As controversial or blasphemous as it might sound, I feel Radiohead peaked with OK Computer and have been on a steady decline since 2000’s Kid A. That’s not to say the records after have been bad, or that I haven’t enjoyed them on some level, it’s just that with each passing release I’ve been blown away less and less. However, it’s hard to hate on a band who’s played by their own rules since their inception, refused to follow trends or pander to a certain demographic for the sake of popularity or commercial relevancy. This fearless confidence and poise are just a few of the things that make Radiohead one of the most influential and interesting bands of the last 20 years.
Then there’s the fandom. Express any sort of negative feeling toward Radiohead or their releases and you are all but crucified or even worse, having your taste in music put in question. To most die-hard fans, anyone who dislikes a song or album from the band, means that person just doesn’t get it. It’s not Radiohead’s fault but to me, obligation is off putting. I want to enjoy a record because I legitimately enjoy it, not because I feel I have to or I’m some sort of classless sub-human with horrible taste in music. Needless to say, I’ve been a bit apprehensive to share my initial thoughts on their records upon release.
After the clever (albeit predictable) marketing ploy of deleting themselves from social media for 24 hours, Radiohead mysteriously released the video for the first single “Burn The Witch”and unanimously piqued everyone’s interest. Not only am I sucker for anything stop-motion, but the song wasn’t the strange looped-based whiney droning style heard on 2011’s The King Of Limbs like I feared. Aside from the chorus being somewhat weak, that particular song single handedly restored my faith in a band in which I was too afraid to admit I’d sorta lost faith in. For the first time since 2000, I was actually excited to hear one of their albums.
A Moon Shaped Pool is by far, Radiohead’s easiest listen in years.
It’s far from pop (or any genre label for that matter) as you can get, but there’s enough twists and turns to keep you interested even at it’s most dense. From the chripy, almost nervous string arrangement of the aforementioned “Burn The Witch” to the Beck-esque acoustic folk shuffle of “Desert Island Disk,” I’m surprised A Moon Shaped Pool isn’t as gloomy as some of Radiohead’s most recent work. Lyrically there’s plenty of the bleak paranoia Thom Yorke is famous for, but for all intents and purposes, it’s not a downer of an album. In fact there’s arguably more strangely uplifting tracks than depressing ones.
A big win for me is the usage of live instrumentation. I was a little worried to hear the digitally manipulated piano in the intro to “Daydreaming”, thinking that the rest of the A Moon Shaped Pool would get lost in some sort of electronic experimentation, but about half-way through the song I realized the digital post production was used as sort of an instrument to play into the theme. The same goes for “Ful Stop,” a song where the loops and noise mean something and just thrown in there to be indifferent. The frantic, skin crawling chatter of “Identikit” even features and weird but tasteful guitar solo at the end. When was the last time that could be said when it comes to Radiohead?
Another winning aspect for me on A Moon Shaped Pool is the return of bass lines. As a bass player myself, I understand the importance of a decent groove, especially in the song “The Numbers”. While the rest of the band is falling apart in a vortex of jazz-esque drumming, ominous string arrangement, and clumsy piano work, the bass stays sharp and focused, keeping everything in the pocket. Masterful work by Collin Greenwood, a truly underrated bassist.
It’s not the Radiohead’s strongest work though. Most of the excitement I had while listening came from comparing it to their post Kid A releases. Even with it’s near flawless production and presentation, there’s nothing on this album that is mind blowing or game changing. It’s only a few hours old as of writing this review and I’m fully aware most Radiohead records are growers, but this album doesn’t reinvent the wheel by a long shot. It’s a beautiful listen but nothing really sticks with me outside of being happy that it doesn’t suck.
After decades of gorgeous music, Yorke and company owe us nothing. The trifecta of The Bends, OK Computer, and Kid A will go down as the most satisfying consecutively released string of albums in history of all music. It’s naive and unreasonable to think this band at this point in their career, are going to put out something that will change the way you listen to music, but it’s nice to hear an album full of inspired songs that makes me want to entertain the thought that maybe the next release will in fact blow our minds once again. A Moon Shaped Pool confirms Radiohead does in fact, still have it in them.
Aaron (or Coop) is a freelance writer, multi-instrumentalist and overall lover of all things music. As an advocate for indie record labels and artists, he is passionate about local scenes and do-it-yourself artistry. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, he’s not afraid to explain why.