Words By: Samuel Bangs
2016 already felt like a significant year for the world, with so much gained, lost or at stake. And the release of a new Radiohead album would only make any year feel more epochal at this point, considering they’ve only released two in the last decade. While other big names are stuck in the eternally predictable grind of album-promo-tour every 3 years, Radiohead seemingly operate as a unit only whenever they feel like it. Perhaps that’s the only way they can tolerate each other. Or perhaps that just allows them the space and time to create an endless stream of “masterpieces”, perpetually expanding a hot streak that started 21 years ago with ‘The Bends’ (yes chill’un, ‘The Bends’ came out in 1995).
But everyone’s gotta release a stinker at some point, right? It’s likely that detractors and fatigued fans alike are anticipating the day that sees the release of a flat-out bad Radiohead album, because failure would almost be more interesting at this point. Are they not men?! Alas, for all the hopes of a fall from grace, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is not.
For ‘OK Computer’, Radiohead delivered a state of the nation address on the anxiety of navigating the technological age. The outlook was pretty grim to be honest, but it tapped into the basest of human fears AKA “impending doom at the hands of the machines”. At least when the album ended with “The Tourist”, the refrain “slow down, you idiot, slow down!” indicated some level of hope in mankind’s potential to exercise a certain degree of control (even if our voices wouldn’t necessarily be heard).
Fast-forward to 2016, and the dystopian future predicted by ‘OK Computer’ seems eerily pertinent. While the machines might not have necessarily taken over, we have more or less become their slaves (Go on. Check that Facebook notification. I’ll wait.) Anxiety and paranoia are at an all time high, and those emotions are continuously being exploited by our politicians and the corporate media. The future feels irredeemably bleak – it’s heartbreaking. And it’s that apocalyptic doom of heartbreak that gives ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ a reason to exist.
The hardest thing about this album for Radiohead fans of a particular persuasion is readjusting your expectations – this is probably as an extreme left turn they’ve taken in their career. While in the past, even their more challenging work contained immediate access points – songs with big chorus’, cyclical ear worming melodies, or the blood-rushing excitement of Thom Yorke’s yelp – none of that is to be found here. ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is definitely (and defiantly) a mood record; it’s edges soft and blurred, it’s ideas and concepts momentarily stark before drifting almost completely out of focus, it’s subtlety accentuated by the ghostly reverb that makes everything resonate in a way that sounds so desperately lonely.
Here the dark clouds roll in oppressively from the first slashing stroke of “Burn The Witch”, and they could be indicative on an incoming shit-storm, of simply the thick black smoke plumes of Harlem. Where once they wrote a tongue-in-cheek ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’, the feeling of cinema is continuously evoked throughout by the London Contemporary Orchestra, who score everything from graveyard atmospheres to heavy-set snoring. Apparently Jonny Greenwood no longer differentiates between his job as a film composer and Radiohead guitarist, but his symphonic scoring here is nothing short of profound. It makes the heartbreak of “Daydreaming” all the more devastating, the ominous menace of “Decks Dark” more sinister, the mournful sadness of “Glass Eyes” all the more pronounced, and the sultry sensuousness of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” appropriately despairing.
The use of the Orchestra also serves to illuminate just how downtrodden and vulnerable Thom Yorke sounds. Howver, regardless of the context – Yorke separated from his long term partner during the making of the record – ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ definitely contains some of Yorke’s most understated vocals, like on the gorgeous “Present Tense”, while elsewhere he just sounds completely emotionally exhausted (like on the propulsive “Identikit”). The vulnerability is palpable, and there’s not much hope it would seem, even when the end note sounds like it might.
Reanimating “True Love Waits” for an album that’s so steeped in the machinations of heartbreak might seem like a dicey move on paper. Besides, the raw and angst filled live version that closed out ‘I Might Be Wrong’ 15 years ago probably figures in many dedicated Radiohead fans’ very favourite songs. However, the delicate and resigned version featured here exists in such a different universe, it might as well be called “True Love Waits II”. Gone is the desperate and almost threatening plea of the original, replaced with the resignation of fighting for a lost cause – and the realisation that “true love” isn’t infallible. In a Disney-fied universe where “true love” is Lemonade, this is an especially crushing reaffirmation of the cruelty of existence.
Overall, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is easily the most challenging album Radiohead have put their name to. It aspires to score the vulnerability of the human experience – something we tend to dismiss on a day to day basis in order to avoid being reminded that the tenuous strands of existence always position heartbreak and pain so much closer to the surface than we’d like. It’s also likely to be Radiohead’s most immediately dismissible album for that very reason. But in contrasting emotional grief and displacement with the unstable and dread-filled context of the 21st Century without resorting to being overwrought, philosophical, or even remotely optimistic, they just might have created the most understated, beautiful, and rewarding album of their career. And from this point right now in 2016, it certainly feels that significant.