What was going through your mind the first time you heard Radiohead?
The answer to that question depends on which of their epochs your discovery came from. If it was The Bends, you probably recognized them as the key standout from the mid-nineties British invasion. If it was Kid A, you probably discovered a prophetic, violent departure from their old sound that exploded, despite a total lack of music videos or top-40 domination. If you were a fan of theirs since Pablo Honey, you probably had to come to terms with the fact that the things you love about Radiohead are like diary entries; left in the past for new discoveries ahead. And yet, with A Moon Shaped Pool, their stunning new album, everything we have always loved about Radiohead has been delicately placed together – a reminder of how they became the biggest, bravest, weirdest band in the world.
Part of that came before the album was even released. As with 2007’s excellent In Rainbows, the band shunned traditional promotional muscle, in favour of weaponizing their digital presence. A week before the album’s release, without warning or acknowledgement, they removed all traces of their official footprint. Their albums were gone, their website, social media – all gone. Was it a commentary on the intangibility of modern music? Was it another statement on the overpriced nature of record sales? Yes. Maybe. We were too busy lapping up every kilobyte of data they did release to answer for sure.
The second act of this story is the album itself. In many ways, the band is still the same group of guys from Abington. They still wear their influences on their sleeves, as Jonny Greenwood’s overt love for dub music washes across “Tinker Tailer” (or “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief”). But the difference today is in how the band swirls it into the overall flow of the song. Just as in “Identikit”, their proclivities are there, but so are the folk and piano and classical elements. This time, they’re expertly woven together into textures. Gone are the King of Limbs days, where their love for Autechre outshone their love of composition.
Also back in the fold (as if it ever left) is Thom Yorke’s utter sense terror at the world around him. On Kid A, we kind of saw where he was coming from. There were definitely signs of Yorke’s apocalyptic wails around us, but this time it’s all we see and hear. We’re watching the rise of modern-day fascism in the United States while the Solomon Islands disappear into the ocean. And on “The Present Tense”, he’s already resigned to it all. “As my world comes crashing down/ I’m dancing/ Freaking out, deaf, dumb and blind”.
“True Love Waits”, the album’s finale, is a song that’s been long in the coming. Originally found in a completely different, chaotic form on 2001’s live album, I Might Be Wrong, the version we hear in 2016 is slowed down, swirly, jangly and preposterously weird. On purpose of course. Yorke howls “And true love waits/In haunted attics And true love lives/On lollipops and crisps”. Through this official version, it’s easy to understand why the song had always haunted Radiohead.
Radiohead does symbiosis better than any other band. With every release, they do their best to let their own experience (musical, political, social) be our own. A Moon Shaped Pool is sad, subtle, frightening, profound and perverse. With each listen, it’s clear that the band’s mastery of their art form, though total, could still be a work in progress.
Essential Tracks: “Tinker Tailer”, “Burn the Witch”, “True Love Waits”