in Review

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

If there’s one thread that I’ve recently picked up on, it’s that Radiohead are somehow both a band completely of their times and out-of-time.  Practically every album they’ve made seems in restropect tied to some sort of cultural or pop-cultural shift that was going on at the time — be it the faux-grungeness of Pablo Honey, the late ’90s technology emergence of OK Computer and Kid A, the anti-Bush-ism of Hail To The Thief, or the death of music as a business that heralded In Rainbows.  And yet it never feels like they’re chasing this kind of era-defining topicality.  Radiohead’s music is overwhelmingly intimate and claustrophobic, always seeming like it’s stuck in some sort of tiny bubble, while the outside world is fighting to get in, and for better or worse, always does.

So maybe it’s Radiohead’s ability to tap into these universal social paranoia’s that have made them such a beloved band for so many years despite the inherent mopiness of their music.  And since this is a Radiohead album review, I guess I already feel obligated to form some sort of deeper narrative out of this album.  So I’ll just say, maybe A Moon Shaped Pool is supposed to be the band’s way of letting go of this technology-driven cultural landscape that the band has both embraced and deconstructed through it’s music.  After all, prior to A Moon Shaped Pool, the band erased the entirety of its internet and social media presence, possibly as a reminder that the only thing that really matters at the end of the day with this band (or any other self-respecting band) is the music.

That said, apparently Radiohead still aren’t capable of truly affecting the way our information-obsessed age processes its reaction to things, since there were already dozens of professional reviews of A Moon Shaped Pool by the end of the week it was released.  Which to me isn’t surprising, since that’s just the way things are now, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t stupid.  Because processing a Radiohead album takes time.  I remember it took me months before I really truly “got” In Rainbows, which is an experience I’ve been reminded that I still value — trying to get to the heart of this band where everything great about it seems to be bubbling just beneath the surface.  Which definitely makes me fear that a band like Radiohead cannot afford to exist in an age like ours where everything is completely on the surface, since I think people in general just have less time to spend immersing themselves in a work of art.

But this isn’t really a new development, is it?  People’s attention spans are shrinking while their openness to thinking that art is dumb and a waste of time is growing.  Big whoop.  Now get on with talking about whether this album’s any good, right?  Well, now that I’m done ruminating on my paranoid detachment worthy of a Radiohead song, I guess I’m ready to say that this is a really good batch of Radiohead songs.  Album opener “Burn The Witch” sets the tone nicely, embracing Thom Yorke’s signature uneasiness, while Johnny Greenwood manages to merge his orchestral work as a sometimes film composer with his day job.  And the songs overall seem to lack a lot of the electronic flourishes that have marked much of the band’s work, which in turn gives these songs a lot of room to breath gracefully.

Which isn’t to say to say that Radiohead has gone completely acoustic or reverted back to their ’90s alt-rock sound or anything, but I guess the way keyboards and the occasional drum-machines are used here feels so muted and subtle, that it allows Radiohead to sound more human than they have in years.  That probably has to do with the fact that this more meditative approach allows Thom Yorke’s voice — the beating human heart behind the band for all these years — to really shine through in a very emotionally affecting way.  And then the comforting nakedness of this album is all driven home by its closer, “True Love Waits”, a long-time live favorite that I’m realizing I probably saw them perform when I saw Radiohead back in 2007, and I think finally found the album its been looking for all these years.

But as I mentioned earlier, it’s good to give yourself some time to process a new Radiohead album, and I think I’m still in that stage with A Moon Shaped Pool, even despite this review coming out a whole three weeks (!) after it came out.  I know, it feels like it’s been out longer than that, but to quote Bruce Hornsby, that’s just the way it is.  And from the time I’ve spent with it so far, I think I can say this album lives up to the high standard that Radiohead has set for itself.  One piece of evidence towards this is that unlike in my review of the last Radiohead album, the just fine King Of Limbs, I’m not tempted to compare it to other Radiohead albums.  Like their best work, A Moon Shaped Pool feels like a work unto itself and a completely natural progression for a band now in their late 40’s.  And if you don’t “get it” yet, that’s totally fine!  After all, these things take time.

Favorite Tracks: “Burn The Witch”, “Ful Stop”, “True Love Waits”