Judging a band retrospectively is risky business. You end up missing the point and an objective analysis of the present is skewed by deceptive nostalgia. I’ve always listened to Radiohead in this way. I loathed Kid A for pretentiously eschewing palettable form; I hated the band for shelving old material at shows. Of late, I try to take things on face value more.
To that end then, A Moon Shaped Pool is alright. It’s got some wonderful textures and watertight production; the Stanley Donwood sleeve is typically abstract and the lyrics, as ever, represent an expert blend of cryptic socio-politicism and musings on love. Unfortunately, forgetting all about The Bends is often made difficult: Identikit’s closing guitar solo, Burn the Witch’s accessible tunefulness and Present Tense’s lush discordancy all hark back to a much-missed easiness on the ear. By comparison, bloated or chronometrically demanding moments perpetuate an indifference that is made frustrating by the suggestion of something more enjoyably robust, but crucially, absent. The social media white-out orchestrated in the lead-up to this record was also somewhat incongruous. In their videos, Radiohead have had about them recently, a real urgency. Whilst I’d appalud its contemplative pace however, this is no urgent record. Regardless of whether of you consider the album objectively ‘good’ or not, beyond track one, the pace drops.
In fairness to Radiohead, there are very few contemporary acts who can remain unaccused of artistic falsehoods, and that’s a rare, somewhat beautiful thing. Their art, if perhaps bloody-mindedly arcane, is at least true. Annoyingly however, it means you have to approach Radiohead without any recreational agenda whatsoever. Even if you don’t agree with my opinion on this album, it’s possible to imagine how A Moon Shaped Pool might seem slightly obnoxious to some listeners.
Picks: Burn the Witch, Identikit, Present Tens
Radiohead have finally done it – a break-up-album. After Thom’s separation from his partner, Rachel Owen, with whom he has two kids, we have an album full of paranoia, regret, grief, and – finally – a studio version of True Love Waits.
The singles we were treated to in the build up, were excellent. The “low-flying panic attack” that was Burn The Witch came complete with a stop-motion video that amplified the Tippett-esque staccato double-string-orchestra paranoia and suspicion of the song itself; especially the Psycho violins heard at its conclusion, as a clay-mation bureaucrat burns alive inside a gigantic effigy. Friday’s Daydreaming followed, with a video accompaniment that saw Thom wandering through a variety of landscapes with a glazed expression and a characteristically stylish outfit, amidst unexpected key changes and a syncopated piano and bass frontline. The reversed vocals at the end, to support the break-up-album assertion, appear to be “half my life” (Thom was 23 when he and Rachel got together, and is 47 at present).
The album held more piano and string driven songs than anticipated, perhaps most notably a piano version of the long-awaited True Love Waits, which has been a live staple since ‘95. Another track that Radiohead have already been playing for years, Identikit, was a highlight of the album, featuring chorister-esque vocals from Thom, and a Steve Reich inspired delayed guitar coda by Jonny. Elsewhere, guitars are used sparingly, most interestingly on Desert Island Disk, and The Numbers. It’s very pleasant to see Johnny’s orchestral sensibilities taking a front seat, despite the legions of fans that would love to see a return to the triple-guitar-heart-attack Radiohead of the ‘90s. Fans are (no alarms and no surprises) polarised by Moon Shaped Pool; personally, I see it as a triumph of experimentation.
Picks: Burn the Witch, Identikit, Desert Island Disk.
Radiohead need no introduction, but they certainly gave A Moon Shaped Pool one hell of a great one. After the fog of strange leaflets, online disappearances and enigmatic clips had cleared, it’d be easy to simply assume their new album to be equally interesting. Thankfully, the music backs up the precursory hype.
The latest incarnation of Radiohead’s ever-changing sound is marked by heavyset orchestral textures reminiscent of Jonny Greenwood’s score work, as well as a stunning array of other stylistic influences. Radiohead have covered all the bases here, from orchestral and ambient music to art rock and psychedelic folk. True Love Waits evokes qualities of Nils Frahm’s intimate piano rumblings, whilst The Numbers’ winding string convolutions echo Nick Drake’s River Man. The new features rarely feel hackneyed or contrived, and some of the record’s finest elements could only be facilitated by the near-boundless diversity of A Moon Shaped Pool. Despite its stylistic inconsistency, the record is coherent and immersive, and the group’s ability to recall nearly all their previous studio efforts, whilst still innovating in spades, is as uncanny as it is unsurprising. The LP is rounded out by effortless melodic rigour, and lyrics which exchange Radiohead’s trademark existential angst for heartfelt expressions of frailty and honesty.
With this record, Radiohead have taken another significant step forward before pausing to admire the view. It’s not their best work, but it’s their finest since Kid A – an utterly phenomenal record, full of wonderful twists and astonishing beauty. No Surprises? Please. A Moon Shaped Pool proves that more than twenty years on, Radiohead are just as vital and peerless as ever.
Picks: Desert Island Disk, The Numbers, Present Tense, True Love Waits
Rating: 4.5 / 5
Radiohead are one of Britain’s most consistently brilliant rock bands. Barring Pablo Honey, from The Bends to the vastly underrated King Of Limbs, they have managed to produce radically progressive, interesting, and exciting record after record — always different in sound and concept, but always retaining that same, typically Radioheadish sense of foreboding and unease. Radiohead’s status is almost guaranteed at this point. They can do no wrong, and they know it. And that’s perhaps the main reason why A Moon Shaped Pool falls flat.
The sound it goes for is darkness and beauty, with the main instrumentation coming from Johnny Greenwood’s orchestral arrangements and twinkling electronics. But the overriding sense is of slight complacency. A lot of these tracks have been part of their live set for years. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but you’d hope that, seeing as they’ve been in the works for so long, they would be crafted to perfection. But some still seem half-baked. The jittery art-rock songs Ful Stop and Identikit sound far too like Radiohead on autopilot. Tinker Tailor’s pointless hissing and swirling overproduction don’t cover up the fact that it’s a pretty boring song. The whole album is like waiting for a train that never comes.
Of course, it’s not all bad. Burn The Witch perfectly encapsulates the urgent panicked anxiety that Radiohead do best, and Daydreaming and True Love Waits are better than anything Radiohead have released since In Rainbows.
On first listen to A Moon Shaped Pool I had decided that I loved it. It’s a Radiohead album! How can I not? It’ll grow on me I’m sure. But five or six listens later I can’t help but think that Radiohead’s winning streak is over.
Picks: Burn The Witch, Daydreaming, True Love Waits