The Critic: Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool

radiohead--a-moon-shaped-poolBy Spencer. After a flurry of a week that started with mysterious leaflets mailed to fans with the message, “we know where you live,” followed a few days later by not one but two surprise music videos, we suddenly have a brand new Radiohead album. Its title, revealed only a few minutes before Sunday’s digital release through the band’s website, is A Moon Shaped Pool. And in the best surprise of this week-long rollout, it turns out that this is easily the best work of art Radiohead have achieved since Kid A. But in a twist no one could have predicted, the most groundbreaking thing about the album is how listenable it is. For a band whose style has so often flirted with the eccentric, whose entire identity is defined by their two decades as the standard-bearers for experimental music, A Moon Shaped Pool is a left turn of another kind: it’s just a collection of gorgeous sounds.

Radiohead has always included a song or two on each album (“Reckoner,” “Pyramid Song,” “Nude,” “Codex”) that captures a sort of stark beauty. This is the first time they’ve ever embraced that aesthetic for an entire album, though. Throughout their career they’ve been a schizophrenic band, and all of their post-Kid A records have felt a little chaotic as a result—like they’re trying to say a lot of different things in the same breath that can’t quite be reconciled. That sense of experimentalism is what makes their records so exciting for us. But starting on Hail To The Thief and culminating in The King Of Limbs, it felt increasingly like there was a gnawing pain behind their work, as if they constantly felt the need to prove something but couldn’t quite do it to their own satisfaction.

So A Moon Shaped Pool feels like a catharsis for the band. They needed to make this album. After a couple of decades spent struggling with the nagging impulse to harness the weird, they’ve let that all go. And it feels like … resolution. Assurance. Peace.

You might not have gotten that impression from the first single, “Burn The Witch,” whose Wicker Man-influenced video and nakedly political message (it’s reportedly a metaphor for the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe) don’t exactly come from a calm place.

But listen to the music. The strings that kick it off are brightly percussive, even as they’re tinged with a bit of foreboding, and after the chorus they radically shift into a chamber suite that sounds sweeter than anything we’ve heard on a Radiohead song since “Let Down.” But of course there’s that chorus to deal with: a haunting but epic-sounding refrain that wouldn’t be out of place in an action movie trailer. It all builds to a climax that you think is coming—but it doesn’t. Everything stops, and we shift into the plucking harps and revolving pianos of “Daydreaming,” a slow dose of sadness accompanied by a Paul Thomas Anderson-directed video and a vague mood of dread. It’s the most prototypical Radiohead track on the record; it really wouldn’t sound out of place on TKOL or Amnesiac or even Kid A.

But from there on, we realize slowly that this isn’t going to be the Radiohead album we’ve been conditioned to expect. Because all of their trademark strangeness, while it’s not gone and forgotten, keeps swimming beneath the surface rather than slapping you in the face. Time and again, whenever a song kicks off with a peculiar color, the band pulls its punches and introduces something—whether it’s the bobbing bass line of “Decks Dark” or the drum shuffle of “Present Tense” or the orchestras that take over so many tracks on this disc—that softens the edge. And far from diluting their art, this newfound restraint has actually amplified it.

Radiohead is a band with a particular talent for evoking textures, and the textures here feel lusher and more full of detail than ever. From the chirps and swells that dot “Daydreaming” to the playful piano tinkling that dances through “The Numbers” to the pulsing background echoes that wash over the acoustic track “Desert Island Disk” like a warm bath, these flourishes are what make Radiohead’s music sound so complex—especially in an era when younger bands are firmly rooted in an ethic of minimalism. But in the past, their bag of tricks has always relied mostly on electronic sounds. This is where their signature tone of alienation comes from; it makes the band feel intentionally remote, like (ahem) a computer. And true, this fits perfectly with Yorke’s lyrical themes and lends a certain Stanley Kubrick aura to their image. But the thing is, by TKOL, that had become a crutch.

Which is why the strings that pop up again and again and again on A Moon Shaped Pool feel like such a refreshing change. By re-engaging the organic, they’ve added a new energy to their arsenal that had been lacking for so long, we didn’t even realize we missed it. The soothing “Glass Eyes” is almost a pure cello-and-violin composition. The symphonic sweeps that create the closing of “The Numbers” are damn near cinematic. And with a film noir flair, the strings become a virtual wall of sound on “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief,” converting an otherwise electronic base into a strange marriage of the digital and the classical. This songwriting weapon is what will come to define A Moon Shaped Pool’s place within the Radiohead catalog, and it’s what gives it such impressive shape.

Radiohead“The Numbers”

Of course, darkness still routinely intrudes on all this, like on “Ful Stop,” a driving track with bass that rumbles and drums that race—and yet even a track like this is graced with an inescapable beauty thanks to Thom Yorke’s trademark falsetto and a melody line that breathes desperation. “Identik” also stands out with groovy rhythm guitars that create a sense of impending doom. But the weird thing is, it’s also one of the most fun listens on the album, because it’s executed with a confident ease that keeps things lighter than the band’s past work.

It all closes with “True Love Waits”—a recording of a song that has been floating around the Radiohead rarities bin since way back in 1994, and whose inclusion here speaks to the patience underscoring this entire album. Most commonly heard during live shows as an acoustic piece, Yorke recasts it now as a piano ballad. And the message in that title could be about love, or the persistence necessary to keep plugging away at perfecting the same song for so long—or could it be a nod to the fans who have waited five long years for this album? The band was clearly thinking very carefully in that interim about how (or maybe whether) they could still find something new and noteworthy to say—and our wait has been well-rewarded.

A Moon Shaped Pool is a piece of music that harmonizes the best of Radiohead’s unconventionality with their oft-overlooked talent for creating songs that please the ear. Put another way, it satisfies both the intellect and the soul. And while I hesitate to presume that this is a permanent rewrite of the band’s identity—it wouldn’t surprise me at all if their next release goes right back to confusing the hell out of us—I do think this album forever changes their legacy. It shows that they’re capable of challenging us without just provoking us. Its artistic statement is built not on capturing the dissociative, but on establishing a space for genuine emotional connection. It humanizes them. Which at this stage of Radiohead’s career is maybe the most unconventional thing they could have done.

11 thoughts on “The Critic: Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool

  1. This by far is my favorite review you’ve ever written. Very well done. I don’t agree with all of your presumptions of radiohead fans but I appreciate your analysis of this work and the way you assert that it boosts the legacy of an already world class band.
    I’m going to need more time before I can articulate my feelings about this album so I’m super impressed you were so eloquently able to do so so soon!

  2. I agree the swiftness of the review was impressive. I always think your arguments about bands’ trajectory is interesting because of the way it converges and then radically diverges from my own experience and view. For example, from the few reviews I’ve read, there’s this sense that King of Limbs was a low-point, but I don’t feel it that way. You seem to swing from treating it like it was disappointing to something that I think is closer to the truth, which is it’s a meditation on a certain aspect of the band — and maybe some don’t like the glitchy electronics as much as I do — but to treat it like a subpar album seems wrong-headed to me. So MSP is not a comeback as some are saying, but a continued exploration of a mature band (as you suggest). That puts it in line with In Rainbows and TKOL in my opinion.

    I really dig it but don’t know what I want to say about it yet either.

    • Well, let me ask it to you this way: do you think The King Of Limbs, In Rainbows, and Hail To The Thief are as good as A Moon Shaped Pool?

      I ask you this not from the evasive perspective of “what the artist was trying to do” (which, if we always stick to just that, eliminates any possibility of making judgments about the relative merits of different pieces of art at all, and leads to a place where Radiohead’s work is no better or worse than, say, Limp Bizkit), but from the perspective of a neutral outsider evaluating the quality of the final work product?

      • I reject all your false binaries! First, one is not only able to make neutral judgments or taste-based ones. Both can coexist. This solves the Limp Bizkit problem. It is objectively worse art than anything Radiohead put out. (I think “objective” in this strong sense is still a slight overstatement).

        But I don’t think we should ever mistake personal preferences for judgment as to whether art is good or bad. It’s about what’s preferred. And all of Radiohead’s records are good art. They cross that threshold, so all that’s left for me is to say which I prefer (for all my personal reasons). I think the only album that might be notably less good by Radiohead is Pablo Honey. It has its charms, but it’s clunky.

        So MSP is no return to form, but maybe a return of the Radiohead you prefer. That seems fair to me, and is probably true of me as well.

        • I think you’re sort of heading toward what I was getting at with my question. I agree that even the albums I characterize as “lesser” (Hail To The Thief, In Rainbows, TKOL) are all objectively good albums. They still make it past the threshold, and I quite like listening to them — each has its own merits. So you misconstrue me if you think I’m saying any of these albums are bad.

          However, I also think that AMSP is objectively a better album than any of these, which is why I do think it’s a return to form after a period of relative decline. (Mind you, even lesser Radiohead albums still outshine the best work of most other bands). And while I could see genuine subjective preference coming into play if one were asked to say which album from the span of HTTT through TKOL is the best one, I have a harder time seeing why someone would object that this new album shows more maturity, more consistency, more vision and direction, than any of them. I’m clearly not the only one who thinks so if you look at the reviews on other sites. Would you not agree that, compared with AMSP, those other albums you speak of have their weak points? I mean, each of them has some fantastic songs but also some spots that drag — while, on a pure song-by-song basis, AMSP doesn’t have a weak song in the bunch. I know you’re a big defender of TKOL in particular as a misunderstood album, but while I think you’re right to say it’s not as bad as some people make it, I don’t think it’s controversial to assume that if we all had to take a vote on which Radiohead album is the weakest (post-Pablo Honey), TKOL would likely take the prize.

          • We probably mostly agree about how we’d rank the albums if we were to base it purely on subjective taste AND if we tried to be “objective” about the artistic merit of them. To me that is very suspicious (my taste=objectively better art).

            And I think that the convergence of reviewers on the idea that this is a “return to form” for Radiohead doesn’t help your case, it only deepens my suspicion. I worry it’s an easy narrative — one that resonates because we understand that redemptive story — it intuitively feels true. Check out this article about Sinead O’Connor and her challenge to a reviewer: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/music_box/2015/08/sinead_o_connor_called_me_and_bet_me_a_happy_meal_that_i_d_change_my_mind.html

            All of this is to say, I don’t disagree with the praise being heaped on AMSP, I just find myself skeptical about the claims that praise AMSP by comparison to the other albums (I’m interested in the results of Biff’s listening experiment for this reason). But let us not lose sight of the fact: AMSP is fantastic and my main complaint is that I don’t have time to listen to anything besides Radiohead right now!

          • This might be one of those times when your academic background is causing you to be unduly skeptical. I mean, when you’re bringing in Sinead O’Connor as the voice of reason, something has clearly gone off the rails! (And in a Slate article, no less — a publication infamous for taking reflexively contrarian positions to ridiculous places).

            In all seriousness, I hear where you’re coming from, though. And while it’s true that the “return to form” narrative is a recurring feature of music journalism, I’d point out that this narrative most often crops up when a band has deviated from its original sound for some period of time and then comes back to doing what they do best (e.g., U2, Bob Dylan, Ryan Adams, Smashing Pumpkins, Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay). But what Radiohead has done with AMSP is actually quite the opposite. In each of the post-Kid A albums, they’ve gotten progressively more scattered in what they’re trying to do, at the same time that their music became more and more obsessed with the themes of remoteness and alienation. Over multiple albums, as they went deeper down that rabbit hole, I think it became harder and harder for the fans to connect with the music, which if you look back to their earlier work, had more emotiveness in it. This is why I think, on a relative scale at least, longtime fans viewed TKOL as a disappointment. It was intellectually interesting but harder to connect with.

            AMSP doesn’t break out of that cycle by going back to what Radiohead “did best,” though. It doesn’t really sound like Kid A or OK Computer or The Bends. It’s an utterly distinct album within their catalog; it stands firmly on its own two feet and establishes its own identity. It’s not a retread of safe territory for them. The music is hugely ambitious and goes into new sounds and moods they’ve only tangentially explored before. That’s why I think the narrative holds true this time. It’s a record that fans are connecting with, and that’s why you’re hearing so many reviewers insist it’s their best work since 2001. It’s only a “return to form” in the sense that this is Radiohead back at the peak of their artistic game, making new and exciting music that’s also eminently listenable.

  3. I just started listening to Pablo Honey this morning and I’m going to go chronologically so I can answer this accurately but off the top of my head I think I like TKOL better than Hail to the Thief.

    • @Spencer. I like your lawyer move of discrediting me by occupation (academic) and then the authority of my evidence in particular (O’Connor) and general (Slate) all of which never actually addresses the evidence itself! 🙂

      I see where you’re going with this, but a few things seem to brush over the facts. First, the only album that I would say is over-stuffed and not focused is Hail to the Thief. In Rainbows is coherent (a “return to form” according to most if I recall). And TKOL is certainly focused, consistent, and like AMSP really expands a particular set of sounds they’d been playing with and pushes those boundaries into new places. The issue is that you (and “many Radiohead fans” didn’t LIKE it very much). But spiritually I would say TKOL and AMSP are artistically similar in conceit: an expansion on a sliver of the Radiohead sound. In other ways they are opposed since they focus on the two contrasting anchors of “late Radiohead” if you will. So you prefer the expansive embrace of accepted sadness (you call it maturity) over the techno-soaked alienation and separation. Fair enough. I do as well.

      All of this is to say, I’m not unduly skeptical. I just think we ought to give Radiohead more credit as artists and appreciate what they’re doing more on their own terms and not simply popularity or our subjective preferences.

      • You must have missed the part where, after my sweeping character assassination, I did in fact proceed to lay out the factual reasons for my case. So I like your academic’s move of cherry-picking the sentence you want to focus on while ignoring all the rest. 🙂

        At the end of the day, I’m just not ever going to be receptive to any argument that says we’re not allowed to stake out an objective position on something — that it’s all purely subjective. What’s the point of debate if all opinions are equally valid? Most things are a combination of the subjective and the objective. Which is to say, I think it’s completely valid to say, “even if this isn’t objectively good, I still like it personally”; hell, you have to be able to say that if, like I do, you enjoy 80s/90s pop or hair metal or The Fast And The Furious movies as much as I do. I mean, you’re talking to someone who hosts a monthly Bad Movie Night … the acknowledgment that this is shit is right there in the title!

        So I’m not saying that in all instances my taste = objectively better art. I’m saying there’s a strong objective case to be made that AMSP is better than the three albums that precede it. And this should in no way diminish anyone’s ability to go listen to those albums and still enjoy the hell out of them, or even to “prefer” one of them. To translate the example to another band we know and love, I’m huge personal fan of Pisces Iscariot, and I listen to it more than almost any other Pumpkins album. But I would never submit that it’s on the same level as Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie or even Adore from an objective perspective. You can admit that and still love what you love.

        And to answer your last point, I do think it’s possible to appreciate what a band is doing on their own terms while still having both an objective and subjective opinion of its merit. I don’t think all art should be judged purely from the artist’s perspective — or else there would be no such thing as an artistic failure, right? TKOL, IR, and HTTT aren’t weaker albums because of any lack of ambition or creativity; indeed, quite the opposite, I feel like they were in a period where their ambition and creativity were so boundless, it resulted in products that were comparatively unfocused; the pieces didn’t fit together into a coherent whole as neatly as with the best Radiohead albums. (Mind you, this period also resulted in some of Radiohead’s best individual songs, like “Reckoner,” so there’s a positive spin that can be made from all this too). To make a literary analogy, compare Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. In many ways, the latter was actually the more ambitious work, and we can respect what Joyce was trying to achieve on his own terms — and if one were so inclined, could even deem it our favorite of his books — while still landing at the uncontroversial conclusion that Ulysses is still the superior work. This is exactly why I started the Interesting Failures series on the site — as a place where we can look at movies and music that come from an artist with admirable/worthwhile intentions, but that just failed to quite get to where they were trying to go. And thanks to your efforts, I just may have to include TKOL in a future edition now! 🙂

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