To much social media fanfare (from everyone except the band themselves), and scrabbling through up again, down again, web pages, Radiohead dropped their ninth studio album, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ on Sunday night. Since then, neither fans nor media alike have stopped bubbling about it.
Seeing as our BBC6 Music King Pin and FOTN Head Honcho Tom Robinson streamed the album live (click here) on his Sunday evening radio show, it made sense for me to look in that direction when seeking out a ‘wordy’ guester. Knowing that my fellow Fresh on the Net mod Steve Harris is not only a de facto ‘encyclopaedia musica’ but also one of the best music reviewers around, I asked him if he’d step up to the Radiohead plate, and pen a review of ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’. Thankfully, he agreed, and here it is!
“Steve Harris is an indie app developer living in South Wales, he also works as a writer and moderator mining the coalface of new music at Tom Robinson’s Fresh On The Net (where he is Chief Mod and Bottlewasher!!). His late night drunken food of choice is curry and chips.”
Radiohead – “A Moon Shaped Pool”
When Radiohead first hinted a new album was on the way last week, you could sense the collective excitement and, let’s be honest, underlying anguish. Will it be renaissance style, oils on canvas, or some indecipherably modern objet d’art, all acrylic and twisted metal? You never know what to expect.
The lead track, Burn The Witch, soothed the nerves, delighting with strings that sawed and jabbed, accompanied by Thom Yorke’s familiar anguished wail. The video is a real treat, a combination of Trumpton, with its old fashioned small town thinking and The Wicker Man. While the band have (wisely, no doubt) refused to confirm there is any social commentary in the track, it’s hard not to spot obvious parallels with world events concerning great movements of people across the globe, although it’s probably looking closer to home.
Daydreaming was the second track to emerge last week with another video directed by American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, showing Thom Yorke walking through a series of doors into various scenes: a laundromat, a beach, kitchens, corridors and car parks. Watching that I began to put 2 + 2 together and come up not with 5, but the American DREAM Act. It may have nothing to do with that, or is perhaps an idea projected onto the music by the director, but would be fitting. As plaintive piano ballads go, this one ends with Lynchian slowed down vocals buzzing back and forth in a way that is genuinely unsettling.
With the already heard material out of the way, we can settle into new album proper, and by the third track, Decks Dark, it’s already clear your Radiohead album bingo card will end up a full house. Now we have guitars, drums, lashings of reverb and an ethereal soprano building and swelling. This is reasserted when Desert Island Disk brings classical guitar and shimmering otherworldly noises, ringing through your head like concussion.
It’s with relief that Ful Stop appears through the heat-distorted haze, like a train racing down the tracks. Driving beats, the low hum of bass, horns, more swirly madness, layered arpeggio guitars and Thom’s vocals dancing on top. “You really messed up everything.” Glass Eyes follows with piano and strings in bokeh. “Hey it’s me, I just got off the train, frightening place, with faces of concrete grey.” Identikit grabs that baton and runs with it, opening with the words from the album’s title, and “sweet-faced ones with nothing left inside, that we all can love…”
Things don’t shift very far with The Numbers either — cascading pianos, strummed guitars, nodding bass and the now inevitable strings. It starts out like a box of assorted noises that pull themselves together to conjure sweeping panoramic visions. In Present Tense, there are choral harmonies too. “Don’t want to get heavy,” Thom insists. Bit late for that.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief is the last new track on this album, and would not seem out of place closing a Bond film, although it ends almost as eerily as Daydreaming. I suspect Spectre, the Bond theme that got turned down, influenced swaths of this album, and whether or not that is the case, reminds us that Pinewood missed out on something truly special there.
Interestingly, the actual final track, True Love Waits, has existed for over 20 years, but only appeared as an acoustic recording on the 2001 live album, I Might Be Wrong. Here it gets the studio treatment, although retains a sense of minimalism. It is heart-wrenching, Thom’s voice cracking, backed by the glistening, layered pianos that appear throughout the whole album. It fits well here, demonstrating that no matter how far the band has come since those days of The Bends, they’ve not really changed.
This is a widescreen Radiohead album, sumptuous, ambitious, terrifying and touching. We will never know whether the things we’ve been shown, the album title, and the threads woven through it really mean as much as it’s tempting to imagine, but no artist can shut themselves off from the world, particularly when they’re already the masters of alienation. Even so, songs like this can work on many levels, and apply in all sorts of ways at different times, and as with so much art, the prism through which we view things matters almost as much.
Strikingly, A Moon Shaped Pool feels like a single body of work far more than many of their albums, suggesting that (with the exception of True Love Waits), it all came together quickly and naturally. It’s a journey, one seen through the eye of a lens, and almost ends up back where we started. In here we find not only the Radiohead of old, but various incarnations that have followed rolled into a new sound all of its own. There will be as many views about this album as there are notes on the record, but I already think it’s a masterpiece, uncompromising in its vision, but with broad appeal, and will undoubtedly come to be regarded as one of the finest albums of our time.