So for this, I’m gonna go back a few months to something that came out in May. It’s Radiohead, that band that all the hipsters (like me, apparently) love and the band that causes all of my friends stare at me in befuddlement as I try to explain how deep it all is to no avail. At least that’s the impression that I get. I’m a dedicated fan of this band, but my opinions of Radiohead albums released past the year 2000 tend to alternate from high enthusiasm to an exasperated meh. Kid A? Great. Hail to the Thief? Meh. In Rainbows? Great. The King of Limbs? Thunderingly Meh.
So it stands that I should really like this album right? I’ll get to that in a bit, but first I wanna talk a little bit about the release of this album. In my review of the new Frank Ocean album, I spent an entire paragraph or two trying to figure just what the hell happened with the days leading up to it’s unexpected release. Being a modern record from a high-profile artist in 2016, one can almost guarantee that the album was going to be dropped in some odd fashion, but Radiohead have done this several times before. All the way back in 200 when Kid A came out, the band was an early utilizer of the internet as a means of promotion by releasing little cryptic snippets of video with small samples of music and disturbing animations. It created some hype for the band’s followup to their revolutionary 1997 record Ok Computer.
This time, however, they opted to snail-mail little lyrics sheets to certain members of their official fan club. Several days later a video was released for the album’s first single, “Burn the Witch”, and then another video for “Daydreaming” a week or two later, before finally dropping the whole album on streaming platforms, followed by a physical release a little while later. A little simpler than expected, but just being able to know when the album is going to drop makes the wait just a little less stressful, don’t you think?
But I’m here to overanalyze music, not music industry practices. That being said, this album is fantastic. Blowing it a bit early, I know, but this has been out for months and has gotten all sorts of rave reviews, and while I do take a sick sort of gratification in being contrarian sometimes, I have to agree with the overall opinion that this is Radiohead’s best work in awhile. In keeping with Radiohead changing their sound up a bit for each album, the band opt to go with a more organic and instrument driven approach than the skittery electronics of 2011’s The King of Limbs. There’s still plenty of whacky studio manipulation, but the base of the songs are an actual band unlike last time around. A Moon Shaped Pool seems an appropriate title, as the music itself flows like clear distilled water, with little flourishes panning across the stereo image like fish swimming by in front of your face. This is definitely one of the prettiest sounding records in Radiohead’s discography. A lot of that is down to guitarist Johnny Greenwood, who is much more involved with the music here than he has been for awhile, though not with the gut-stab guitar leads that pepper the band’s nineties records, but with fluttering string arrangements on nearly half the tracks. His experience scoring film soundtracks finally seems to be dripping back into the music he makes with Radiohead, and while he has done arrangements like this for Radiohead songs before, they are much more of a feature on this record rather than being the chord-articulating pads that they functioned as on past records. I especially like the arrangement on the track “The Numbers, in which they take a lead role, adding a certain strut to the minimalist beat established at the beginning of the song.
The strings meld beautifully with Thom Yorke’s trademark falsetto singing, which is as clear and ethereal as ever, and in my opinion blends with the music here even more so than on past records given the washy sound established as the overall musical backdrop. His lyrics are angsty and cryptic as ever, but the quietly moody music casts it in a more subdued light than the grungy guitar rock of The Bends and Ok Computer or the austere electronic experimentation of their noughties endeavors. A sense of accepted hopelessness pervades the whole record, only being broken with two relatively upbeat tracks, the opening “Burn the Witch” with its aggressively plucky string arrangement or the frantic Neu! inspired krautrock whirlpool that is “Ful Stop”, a track that is as sinister as it is hypnotic, with Yorke repeating vague lines about “foul tasting medicine” over some even more cryptic reversed vocal samples that sort of fade in and out of the swampy backing track.
This dichotomy allows A Moon Shaped Pool to strike a balance that I find to be rare even among classic albums, in that it’s equally satisfying as a record that you can get engrossed or a record to have on in the background as mood music. It’s a tightrope that almost any other band would fall off of only to be eaten by ravenous tigers below. The album ends with the brutal breakup song “True Love Waits” a song that has been floating around in Radiohead’s live sets since 1995. The fact that they would wait so long with such a great song before recording it, waiting until the perfect moment, is a testament to the dedication Radiohead have to making their records exactly how they hear it in their heads.
-Burn the Witch
-True Love Waits
-Desert Island Disc
Released May 8th, 2016 by XL Recordings.