled as the greatest band of all time?

    2. Thanks for bearing with my unedited rambling! To address that first part, I do in fact think that the speed and cacophony of media that gradually grew into the 21st century made audiences and creators more skeptical regarding an artist’s earnestness and marketability, and perhaps related to this, the qualities which made 60s and 70s rock the best began to exaggerate and atrophy by the 90s. As far as I can tell, much innovation by that point was nearing the esoteric or viscerally unpleasant; the majority of populist hits were emotionally and creatively childish in comparison; and the most poignant, meaningful artists straddled being way too indulgent or pretentious at times.
      Whereas in the past the three-part balancing act of being accessible, adventurous AND meaningful came naturally for a nascent art form, the complications in public reaction to those three traits compounded over time. Those 70s artists who were sassy and wry, but with some heart, were superseded by new generations who were even more image-wary and medium-savvy. This trend of public tastemakers second- and third-guessing every artistic decision metastasized until we reach Radiohead, who achieved their strange elevated status partially through some miraculous quirk of marketing.
      The general critical opinion does regard them, though not without drawbacks, to be the most successful for the longest time at having a potent and influential worldview, while ALSO becoming a genuine grassroots pop success, while ALSO synthesizing their musical and stylistic influences into something groundbreaking, and finally having some sort of emotional grounding. Even though their music does scan as being gloomy, terse and conflicted – that’s still a valid emotional expression, and they pull it off with a variety of tones (angry/suicidal/robotic/pragmatic/self-parodic/beautiful/etc.) and perspectives (man vs. society/universe/man/self/machine/etc.), often open to interpretation within the same song.
      My take is that this samey abstract mood is what was wearing you down, when the music still has plenty of microcosms to examine, however modest. The “melodic vs. amelodic” angle is something so subjective in the thinking process that it’d be too tough to get into right here, but plenty of people find coherent repetition, progression of thought and mood, and memorable phrases in RH’s work.
      Anyway, it’s this sort of multifaceted appeal and measured success on multiple fronts that (fairly or not) put them above more appealing or emotionally broad bands who wallowed at the bottom of the chart because of unlucky economics; or conversely, top of the pops bands who had nowhere near as much to say and less talent to say it with. So that’s my thesis on how and why Radiohead filled the gap in the shrinking monoculture for the “Most Important Band”, and the way their tech-savvy, measured and diluted strains of negative vibes managed to be the most resonant and marketable thing in the 00s. Hopefully that was clearer, agree with it or not.

  4. Taste is funny. I can barely make it through a Cocteau Twins record without losing focus - they sound rather sterile to my brain, not much more than very pretty background noise. Radiohead albums make me cry, and move all over the place emotionally. The above explanation is great, as is the fact we all fight for our favorite bands, as is George (who I was reading when KID A came OUT. I remember wishing he would review "modern" bands like Radiohead back in 1999 or so - ah life).