By Tom Cordell
It’s hard to describe what Radiohead actually are to someone who hasn’t heard their music. Ever since their inception and subsequent rise to popularity, Radiohead have ostensibly been three distinct musical groups: a thrashing, catchy, tongue-in-cheek British alternative 90s act; a refined, experimental, concept-album powerhouse; and a colorful marriage of electronic, ambient, symphonic, and traditional “band” sounds. Few musical acts have morphed so dramatically and managed to stay relevant. The beauty of Radiohead is that we tend to listen closer to- and appreciate more- the musicians who could write both “Creep” and “Treefingers” and get away with it. Heck, they did more than get away with it. They are the least one-dimensional band on the planet.
Naturally, this places quite a spotlight on their latest effort, A Moon Shaped Pool, released in May of 2016. When I first heard of a new Radiohead album, it was hard not to speculate – which iteration of Radiohead would be featured on this new record? The BBC boys from Pablo Honey and The Bends? The blossoming visionaries from OK Computer? The moody introverts from Kid A? Perhaps the mad rhythmic scientists from In Rainbows and The King of Limbs? With so many colors with which to paint, which band was Yorke & Co. striving to be? The answer is all of them.
The album opens with “Burn the Witch,” and thrusts staccato strings directly into your ears right off the bat, pairing them with an unexpectedly jazzy electronic drum pattern that meshes well with Yorke’s poignant vocal style. Patchy bass lines during the verses are reminiscent of the stuttering bass work on “Airbag” and complement the driving tenacity of the strings. It doesn’t feel like a single, but it was the perfect choice to showcase the way this album articulates itself. Oh, and do yourself a favor and watch the music video while you’re at it.
“Daydreaming” follows next with its hauntingly persistent piano melodies and ethereal textural accents. It’s almost Victorian in its doomed sense of hope, as the chord structures fluctuate between minor and major from verse to chorus respectively. The string arrangements peppered throughout provide a cinematic backdrop, but it’s all done with a sense of bleakness. To call it tongue-in-cheek would almost be reductive. A slew of close-mic’d alien noises at the end of the track help to complete the “something is wrong here” package, and while jarring, it is still musical.
“Decks Dark” is equally as dramatic, and casts an ethereal mood over the front portion of this album. Simple drum loops are married with gentle piano and Yorke’s introspective vocals to paint a decidedly gray picture. Drums and bass enter about a minute in, and provide a relaxed foundation for several layers of choral vocals to develop underneath Yorke’s lead. Things pick up about three and a half minutes in, with a spry guitar track washed in spring reverb to match the bass line. It’s the closest thing to a “groove” on the song, and provides some texture and motion to lead it to conclusion.
The only meager light at the end of the tunnel is found with the next track, “Desert Island Disk,” where we’re treated to a soulful acoustic guitar that carries a short reprise. The track unfolds with a careful sense of hope, layering in dynamic drums, subtle bass, and brooding strings in order to carry the song to its completion.
Then the album makes a definitive page turn. “Ful Stop” is my favorite song on the record, and the kind of Radiohead song that makes you understand why they are so dangerous – this is as much a Noisia track as it is one made by a British alt band. Driving bass and drums are slowly revealed as the song unpacks itself, adding soft, lengthy strings and sparse vocals at the minute and a half mark. Clever use of filters manipulate the rhythm section, and the song never quite settles itself until, finally, things blossom via dramatic drum and guitar entrances about three minutes in. Upbeat hi-hat “chicks” and multiple vocal layers make things frantic, driving, engaging, and musical. There’s a sense of wonder and pure energy to this song that isn’t found elsewhere on the record, and even if they just meant it to be a long-form jam, it’ll leave you speechless, right up to its final flurry of reverse echoed strings.
“Glass Eyes” returns to the piano and strings with its watery, cinematic opening to bring you back down to earth, while Yorke’s lyrics and vocals bring you down even farther. Think rainy stroll, alone, after a funeral in a post-apocalyptic government’s downtown sprawl. Yeah, that far down. But it’s still as musical as ever, with dynamic string arrangements and a delicate vocal delivery from Yorke, finishing on an ominous final note.
“Identikit” was the song I expected from this album right from the get-go, but had to wait until halfway through the tracks to find. The simple drum pattern opens to provide a clever base for the guitar parts and blurred vocals that follow. I can see Yorke rocking back and forth, shaker in hand, singing into the microphone. Driving bass enters halfway through with a part that Flea himself would be proud of, followed with brittle synths and even more ethereal background vocals. It feels grandiose, but not pretentious.
“The Numbers” opens with a swirl of sound, showcasing an array of pianos, reverse-tape echo samples, and percussion. A relaxed shuffle pattern from the drums calls in the rest of the band, while Yorke’s vocals sit nicely atop acoustic guitars strumming in both ears, accentuated by a rhythmic bass entrance about a minute and a half in. This track features a strong sense of anticipation that smolders right up until a set of chord changes about three minutes in. Then, it abruptly shifts into dream pop for a moment before returning to its original pace, this time with an intricate string accompaniment to drive the song home.
“Present Tense” is another killer track, one that belongs at an acoustic fireside gathering as much as it does on stage at Madison Square Garden. It has purpose, rhythm, drive, and it features another playfully melodic vocal performance from Yorke. The slightly out-of-phase stereo drums carry the acoustic guitar and floating strings perfectly, while the bass nestles itself inside the center of the track to provide an effectively dark tonal foundation for background vocals and additional strings.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief,” aside from being a mouthful to repeat to your friends at the water cooler, is a beautifully crafted ambient piece that opens with a washy synth drum pattern and a delicate piano accompaniment. Accented by hard-panned mono drums and the ever-present flight of strings, this could easily be a long lost Beatles track that was given a heavy dash of British existential dread and laced with slightly soured LSD to feed the nightmares of an unsuspecting listener. Cascading strings and industrial glitch noises on a loop finish the track off effectively.
Just when you think you woke yourself up, “True Love Waits” puts a final, unrelenting splash of grey into the watercolor with its ambivalent piano and sorrowful vocals. This song will weigh heavy on you for hours afterward if you let it. It is unfathomably heartbroken – Yorke’s plea of “don’t leave” stuck with me long after I took out the headphones.
The album’s production is pleasantly and appropriately dark, thanks to the many efforts of Nigel Godrich, a longtime producer and “sixth member” of the band. The album sounds and feels familiar, but it always has your attention and is never lazy. Godrich’s production is relaxed in places, feverish in others – perfectly suited to the overall direction of the record and a welcome complement to the songwriting skills of a band at its highest level. Drum sounds are crisp at times, while muddy and hidden at others; guitars and piano blend musically into the left and right ears; string sounds (courtesy of Jonny Greenwood and the immensely talented London Contemporary Orchestra) grace most of the tracks to add emotion. There are textures all over this record, yet as always, vocals are front and center, featuring Yorke’s delicately eerie upper register and melodic form.
In many ways, A Moon Shaped Pool is a culmination to the creative endeavor of a band that refuses to be defined by one thing. In the last several albums, Radiohead have perfected the art of their now-trademark existential/melodic/playful doom/ethereal/dance vibe. This album is a shining refinement of that formula, with its haunting vocals, clever strings and synths, dark but driving bass, intricately repetitive drum parts/programming, and eclectic use of samples that all come together in the most memorable of ways. Many of these tracks are dramatic and quasi-somber, but there are also more upbeat songs to help bring us out of the haze… and you can fucking dance to select parts of it. That’s where the real genius of this band and this album really shines through.
On a larger scale, there is no more impactful “life soundtrack” album that I can think of, so long as the life that you want to paint around yourself is one of very specific colors. Mostly dark ones. I almost have to be careful listening to this album on my commute to and from work, lest I completely shed the mechanisms that make me an outward member of society in order to go and ponder what it means to be alive on a mountain. It is exceptionally sad and incredibly lonely. You can disappear, powerless into the fog, and just as quickly return to life with the next song. It appeals to the masses in the most curious of ways, by forcing ourselves to become introverted, to examine what we are, and to allow sadness to be as present as the other “acceptable” emotions, onto which we so readily grasp. Yes it’s heavy-handed… but with this dynamic, Radiohead have crafted an extraordinarily intelligent album that impacts us both as a source of music, and, more broadly, as a tool with which we reflect upon ourselves and upon the world that we’ve built for each other.