So what gives? Radiohead emerge from a five year hibernation and give us their most lush, dense, and downright beautiful album since In Rainbows and it doesn’t even end up on your year end favorite list? What the hell, Hubner? You’re the first to get all stupid and fanboy when they drop a crumb on the sidewalk. You’re all starry-eyed at their strange, alien-esque Flying Lotus-pandering King Of Limbs and Yorke’s electronic noodling and strange means of delivering the music to the people(torrents, flash drives sealed in Jello molds, blackbirds dropping 8-tracks from the sky.) You’re go-to “greatest band ever next to Wilco and AC/DC” just laid their hearts out for you on beautiful wax and exquisite Stanley Donwood artwork and you can’t even put them in the top 25 favorite albums of the year??? What the hell is wrong with you? Do you want to make Thom cry? – voice in my head that sounds like me
You know, I’m not sure I have an answer for that. So what gives? I don’t quite know what gives. I mean, I heard the exquisite “Burn The Witch” at the beginning of summer and felt I’d heard what was sure to be the beginnings of the next great Radiohead album. Greenwood’s string arrangements, Thom’s dark and foreboding vocals and lyrics, and of course the rest of the Radiohead crew doing their thing made this song feel like a grand musical announcment. “A low flying panic attack” embedded into my brain is the tag line of the summer. Then they released “Daydreaming” and that crushed me. Such a beautiful, lamenting song. Yorke hasn’t sounded that grounded and vulnerable in a song for years. The Paul Thomas Anderson-directed video was an existential trip as Thom walked through a succession of doors that, to me at least, represented points in ones life and where we come and go, arrive and leave, and eventually curl up and crawl back into the primordial ooze at the end of it all(I could be wrong, though.) Hell, even their unused Bond theme “Spectre” was absolutely brilliant. Very George Martin, “Live And Let Die”-esque, if you ask me. Then, on some random summer Sunday I downloaded the album as soon as it was available and listened to it three times in a row.
Just utter brilliance.
“Burn The Witch”, “Daydreaming”, “Deck’s Dark”, “Desert Island Disk”, “Ful Stop”, “Present Tense”, “Identikit”, and “True Love Waits” are some of the best songs Radiohead have written and put to tape, and yet I didn’t even include them on my list. Why? I guess the easiest answer is that I just stopped listening to it and it sort of fell through the cracks. There was that thing with the first vinyl copy I received sounding like absolute shit. I know, that shouldn’t have ruined me of the album as a whole, but dammit we’re not talking about some indie band using beer money to get some records pressed at a questionable pressing plant in Peoria, Illinois. We’re talking about fucking Radiohead. XL Recordings, Nigel Godrich, and one of the biggest and most powerful bands in the world and they send me a shit pressing of their new album? Yeah, I guess that sort of soured me of this exquisitely delicate record that I’d been anticipating and pining for since February of 2011 when King Of Limbs arrived in a surprise blur of electronic weirdness.
Even though the lists have been made and I’ve made my painstaking decisions I still wanted to give my overview of A Moon Shaped Pool, so I’ve been sitting down and digging into this record the last week or two. I did drop the cash on the special edition of this album(mainly for Donwood’s brilliant art, but new heavyweight vinyl of the album helped) and the vinyl sounds much better.
I think Radiohead have elevated to some other musical existence. I think they started the elevation with Kid A and have been moving onward and upward ever since. With each record since 2000 Radiohead seems to be attempting to one up themselves. Never satisfied with the status quo or the typical “rock band” thing, they push themselves to learn new technologies, take their songs apart and rebuild them, and give us(and themselves) something new each time out. Sometimes, like on Hail To The Thief and In Rainbows, they seem to be taking the classic approach to the band and songwriting relationship. But listen a little closer and you’ll hear things aren’t quite as they seem.
I feel like A Moon Shaped Pool is the most similar to an album like In Rainbows. Rainbows captured that great rock and roll(“Bodysnatchers”, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”, “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”) band that we all fell for in the mid-90s, but it also showed them advancing the rock approach with ghostly nuance and this almost crystalline perfection(“Faust Arp”, “Nude”, “House of Cards”.) I felt it was the best Radiohead album since OK Computer(no disrespect to the Kid A and Amnesiac fanatics.) But now with A Moon Shaped Pool the band has come full circle. It’s this intimate and dark record that despite it’s dense sonics and meticulously engineered sound is probably the most earthbound and human piece of art Radiohead have given us.
There’s still the trademark Thom Yorke-isms like paranoia in regards to privacy and politicians(“Burn The Witch”, “Ful Stop”, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief”), but there’s some really heartbreaking songs here as well. “Daydreaming”, “Glass Eyes”, “Desert Island Disk”, “Identikit”, and “Present Tense” are some of the most personal and relatable lyrics Thom Yorke has penned. When he sings a line like “Broken hearts make it rain” or “I won’t get heavy/Don’t get heavy/Keep it light/and Keep it moving/I am doing/ No harm/ As my world/Comes crashing down”, you don’t feel like it’s coming from some guy obsessed with science fiction and machines taking over. You get the feeling this is a guy going through some stuff. I’ve always admired Yorke’s lyrics. He’s always had this knack for creating vivid and striking images with his words. Here, he’s putting a bunch of pain and loss out there. His best yet.
Musically Johnny Greenwood is taking his musical worlds of film scoring and Radiohead and putting them together beautifully for the first time as well. His string arrangements and orchestral arranging here are on par with the best. Radiohead have always been a band that felt orchestral, with layers of electronics and synths creating this wall of sound on their albums over the years. Greenwood has put his orchestral leanings to good use on A Moon Shaped Pool. Tracks like “Burn The Witch”, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief”, and “The Numbers” are ornamented beautifully by Greenwood’s arrangements.
A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead putting all of their musical magic into full swing. It’s also a humbling record. The shadow of loss and death do linger just outside the studio doors here. With the passing of producer Nigel Godrich’ father taking place during the production of the album, as well the disintegration of Thom Yorke’s 20 year relationship with his partner Rachel Owen playing heavily on the lyrics and overall mood, you know know you’re not in for some good time rock and roll. But for me, hearing true vulnerability in these songs is what makes this album so special. I loved King of Limbs. LOVED it. I think the alien aspect of it is what was so genius. The meticulous clicking and clacking and the jerky rhythms and detached ghostly vocals made for this out-of-body experience when listening. It was an escape. A Moon Shaped Pool can certainly be an escape, but there’s a rope tethering you to reality on this record. You can float amongst the dark clouds and booming strings and shaky vocals, but if you look up you can still see some light and friendly but wary eyes looking down upon you. They beckon you to come and feel something with them when you’re done. But only when you’re ready.
Only when you’re ready.
Editor’s Note : Reading earlier in the week of the passing of Rachel Owen(Thom Yorke’s ex and mother of his children) to cancer, I felt compelled to jump into this album again. And again. Knowing of the demise of their relationship played heavily on this record, and then hearing of her death made this album that much heavier. Here’s hoping amends were made. RIP