Album Review: Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool

Album Reviews
05/11/2016
Gerrit Feenstra

How long have we been anticipating A Moon Shaped Pool now? Truly, anticipation has lost much of its meaning in 2016. In our digital world of surprise albums and unquestioned instant gratification, the months we spend waiting for heroes to return to the forefront can feel like years. And yet, here we are, five years down the road from The King of Limbs, four years out from a sprawling North American tour, hundreds of teasing headlines and album whispers later, and Radiohead return with a new single, then a three day warning for an LP that is set from the very beginning to rock your world. The mix of old and new songs confuses our judgment. The alphabetical tracklist pokes fun at our sense of order. The ever-present orchestra and subdued textures make you question whether or not this is a happy surprise at all. But rest assured, Radiohead's latest outing is a staggering accomplishment in solidarity, and proves that there will never be another. More challenging than anything they've put out in fifteen years, and more rewarding than some of even the most well-loved of the back catalogue, A Moon Shaped Pool is an essential listen and one of the best records that 2016 will see.

Sixteen years ago this October, Radiohead took the piss out of the world. After monumental praise surrounding their seminal 1997 record OK Computer, they returned with its exact opposite. Kid A, a droning, meandering electronic record, featuring guitar on about three of the ten tracks, finding Johnny Greenwood most of the time preferring an instrument prominently played by a couple dozen people: the ondes Martenot. OK Computer's thrilling but biting 21st century paranoia was answered with Kid A's immense loneliness on an empty plan. With a recklessly busy late 90s culture building to a pinnacle at the turn of the millennium, Radiohead answered the waste and the excess with a stark message of an ice age coming. "We're not scaremongering", Thom sings, "this is really happening". Among their untouchable stockpile of talent and success, Radiohead have a true knack for clairvoyance. And not just the seeing of the future, but the acting on it. History shows they've never been afraid to face the culture head on and push against it, even when it's far from the path of least resistance. In 2007, Radiohead returned an independent entity, welcoming in the new age of digital music with a business model that bashed everything OK Computer abhorred. This was, of course, only one of many instances of call and response between Radiohead's 1997 masterpiece its spiritual successor, In Rainbows. Radiohead was ready to take the culture of excess on again, this time tackling the ghosts behind the curtain that western society refuses to see.

But now that this second generation of Radiohead fans has had almost nine years to chew on its very own OK Computer, it's time for it to have its Kid A. And this is what we get with A Moon Shaped Pool. 2011's The King of Limbs throws a bit of monkey wrench in this timeline, but it must be considered apart for a variety of reasons. This record exudes the same sense of stark immediacy as 2001's Amnesiac and 2003's Hail to the Thief, steadfast in the boom of the UK electronic scene of 2011, heavily rhythmic and sensory in every manner. But with five more years, the culture has reached a point where Radiohead have no choice but to respond. And much like Kid A before it, A Moon Shaped Pool makes a statement to fans and critics alike by existing apart from any sense of expectation.

The crazy thing is, somehow Radiohead evade expectation even with more than half of the tracks herein being familiar to dedicated fans. "True Love Waits", as a prime example, has been a part of Radiohead's live repertoire for more than 20 years, and appeared on 2001 live compilation I Might Be Wrong. Meanwhile, "Burn The Witch" has been teased in live sets for almost ten years, and "Identikit" was played frequently throughout the band's tour four years ago in support of The King of Limbs. But waiting years to release songs is nothing new to the band. Remember when they hid that secret booklet in the Kid A packaging that held lyrics to both of their next albums? Rather, Radiohead evades expectation through presentation. It's the presentation of the songs given here that make A Moon Shaped Pool so jarring. For a band that has been on the mainstay of electronic rock music for almost two decades, their new record is aggressively unplugged. Drummer Phil Selway, the genius that made The King of Limbs such a spectacle to observe, backs into the shadows as Johnny Greenwood takes front and center, not playing guitar, but guiding the London Contemporary Orchestra through an 11-movement symphony. Entering A Moon Shaped Pool headlong expecting "Airbag" or "Bodysnatchers" or even "Lotus Flower", you are bound for a good head-scratching.

"This dance is like a weapon of self defense against the present tense", Thom sings on "Present Tense", "don't get heavy - keep it light and keep it moving; I am doing no harm". Thom's statement, whether it be a stab at the pop landscape or a somber admittance of distraction, holds its weight in 2016 ten-fold what it did when the song was first introduced in live sets back in 2009. Radiohead's latest "surprise" album disobeys pretty much every commonly known courtesy about surprises, namely that they are fun, they are immediate, and they resonate with you upon impact. Take a look at their competition in the surprise album game and you'll see it: there's the initial bang, then a fizzle and pop, then it's gone, too sugary sweet to last until we move on to the next thing distracting our present tense from the ominousness of the future. But A Moon Shaped Pool is hardly the music industry. Rather, it's a dissection of how the culture of consumption that they tackled on OK Computer and In Rainbows has grown even more poisonous with a profound need for instant gratification. Our need for consumption has extended to every part of our lives, from consuming overpriced food and beverages to consuming social media content and validation. Consumption sustains temporary comfort, our self defense against the present tense, and A Moon Shaped Pool is a dive into the reflection of all the human progress going by the wayside as we look for the next thing to devour.

All the nightmares have come true: Radiohead's apocalyptic vision of the future as seen in OK Computer has come true. We are fitter, happier, more productive, all the while receiving validation in our efforts from the dozens and hundreds and thousands of likes and reposts popping up on our smart phones on the daily. The flip side of this normative validation is, of course, the joy of hive-minded shaming that we can partake in to instigate the new normal as we decide what is good and not good for our egos. As Jon Ronson explains in his fantastic book So You've Been Publicly Shamed, our use of social media for validation makes our sphere of influence so wide that our bubble of tolerance has grown smaller than ever. We are, in many ways, more conservative than our right-winged parents and relatives, by the sheer fact that we don't tolerate any speech to the contrary. This is where A Moon Shaped Pool begins, in the dystopian new normal of "Burn The Witch". Thom sings softly over a threshold of anxious strings, trying to stay low in case the hitmen are listening in. "Stay in the shadows, cheer at the gallows" - how perfectly does this describe our faceless Internet takedowns of contrary perspective. Furthermore, this hive-minded normalcy has implications far beyond the digital sphere. It also encourages nativism and xenophobia, resistance to change and resistance to empathy. See how thorny the western politics have become to take in helpless refugees of war and crisis in the developing nations of the world. Counterintuitive to our consumerist strive for peace, normalcy doesn't breed comfort, but fear. And when you are afraid, you don't peak up from under the covers often.

Radiohead spend the next few tracks remarking on the feeling of helplessness that comes along with this dread. "Daydreaming" is a sparse, vibrant piano-led ballad that wanders through a landscape far from home with no place to turn back. "Decks Dark" looks into a dark horizon over a grooving bass-line before "Desert Island Disk" strips all structures down to the bare brick and mortar to see what's underneath all of our projection of self. Then, once naked, the self has nothing left to do but surrender. "Ful Stop", easily one of the best numbers on the record, is a brutal, driving warning beacon. A swirling mixture of guitars and strings over murky bass is topped with bright but muffled horns, breaking apart in a sickly manner, not unlike those in William Basinski's Disintegration Loops or something out of a Prokofiev symphony. "To be trapped in your full stop", Thom sings, "the truth will mess you up". The track has a sincere "fall from grace" feeling, where the groove is nearly outweighed by the immense feeling of guilt bestowed upon the listener. It's a brilliant work that unsettles as much as it draws in. It's a guilt echoed and fought with on piano ballad "Glass Eyes" and the brilliant and bright "Identikit" ("pieces of a ragdoll, mankind, that you can't create").

It isn't until "The Numbers" when Radiohead begin to ask the real question of the album: how do we solve this? How do we take this obsession with the present tense in all of its hive-minded trappings and turn it towards the future with a progressive eye? While "The Numbers" isn't quite as optimistic as its spiritual predecessor, it does retain its faith in mankind. Even in the face of death and seemingly unavoidable climate change (at the current rate we are going), they see an answer. "We are of the earth, to her we do return", Thom croons over lush, Sea Change-esque strings, "the future is inside us, not somewhere else". After the motif of the album is revealed on "Present Tense", Radiohead give us a vision of the future we could achieve in the form of the lushest track on the record. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief", with its exuberant title, embodies every human's potential towards being the one to make change happen. Beyond all of the witch hunting, there is still a chance to make the future a better, brighter one, and that's a future worth being around for. Hence, it only makes sense that one of Radiohead's best hidden gems end the record with a song about patience. "True Love Waits" appears here a far cry from its version in the style of The Bends as heard on I Might Be Wrong. Here, Thom ditches the guitar for piano, and Johnny fills the gaps on sound and space with raindrops on ivory, falling delicate as the sheer balance of our world, and not afraid to be so vulnerable.

Radiohead have once again taken on our western world with a masterpiece, pointing fingers where necessary, and embodying 21st century anxiety like no other band has accomplished. They've made a point by being small, not biting the bait to constantly be bigger, but maintaining forward motion by taking an honest look at the world around them and calculating the best way to help. Even amongst the true brilliance of his scores to There Will Be Blood and The Master, here Johnny Greenwood has constructed his best work ever, bringing along the London Contemporary Orchestra and giving Radiohead their most sprawling and organic record since Kid A. A Moon Shaped Pool begs you for the opportunity to challenge and amaze. More rewarding with every repeat listen, Radiohead's latest is a record we needed in 2016, and with their abounding psychic genius and true sense of humanism, they have delivered in full.

A Moon Shaped Pool is out now. Grab it digitally or pre-order the CD or vinyl (available June 17) over at the album site. There, you can also check out an exuberant special edition of the record featuring extensive art from long time collaborator Stanley Donwood. Radiohead have announced some festival dates across the globe, but check back to their website frequently for when you get to test the refresh rate on your browser.

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