Radiohead are a band I love, quite a lot, but for whatever reason I feel like I’m still not fully qualified to talk about them. Without a doubt one of the most important groups of the last 20 years, they bridge accessible and complex in a way that is admirable beyond words, being simultaneously progressive and heartfelt, subdued and nuanced, forward-thinking and memorable. They weren’t a band that I loved immediately (possibly due to a poor choice of starting albums), but the more I spent with each of their records, the more I could feel myself turning into one of those bubbling fanboys.
Try as I might to call them “overrated” (and they still are, technically), it is very difficult to ignore the undeniable quality of many of their works. But in reality, it takes many months of repetitive listens to get fully into the depths of Radiohead’s complexities, so for that reason I must say that I haven’t really given any of their post-Hail to the Thief material much consideration, and for that reason I find myself hesitant to voice my full opinion on A Moon Shaped Pool, I am really just considering it as it is. And as this album slowly chipped away at my soul (and up my ratings curve) over the last month, I’m finding it oddly difficult to feel anything but awe in regards to this record, an album that seems to do so little, yet so much.
This is an odd album for Radiohead stylistically, as it feels like one that doesn’t do a tremendous amount that is new or cutting edge. For a band that pride themselves on being at the forefront of everything, this move to familiarity could be interpreted as critical suicide, had Radiohead not backed themselves with some truly exquisite songwriting and arrangement. Much of this album feels like styles and areas that Radiohead have done before in various albums, but the uniqueness of the melodies, arrangements and particularly the sonic art, combined with some impressive performances, particularly by Thom Yorke, makes it somehow greater than it could ever seem on paper.
I could say that this is one of the least ambitious Radiohead albums since the turn of the millennium, and while that is true from a certain perspective, I feel that would be missing the point of it. This is a very inwardly ambitious album. There are few dramatic twists of the genre-bending mastery that the band have become famous for, which to many could be perceived as bland, but instead they have packed out some relatively straightforward songs with arrangements that are incredibly ambitious and quite beautiful. There are touches throughout the record of production techniques or layering of instruments that don’t quite strike you as anything special until you really focus on them. But when you do, they really do reveal themselves in the most beautiful of ways.
I will say this though – “Burn the Witch” is beyond incredible, and is completely in the opposite of what I just said, as it is a true ambitious song, in every sense of the term. In fact, it’s almost so incredible that the album could even be considered mediocre in its wake. I do admit that I have a secret wish that the entire album was as impressive as this single, or even in the same vein, because not only does it have all the “inward” ambition that I mentioned above, but it is incredibly ambitious on the outside too. It’s the sort of song that makes you truly believe the “Thom Yorke is a genius” claims. 25 years into his career and he can still come up with such beautifully inspired methods of delivering music. Everything about the arrangement on the song is perfectly placed – the ebbing and flowing Music for 18 Musicians-esque string throbs are obviously the centre of the it, channelling post-minimalism and drone in brilliantly fresh style, but there are also the angular, off-beat centric drum patterns, or the pulsating and oddly groovy bass line.
Little touches, like the way that the strings don’t reach their climax until after the first beat of the next bar, or how the song breaks into a smooth legato string section for the second verse, or the entire last 20 second climax, just show how much detail goes into little pieces of the songs here. And not to mention Thom himself, puncturing the song with “Stay in the shadows…” in the most perfect of off-beat moments to do it in. It really is a song that bridges the accessibility in pop songwriting that Radiohead are famous for with some arrangements that require a brilliant mind to even think of. The song would be great in itself just with a regular rock band setup, but Yorke pushes so far beyond “regular” that he turns a great song into an incredible one.
The rest of the album, while nowhere near as ambitious or as immediately interesting as Burn the Witch, is still incredibly good, but the focus shifts more towards introspection and emotion. This is undeniably one of Radiohead’s most wholly emotive records – though they are famous for their moments of extreme beauty in sadness, rarely have they sat around for a full record in gloom as they do here. “Daydreaming” is essentially a mopey piano ballad, and isn’t necessarily something new or brilliant for Radiohead, but it is executed so flawlessly that it doesn’t really matter. Thom’s voice is absolutely perfect here, sounding simultaneously fragile and precise, never hitting a note that isn’t full of melancholy. The songwriting has some quaint twists and turns as well that add to the atmosphere – the lush transition to major key piano flourishes and an almost dream-like bridge section is really fantastic. The album’s closing track is another interesting talking point, not least because it is in fact a long-awaited studio version of a song from the band’s mid 90’s alt-rock era, recorded in a very similar vein to “Daydreaming”. And again, it’s quite simply just a beautiful piece – gorgeous vocals, solemn piano, and some wonderful chord changes in there.
For most of the album, Radiohead seem to have a focus on melancholy, with plenty of the songs here being mood-oriented piano ballads at core, but what separates A Moon Shaped Pool from any other album of mopey sad-core songs is the intricacy of it all. It really is impressive when you sit and listen to the way Radiohead flesh out these songs, it often seems as if they must be aimlessly throwing sounds in and hoping they work, but the consistently perfect atmosphere across this record does prove that they have incredible minds for sonic art. The aforementioned “Daydreaming” makes use of some brilliant wavy piano samples, synthesisers, sampled vocal loops, reverse piano drones and all sorts of brilliant pieces of ambient nonsense. And it’s what turns the song from good to incredible, in my opinion. Many people could write a beautiful piano ballad like it, and many people could sing as well as Thom does here, but only Radiohead could create a sonic palette that potent and beautiful. It’s a perfect merger of the autistic obsession with soundcraft that we hear in genres like ambient or IDM and the genuine songwriting of folk or pop. Equal parts complex and accessible.
Thom himself is absolutely on point on this album as well. I do hate using that phrase, “on point”, due to its association with poor Facebook memes, but there really is no other way of describing something like the opening hook of “Decks Dark”. I guess this is what 20 years of singing does to your control, but he is just pinpoint accurate with his delivery and intonation, in pretty much every line on the album. It’s this perfect balance between punchiness, control, pitch and a necessary frailness that makes him sound human. His voice is so impeccably fragile for so many pieces here, it almost feels as if he’s straining to hit the notes, but the consistency at which he delivers his parts implies he is in absolute control, every step of the way. Every song is filled with them, the “you know what I mean” line in “Desert Island Disk”, or the entirety of “Identikit” or “Tinker Tailor…”, all incredibly subtle and well placed within the arrangement, and delivered perfectly.
A Moon Shaped Pool is not the sort of record that in itself is going to go down in history, but the undeniably impressive quality level of the songwriting, arrangements and production here are unparalleled for a band that has been in the scene for as long as Radiohead. It’s a grower too, the more you sit with it and observe the fiddly little intricacies that the band throw at you, the more you appreciate their near-immaculate attention to detail. As I sat with this album for weeks I began to find myself slowly turning into one of those Radiohead fanatics. It’s so beautiful in its simplicity, yet its impeccably subtle complexity is what keeps you coming back. These songs have been overworked to the ends of the earth, but done in such subtle ways that you aren’t really aware of how well-placed the additions are until after a multitude of listens. Not as immediately ground-breaking or era-defining as Radiohead’s best work, but without a doubt a beautifully assembled and delicately stunning record, and possibly the one that turns me from a fan into a mega-fan.
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