Some are calling it a “triumph,” and others, an “attempt at meaning.” Yet the fact we cannot avoid is that after many long years, Radiohead has released their latest album, A Moon Shaped Pool.
And we want to love it, we feel we need to. So thank god that this time, it’s not only allowed, but well deserved. From the light and driving beat at the beginning of “Burn the Witch” to the heartbreaking finish on “True Love Waits,” Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, and crew have polished 52 minutes of seemly effortless, signature – and contemporary – Radiohead material.
They’re never going to put out a bad album. I mean, really. Radiohead isn’t capable, or stupid enough, to put out poor material.
They might just make you wait for longer than you’d like, or make an album you like less than one of the others. This is Radiohead, after all: the ever-evolving musical masterminds of the 1990’s and 2000’s, and on.
As fans, we love their music for a whole host of reasons. One of which is that we all discovered them at a different point in our lives, during a different album. So one of the most saddening possibilities of A Moon Shaped Pool’s release is that it could be the last time a Radiohead album enters all our lives at the same time.
We’ll use this week, this year as a marking point. Some decades down the road, “Daydreaming” might come on a playlist, or you sit down to play the whole album, ripe in your middle age. And this moment, in 2016 – who you are, where you are, how you know the world – will come rushing right back.
It already happens every time I listen to Radiohead.
My love of Radiohead began in Greece, watching the dusty olive orchards fly by on highways across the mainland. “Karma Police” was turned up as high as it could go, blaring into tiny little earbuds, as I attempted to decipher the lyrics. As I attempted to block out the people around me. It had been on a mix CD given to me by a best friend the prior year, along with “High and Dry.” So while I was stuck on a bus full of godforsaken high schoolers in the middle of Europe, I borrowed a friend’s iPod and clicked on one of the only names I recognized.
The other track on that music player, “No Surprises,” hit me straight through. As though written for me, as though I were in an indie film about finding yourself, I lived a montage for the next three weeks with this OK Computer track as my theme. I was only 16, and I already saw the world as a confining, dreary existence with predicable people, “no alarms and no surprises.” In the decade since then, this song is still my original favorite, and gets me every time. How remarkable a song can remain so relevant almost 20 years later.
The first song I tried to learn from tabs on my guitar that year was “Let Down.”
In Rainbows debuted only a year or so later, in 2007, before I left for undergrad. I didn’t yet completely identify with the whole, but “Nude” left me speechless, lying on my childhood bedroom floor. It would come to mean more than I knew over the next few years. “Don’t get any big ideas,” Yorke sweetly croons, “they’re not gonna happen.” When I told a good friend about the moment at 3:10 when the music swells, and I couldn’t handle it, because it was just so heartbreaking and wonderful at once, she laughed at me. Maybe it was the awkward hand gestures and the failure of articulate words, but still. I knew what it meant to me, and realized that I didn’t care if anyone else felt the same.
During college, I spent summer jobs holed up in science labs, vigorously cleaning equipment and transferring slices of DNA as I listened to the bizarre, dark, and experimental Amnesiac and Kid A. The metal clanking and wonky reverb provided me strange focus and sanity amidst mindless and endless, yet precise, tasks in that closet of a room.
Hail to the Thief was a lifeboat through emotional family drama soon after, the lone sibling in the car on long rides across the country. “Sail to the Moon” singing to me, “but how much did it cost?” and “There There” providing a needed upbeat respite, despite it’s depressing and ever-relevant: “just cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.” I’ve used the latter track many a time while getting over a breakup, for victorious vindication while singing (screaming) along to it throughout my apartment.
I roamed the gym’s weight machines toward the end of undergrad, full of angst and a desire to make something more of my experience in a bubble; coming to terms with my rebellious and yet focused purposes in both creative endeavors and social circles. In Rainbows had resurfaced in my playlists, and I felt like a pioneer, discovering it and so much about life for the first time. I finally knew what Yorke was talking about when he said, “Now that you’ve found it, it’s gone. Now that you feel it, you won’t.” It continues to carry me through even the worst of disappointments.
On the best first date I’ve had in Minneapolis, we went to see live music and discovered each other’s favorite Radiohead albums, giggling that we were both such ardent fans. Teasing each other about how ours was the better one. I was quite pleased his was Hail to the Thief in contrast to my more indie rock inclinations of In Rainbows.
In January 2015, the Minneapolis music scene hosted one of the coolest covers shows, ever. I stood in a room full of people like me, rocking out live to some of the most talented musicians in the city performing full renditions of In Rainbows, OK Computer, and Amnesiac. Straight through. Only seeing Radiohead live could beat that. I felt among ‘my people’ in a way I couldn’t describe. As we shrieked and wailed to the live spoken word of “Fitter Happier” as Chris Koza held an early 2000’s Mac desktop monitor aloft with both arms, and I lost my mind a little bit during Al Church singing on “Electioneering,” we weren’t being nostalgic or reliving another time. We were finding ourselves in the here and now, sharing the experience together anew.
Wax On, Wax Off
We’re good people, at the core. Radiohead fans, young and old. Most of us have had existential crises, hated society, been through great loss of some kind, felt very alone, left something behind, been very angry, been stuck, been heartbroken, experimented with something dangerous to us, escaped something overwhelming, found love, lost love, experienced joy, the worst of hates, and almost given up, wanted to throw it all away. Yet in the end, over and over again we come through on the other side, to see the beauty in it all. Radiohead has been in there deep somewhere, in all of that for us, many times, and is still there for us when the grass is greener.
Through discovering and falling in love with Radiohead, we’ve accidentally learned to love something or someone for truly who, what, and how they are, whatever they do or make.
With A Moon Shaped Pool, it seems Radiohead has come to love themselves for who they are as well.
The ultimate formula of what is “Radiohead” today, somewhere between Hail to the Thief, In Rainbows, and the yet unknown, managed to spill onto tape with this latest creation. And I doubt, by chance. Political protest, romantic proclamations and pleadings, sweet strings and orchestral compositions, articulate yet fuzzy guitar lines that layer and loop into an oblivion, randomly changing tempos, slow builds, driving beats, heartbreaking lulls, and Thom Yorke’s tenor tambre on top of it all makes for a deeply satisfying listening experience. It’s genuinely Radiohead, no frills or filler, not a moment wasted.
A Moment Suspended
It’s strange to think that in 5 years, in 10 or 20, I will look back on this moment as something special. For Radiohead to release this album in this particular moment is a gift in itself to me. I await big changes, three months away from a move across the country and many tasks to complete before then still. In this moment between staying and going, “Daydreaming” suspends my heart on a string, and as “True Love Waits” asks “don’t leave,” I hear it speaking directly to me.
It’s been a difficult past half year getting to this point. So ever sweeter is this moment, with A Moon Shaped Pool on the other side of it all, carrying me forward in the unknown.
I know I’ll remember road trips across Nebraska to “Present Tense,” and seeing the Cascades through the plane window during “Decks Dark.” I’ll have late night conversations in Midwestern apartments, on hard wood floors, while “Identikit” builds in the background. As I am frustrated in new surroundings, “Ful Stop” will pull me through. I’ll dream of “broken hearts make it rain” and “in you I’m lost” in the fall when I miss Minneapolis.
And I’ll laugh when I remember how my ex boyfriend blew off the fact “Burn the Witch” had been released that day, later joking to friends it was a clear sign we weren’t meant to me. I knew what it meant to me, and realized that I was better off caring about someone who felt the same.
True Love Waits
We were willing to wait, to wait ages for A Moon Shaped Pool. If you don’t count 2011’s King of Limbs, it was been nine years since In Rainbows. Why have we not berated them for it, given up on them, or lost hope of another release? Any person who hadn’t called us back in that amount of time would be long forgotten.
We return, time and time again for something with no surprises, but great reward. Radiohead is consistent in the best way.
They experiment, but they don’t abandon. They strike out, but they don’t strike back. They just give back, time and time again. They don’t play games, or mess with our hearts. They may not love us (their fans) as much as we love them, but together we love the shared experience that has become Radiohead, the true genre-defying music of our time. They don’t just write rock music, the arrange compositions that allow us to unashamedly feel. To find ourselves, and find each other.
I’m not making any excuses for A Moon Shaped Pool, unlike many recent releases by big names whose latest haven’t been up to snuff. Radiohead, spanning three decades, have released one of their best albums ever, today in 2016. Embracing the electronic elements of the times, and never losing their signature sound, Radiohead transcends their own expectations on A Moon Shaped Pool. My singular critique is that they never truly rock out, like in moments of In Rainbows (“Bodysnatchers”) or get especially experimental like they were through the early 2000’s, but this album reflects more of a soft landing as in much as Hail to the Thief. It is nothing lesser for that, simply a different focus, which they shine oh so brightly within.
I don’t want this to be the end. The last album. Yet there are rumors and signs that Radiohead may never again keep us in wait for what they’re up to next. I’ve fallen in love over and over again with this band, the personal connections I’ve made from their music, and the ways in which they’ve helped me cope within this modern world. So if this is it, I won’t be ungrateful. Their final heartbreaking words of “don’t leave” are just too painfully romantic and ironic to handle at the moment.
We see the music Radiohead gives us as a great gift: waiting for it patiently to be revealed, valuing the time we have with it, and looking for the best in it, always. And when they have to leave, we won’t hold it against them.