I do not trust people. I am a cynic, a pessimist, and a smartass, with a streak of dry humor and awkward timing, so I simply see through people and their intentions, especially since the rise of social media. I cringe at people who are greedy with their time and money, who laugh at anyone who doesn’t aspire to be an uber-capitalist. Some of these people are clad in sports jerseys or three-piece suits who guffaw at those who believe in music’s capacity to be life-changing. These might even be people who shrug at the idea of music criticism. There might even be music critics that are embarrassed to show their own happiness.
So I put my trust in Thom Yorke.
I do not listen to superficial musicians, but I can still listen to thoughtless music; anyone can. I have boxes of CDs and vinyl records and an iPod classic that contains up to 30 days of a diverse amount of music. But I cannot get behind popular artists who seem to take advantage of their fans to inflate their ego, or artists who do not utilize their inherent talent to challenge themselves and create something worthwhile. These are people who expect the world based off of a catchy line that gets millions of hits. These are people who seek fame, not the pursuit of art. I rarely listen to the radio, and that is because half the artists playing could be easily interchangeable; they possess very little that is unique.
So I listen to Radiohead.
I have more rules than those listed, but I hope I got across my “Code of Music Ethics.” And for those that might be offended with the first two paragraphs, don’t be: realize that that is only an album review. I will not write about an album until I feel confident enough, and living with Radiohead’s latest offering A Moon Shaped Pool for the past few weeks, I can write with conviction about the Oxford band’s enigmatic ninth album.
One should start with alt-rock-era Radiohead ala 1995’s The Bends, but for the sake of this review, I will skip to their self-released experimental album, 2011’s The King of Limbs. Nothing was that unusual about their eighth studio release: Yorke’s signature tenor, interweaving guitars and expert rhythms from the bass and drums. Additionally, the band embraced the dub sonics of early ‘10s electronic music while still keeping in style with well-organized song structures. The album’s eight tracks, though, left many fans wanting more, and the technical proficiency of many of the songs left people cold. Unlike their previous albums, the band did not seem like they were pushing themselves. But The King of Limbs did have one standout track on side B worth the 37 minutes.
The album’s penultimate track “Give Up the Ghost” emoted like nothing else in the course of its 37 minutes- besides, maybe, “Codex”- a song deeply aware of mortality and death that would turn out to be a glimpse into the melancholic emotional territory of A Moon Shaped Pool. I cherish songs like “Give Up the Ghost.” It was a downer ballad about death, performed untarnished and naked, building stunning harmonies that dissipated into the ether. When the song is performed live, Thom Yorke and guitarist Jonny Greenwood are the only two on stage, and it speaks to the personal profundity the band can tap into in an intimate setting.
Year-end lists were made, and besides Rolling Stone- a magazine that desperately holds onto the past when it comes to “iconic” artists- The King of Limbs did not make much of an impression. Radiohead were staples of top 10 lists for more than a decade, so the lukewarm response had fans worried that their best days were behind them. The band released a remix series later that year from a variety of electronic artists, and their live album The King of Limbs: Live from the Basement contained a handful of B-sides, and one of them, “Staircase,” pointed to the jazzy and spatial arrangements the band would perfect on A Moon Shaped Pool. At this point, the band went off to do separate projects, including a few solo albums, collaborative efforts, and, in the case of Jonny Greenwood, work as a composer for feature films. The band members were finding success outside of the group.
But I still trusted them.
Then the band felt generous on Christmas Day 2015 and released “Spectre,” a discarded song for the James Bond film “Skyfall” that was regrettably replaced by Sam Smith’s forgettable “Writing’s On the Wall.” The ominous, forlorn tone and jazzy figures automatically deemed it Bond, but its orchestral sound mixed in with the piano conjured callbacks to classics like “Pyramid” and “How to Disappear Completely” and, therefore, placed it in Radiohead’s wheelhouse. The band sounded enlivened. “Spectre” gave fans fuel for talks of a forthcoming release, and after the band created their own label in early 2016, the speculation was all but confirmed. A few months later, Radiohead erased their online presence, until a video segment of a chirping bird popped up on their Instragram account on May 3rd.
The chirping bird began a week long outpouring of Radiohead news, and by the start of the new week, A Moon Shaped Pool was released on music streaming platforms. Seven of the 11 tracks had already appeared in various forms, and the earliest originated in the late ‘90s, but it is impossible to know how long these versions were being kicked around. An album this rich and detail-oriented sounds like all involved took years to finish. If fans were turned off by their eighth album, then they need to listen to this fascinating release. This record is less a follow-up to The King of Limbs than it is to their 2007 masterwork In Rainbows in the fashion of Velvet Underground’s Loaded, a latter-day tour-de-force from an influential band still at the top of their game- a capital “A” album with no-filler that doubles as a triumph of song ideas and first-rate production choices.
Who needs a remix series or B-sides when the band can muster up an album this consequential? Consider first single “Burn the Witch,” where the strings play col legno- with the wood of the bow instead of the hair- before the song quickly gives way to… a gritty synth? Why the hell not?! The Orwellian opener is complete with Thom Yorke’s sweeping falsetto, and it works. And the rest of the album fucking works. Dedicate time to “Deck Darks,” a darker, haunting companion to OK Computer’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” which concludes with a spiraling piano line with frazzled guitar. The song segues seamlessly into the acoustic “Desert Island Disk,” where Yorke sings of cathartic release amidst swishing cymbals, production flourishes, and throbbing bass before it all falls into a bed of brightly lit guitars at the song’s end. Embrace the gorgeous-sounding tones on the album: like the strings two minutes in on the delicate “Daydreaming,” the way the strings’ entrance on mid-album track “Glass Eyes,” which feels like a highly stylized journal entry, Yorke’s “I feel this love turn cold” vocal turn on “Glass Eyes,” and the transition in “Present Tense” after the line “deaf, dumb, and blind.” The strings that pop up all throughout this album enrich the gloomy tone, amplifying Yorke’s individual moments of heartbreak into a universal sentiment.
Attention has been paid to album closer “True Love Waits,” the lyrics almost blatantly referencing Yorke’s feelings after his recent separation with the mother of his children. The song is a tearjerker and a beast of a track for any diehard fans. The acoustic version on their live album “I Might Be Wrong” is reinterpreted as a quiet piano ballad that sits on the edge of the world. It would be easy to imagine a generation of teens grabbing a guitar for the former version where Yorke belts out proclamations of love, but the intimacy of the latter will be hard to top. The lyrics are not subtle, but the maturity of the final version is unsettling and more impactful than any fan could have imagined. The minimal instrumentation and Yorke’s restrained vocal is a rare, raw moment in the band’s discography.
The band masterfully mixes the political with the personal. Any of these tracks could be about climate change, capitalism, or dystopian futures, but they could also be about inner turmoil and the sadness that sets in after an emotional separation. “Decks Dark” speaks of a “spacecraft blocking out the sky” with “the loudest sound you’ve ever heard,” a frightening image that could be taken literally, a possible reference to science fiction author Douglas Adams, or figuratively, when obstructions cloud someone’s clarity in life or in a relationship. The hopelessness on the throbbing “Ful Stop” could be about the complexities of a romantic dissolution or about the political consequences of one’s actions in the modern-day world. On “Desert Island Disk,” when Yorke sings “waking up from shutdown / From a thousand years of sleep,” what is he referring to? Is he dramatizing his own enlightenment? Or is it about something more earthly and foreboding? On the jazz-fueled “The Numbers,” with a bit of Crazy Horse instrumentation, the lyrics “We are of the earth / To her we do return / The future is inside us / It’s not somewhere else” could be about mankind’s need to prevent climate change, of “rivers running dry,” or is there a song about personal empowerment hidden in the lyrics? This duality is also present in the piano in “Daydreaming” mixing with vocal loops and glimmering synths, the natural with the electronic. The glitchy, whirring pieces of production found throughout even give A Moon Shaped Pool a wholeness. Many of these songs end abruptly or at a coda, so to hear the breathy ends to piano notes on closer “True Love Waits” or the drums and the shuffle on “The Present” or the way Yorke extends “cold” on “Glass Eyes” provides the listener a sense of comfort.
It is one thing to enjoy the explanation of touching electroacoustic music. It is a sacred thing, like Radiohead has on this album, to show people. Surround yourself with this music. Put on your headphones and do not take them off. This album is a chance for listeners to be by themselves and away from the noise. The album also gives Radiohead the chance to find enlightenment where they used to settle on discomfort. The world is crumbling, and they have reached some sort of peace. Could you blame them?
Forgive me if I am repeating myself with the constant adjectives. Maybe this review is not as analytical as I wanted it to be. But the release leads me to believe A Moon Shaped Pool is capturing something only attained because of serendipity. The misgivings in “Paranoid Android” have come true. The “Gucci little piggy” is a familiar face on social media. Personally, there are days when the disadvantages of having the world at our fingertips outweigh the advantages. Is the young blogger generation aware of the power of the album? I fear the younger generation is masking a deep-seated boredom that fuels denial, anger, and vitriol. Americans are coming to terms with a possible Trump presidency. The nightmarish has become real. Unification is needed. Personal connection is required. Am I a part of the bored generation? I hope not because A Moon Shaped Pool is capturing the feelings of an era, and I am open to what it has to say.
I placed confidence in Radiohead, and I was repaid ten-fold.