Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool Review

Every so often I encounter a group whose fanbase causes me to form an internal, and oftentimes ignorant, bias. Every music listener has this artist. It's not Radiohead's fault they have the most worshipping fans out there, but they do, and when A Moon Shaped Pool dropped it almost seemed like they collectively decided to worship once again cause they couldn't bear the brunt of their fabled group falling off. I've delayed writing this review a handful of times, partly because of this and partly because of the loftiness Moon carries, both unifying in the common belief that I don't think it's as good as many say. The initial problem hinders on the fact that many see Radiohead as God-status, a band that eclipses any other out there, one that's importance signifies something no one in music post-2000 can achieve. This, of course, is foolish, as any statement with such disposition is false upon first utterance. Radiohead isn't a band elevated above all others, it's a band who bears no competition, one whose solely owned Alternative Rock since their inception. Discounting the masterstroke's in 1998's Ok Computer and 2000's Kid A, Radiohead's remaining albums, now with A Moon Shaped Pool included, are good but not great.

A funny thing happened in 2011 when Thom Yorke seemingly grappled attention away from the group and made The King Of Limbs, an album that to many sticks out like a sore thumb in Radiohead's Pablo Honey-sans discography. People's distaste continued with his 2014 solo release Tomorrow's Modern Boxes. Many disparaged this release, and in many respects the former, as little more than a Glitch Pop/IDM detour, but I saw them as something more fruitful, Modern Boxes even falling into my top 20 of that year. What fans secretly wanted was something catastrophic to appear in Radiohead's life, they were getting far too comfortable. Their wish was granted when, after a 23-year relationship, Thom Yorke and his girlfriend Rachel Owens officially split. Fear, uncertainty, and anxiety would once again dominate an album, something that've been missing since their paranoid-enduced 2000's albums. A Moon Shaped Pool, a title that's a wise but empty statement on global climate as I take it, discusses anything but, choosing more to focus on Yorke's failing relationship and how that affects his perception of the world. His tone is grim, the weightiness of his vocals hardly there, the gravity of desperation on full blast.

In this regard Yorke is the most powerful being on A Moon Shaped Pool, one who pieces together fractured remains of his relationship with both Owens and the band to unify the album. This culminates in the tear-jerker 'True Love Waits,' a single that was first played in 1995. Like many who take their artistry seriously, Yorke withheld the song till a special moment, and more than two decades later that time came, pushing the importance of 'True Love Waits'' derelict despondence to heart-breaking levels. References to his releationship are littered throughout Moon, making it Radiohead's most personal album, where the pressures of society are coming from within not without. 'Daydreaming' torments the flighty dreamers, as "they never learn" the true reality of a situation, with Yorke indolently singing "half of my life" in reverse with strings spilling atop to signify his sudden realization. Other tracks, like 'Ful Stop,' tease the idea of infidelity and Yorke's conflicting wishes to know, and not know, the truth. These pieces work the best, as their harrowing scenes bear resemblance to Bjork's latest record Vulnicura which attempted the same feat. It also, by virtue of connectivity, makes the content found on tracks like 'Burn The Witch' and 'The Numbers' odd and out of place, as Radiohead just couldn't fully distance themselves from the global doom and gloom of their past.

Where A Moon Shaped Pool loses its steam lies in the production, which matches Yorke's pressures accurately, but in doing so makes for a project that, sonically, is rather bland, the same reason half of In Rainbows loses me. Lead single 'Burn The Witch' was one hell of a red herring, sporting string arrangements that are invigorating and deadly, something that's rarely present elsewhere. They instead appear to be dispirited, and on tracks like 'Glass Eyes' or the Folksy 'Desert Island Disk,' they succeed in being malignant to the grand scope. The most interesting portions are where Yorke's Modern Boxes influence finds a footing, like on 'Present Tense's' vocal spraying and slight IDM backdrop. The same can be said of 'Ful Stop' and 'Tinker Tailor,' which liven up Moon with some much needed energy, regardless of Yorke's dejectedness overlapping it. Just might be a distaste thing, but Moon feels small, and as I've come to expect sweeping epics from Radiohead, the quaint, private experience seems more standard for other artists out there. In other words, there's a serious lack of experimentation here.

I've defended myself many times, needlessly so, with Radiohead fans. But with the spotlight of being the world's biggest Rock band on your heads the quality of work better live up, and for the bulk of their discography I can't help but feel the result is a notch or two below that standard. No, A Moon Shaped Pool is not some savior of 2016's musical tropes. In fact, its lack of risks prove it to be one of Radiohead's most facile projects to date, and in an ever-changing landscape this customary layout it harbors fails to wow like some of their projects before. As has always been the case, with interesting Alternative Rock being buried long ago as one ghost remains, Radiohead glides by providing a well-oiled quality no one can match cause no one is trying. The orchestration is nice and comforting, equal to that of the technological breaks that keep it uneasy, but A Moon Shaped Pool doesn't achieve anything its predesccors have already accomplished, and for a band that prides itself on originality, dedication, and longevity, that's a problem.


  1. I love A Moon Shaped Pool, but I found your comments on the production, and In Rainbows, interesting. I'm a massive fan, but for me In Rainbows was a bit hit and miss - some of the songs to me to be perfecttly realised, but some seemed to need more work to me. I don't know to what extent credits reflect reality, but I couldn't help noticing that OK Computer to Hail To The Thief hard the production credited to Radiohead & Nigel Godrich, and In Rainbows onwards have had the production credited to Nigel Godrich. We seem to have gone from OK Computer, of which they said at the time "we produced it ourselves with our engineer who didn't know any more than we did", to a situation where it seems like Radiohead is one of three Thigel projects, and Thom no longer feels able to go to the bathroom without with his main creative partner. They did try working with another producer before In Rainbows, apparently it "wasn't working", but I wonder how much of a chance it really had, and if it wasn't just a sop to internal politics.

    I have also felt for a long time that Radiohead are too hung up on the album as a cohesive thing, and wish that they'd just take the best songs they have on the go at the time and do each song the best they can - but that takes second place, the song less important than the album. Some songs are done the best they can but then it seems to be "what songs do we have that would sound reasonable if given an arrangement that suits this album we're doing?" I'd have liked In Rainbows a lot more if some of the tracks were switched out for other ones that were left off because they "didn't fit", as if variety is a bad thing.

    Something seemed amiss for me when In Rainbows came out and Thom was saying it was the best thing they'd ever done. The routine I was comfortable with was Radiohead release great album, Thom says he hates it and they won't be doing albums in the future, too much of a big thing, perhaps EPs. Then people would react to the 'no more albums thing' like he didn't always say that.

    1. First off, wonderful comment, thanks for that! Yeah gotta say, I always figured Nigel and Radiohead were inseparable, never knew a time came before when it was just them engineering themselves. I can see slight differences overall when In Rainbows begins, moving to a more slower product with less intricacies.

      And that's an interesting point cause I'd tend to disagree with you, I always find cohesion more important than putting the best out there, but in regards to Radiohead I can see that being incredibly beneficial. They go head over heels making sure each track has a place in the album, Thom even said that exact thing in regards to AMSP, indicating that if songs were good but didn't have a place they wouldn't be there. I feel that leads to some narrowness in terms of scope and sound, the lack of experimentation on AMSP (and In Rainbows I suppose) shows that.

      Ahh I didn't know he referred to it as that. That's interesting, must've showed the group's mentality around that time. Maybe the respect for their own work started to boost which resulted in some, just a bit, of complacency? Either way, very interesting stuff, thanks for bringing it to my attention!