The impossible is now possible.
Radiohead have come back from a well-deserved but decade-long victory lap, making truly fascinating music again. This is vital stuff, the kind of work that will actually justify the coming weeks of breathless dissection. It’s more deserving of the clichéd descriptors that critics have reflexively thrown at the band – haunting, gorgeous, unnerving, innovative – than anything they’ve ever recorded.
I’m not here to say this is the best Radiohead album. I’m just saying that it’s better than I could have hoped for. Bands aren’t supposed to produce some of their best work over two decades on. But it’s 2016 and this music feels as invigorating as the band’s turn of the century heyday. Somehow, that special buzz is back, for entirely new reasons.
A Moon Shaped Pool is a fully matured evolution of everything good that was hiding in the background and around the fringes of their past work. Those dreamy interstitial passages, the lattices of synths, whispered samples, they’ve all come to the fore, supplanting the mostly traditional rock sounds that the band was always anchored to. Instead of merely nodding toward Can via snippets of motorik pulse or jazz-infused drumming, they’re actually making art in the same otherworldly vein as the hugely inspirational band themselves. This is a Radiohead with nothing to prove to anyone but themselves, unmoored from expectations.
They’ve even done away with one of their biggest signature moves. For the past 15 years, the band was known for using the latest electronic production techniques to put an exclamation point on songs. It began when they bathed monumental duo Kid A and Amnesiac in the language of cutting edge Warp label vanguards like Aphex Twin and Autechre. It reached its terminal point with the dubstep ghosts of Feral on 2011’s The King of Limbs. With that path exhausted, Radiohead finally changed direction.
Priorities have become inverted, focusing on both the grand sweep and the microtonal details more than the obvious songwriting in between. This is most evident in the final track, a studio rendition of live fan-favorite True Love Waits. While I initially balked at the idea of a 15 year old song capping a brand new album, it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. What was once a singalong acoustic guitar ballad has morphed into an icy neon tone poem, a lifetime of resignation weighing down a spiritual cry for help. This last-second time travel sinks the the emotional pull album further into the pit my stomach, using my own history with the band as an anchor.
One particular element connects the narrative like a recurring character, appearing throughout these 11 tracks, beginning with anxious Penderecki strings from album opener Burn The Witch. It’s an obvious beneficiary of Jonny Greenwood’s recent film soundtrack experience with Paul Thomas Anderson, where he crafted eerie suites of Kubrickian unease for the pioneering film director. The strings range from tense plucking to ornamental sweep, at one point reflecting the epic sheen of Isaac Hayes’ monumental Walk On By. Near the end of the album, The Numbers swells and swoons with a distinctly funky patina, yet it stands out more for its emotional restraint than any deviation from the album’s sound as a whole. While turn-of-the-century Radiohead might have sampled and distorted Hayes’ string arrangements, as heard recently on Beyoncé’s Lemonade, here they deftly conjure the same strutting magic without even glancing at the original.
The pieces here aren’t really songs in the most traditional sense; they’re pure groove constructions. Each track builds over a slow motion rhythm section, snowballing in intensity while remaining locked into its essential momentum. Verse-chorus-repeat structures are subsumed and dissolved. Chord changes are masked and minimized. Each new element enters organically, lit by the same stars as the rest of the production. I’d call it minimalism if it weren’t so lush and overstuffed with detail. Mid-album track Ful Stop is a perfect example, all coiled up violence and slow building drum intensity that chugs with clear-eyed focus into oblivion. Instead of exploding at the end, the groove consumes itself.
Radiohead hasn’t ever sounded further from radio rock, but they sound more like a band now than they ever have before.
The quintet is still composed, as it has been for nearly 30 years, of bassist Colin Greenwood, guitarist Ed O’Brien, lead guitarist/composer Jonny Greenwood, drummer Phil Selway, and possibly alien singer Thom Yorke. These guys have grown into something resembling a veteran jazz unit, all playing off each others’ strengths in understated, unshowy fashion. Their loose magnetism holds the entire set in tight orbit for over 50 minutes, never stepping outside the celestial mood established on the first track. Across the entire album they paint with the same set of colors and textures, shuffling combinations to surprising effect with every new track. The result is the most cohesive release of the band’s career.
As I’ve often done with really anticipated albums, I put A Moon Shaped Pool on my phone and went for a bicycle ride. I find that the solitude and focus of travel allows me to take in new music with my ears as open as possible, so it’s either a long drive or a bike ride, depending on weather. Of course, I stuck with the bike trail that follows the lake – I haven’t risked cycling in traffic with headphones in years, and I don’t recommend anyone try it. Returning readers might recall that I had a major bicycle crash last year thanks to someone with headphones. I mention this to say that I’m so thankful that I listened first this way. The music felt so uniformly dreamlike that it lined up perfectly with my current mindset. At this age, I really appreciate albums that I can live inside for hours, music that never yanks me out of the zone or pierces that suspension of disbelief. It’s why my latest favorites tend to be extended techno compositions, lengthy ambient pieces, and spiritual jazz albums.
I turned 33 last year, which means that I’ve been listening to Radiohead on and off for more than half my life. From the first time I saw the Karma Police video as a high school freshman until the release of Hail To The Thief, when I was just entering my twenties, they were the best band on earth. As far as I was concerned, nobody was making music like this and nobody ever had before. Of course, I grew up and expanded my tastes, tracing back the multitudes of influences and trend-lines that lead from Joy Division, R.E.M., Steve Reich, and Can. I learned that there was plenty of precedent for this music; that the band merely figured out a way to take it further into the mainstream than anyone else had before. Sure it took away some of the mystique, but it never lessened my appreciation for the incredible albums they’d recorded.
While a lot of people are understandably turned off by the cult-like popularity and hyperbolic praise of certain artists, I try to perceive the fandom as separately as I can. In the case of this particularly divisive band, I’ve at times felt the need to explain my enjoyment, as if to say that although I love certain albums, I’m not one of those people. I have perspective, man. Stuff like that. I’m thankful that I outgrew the ability to care what anyone thinks about what I think about art. I write about music because it’s fun, it comes natural, and I absolutely love those rare moments of zen, when someone finds a piece of music that they cannot imagine living without, and they thank me for sharing.
So yeah, this has been my review. A Moon Shaped Pool will be discussed endlessly by a lot of great writers in the coming weeks, but maybe my enthusiasm resonates with someone out there. The album can be purchased digitally on Radiohead’s website and the vinyl and CD editions can be preordered on amoonshapedpool.com.
Here are the first two tracks from the album, along with my original posts about them: