Joe’s Controversial Opinions: Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
NOSTALGIA IS NOT an excuse for complacency. These seven words should be branded across the front of every recording studio as a reminder to any band making an album after an extended break. It’s quite easy to get back together, rehash the greatest bits of your greatest hits, put out something ‘new’, tour it for six months (minimum) and then sit back and enjoy the spoils. But it’s not satisfying in the long run. It’s possible that such anticipation is built up about a reunion that the album either has to completely fail or be hailed as a masterpiece just to let everyone feel the hype is warranted. This is me giving you all an ‘out’ now, just because it took a while to come out, doesn’t mean you have to love something. I’m not saying you didn’t love it but if you feel you have to, you don’t.
Which nicely brings me to Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, the first full release from the band since 2010’s The King of Limbs and in many ways a spiritual sequel to Hail to the Thief. Much has been made of lead singe ‘Burn the Witch’ and its critique of surveillance culture, it seems that Radiohead are returning to the political leanings of Thief. But the comparisons don’t end there. You see both Thief and Pool have the same central issue; there’s some good songs on there but they are sandwiched between some completely forgettable material. Sadly there’s nothing approaching a ‘There There (The Boney King of Nowhere)’ or a ‘Myxamatosis (Judge, Jury and Executioner)’ to be found here.
Now I’ll give major credit to the band here, there’s some bits of pure wonder to be found. Album opener ‘Burn the Witch’ shows the brilliance of Paul Thomas Anderson’s favourite Johnny Greenwood in its orchestrations and has a lovely meaty fuzzed bass line but in what will be a repeated complaint about the album, feels like its forty seconds away from an actual climax, it doesn’t really build it just ends. Knowing the song has been circulating since 2000 gives it a feeling of being something the band felt they had to find the right way to express and whether I like it or not, I have to admire the commitment to vision with the song.
At least in comparison to the next portion of the album, ‘Burn the Witch’ has some urgency as it’s followed by the turgid mood piece ‘Daydreaming’ that features possibly the thinnest’ least appealing vocal of Thom Yorke’s career and somehow despite being six (six!) minutes long, doesn’t do anything. Yes I get it, it’s like floating through a daydream, it’s long, meandering and subdued but it doesn’t make it interesting to listen. At least the PTA directed video added some frequently lovely imagery but separated from it, the song is just a dirge. While some parts of the next handful of tracks show signs of life like the folk-flecked guitar on ‘Desert Island Disk’ or the rough edges of the ‘Decks Dark’ but overall, it becomes pleasant but forgettable with ‘Full Stop’ feeling particularly stretched out.
Luckily part way into the album we get ‘Identikit’, a song with an actual purpose, a drive and some of Phil Selway’s best work in years planting something of a neo-funk groove behind an unsurprisingly gutting declaration of failed love. It reminded me of an In Rainbows era track, back when after four years Radiohead came back out of nowhere full of fire and made possibly their best album. It is preceded by ‘Glass Eyes’ an actually rather beautiful little butterfly of a song that floats in an out leaving you wanting more of it, especially the sumptuous strings smattered behind it and an arpeggiating piano riff that is especially endearing.
‘True Love Waits’ highlights a lot of the album’s strengths and weaknesses. Sonically, the track is perfect with swirling strings and keyboards creating a unique, ethereal atmosphere but taking a live favourite that’s been around since 1995 which if you listen to the live version from I Might Be Wrong has on it one of Yorke’s most powerful and yearning vocals, on this studio version it sounds like he can hit the notes more comfortably these days but with less emphasis. I’m not saying I want BBC English-perfect pronunciation but it can get frustrating how tossed away Yorke’s delivery is with entire songs coming off as near Sigur Ros levels of incomprehensible. The lead voice on an album is as much an instrument as a performance and there were no levels to Yorke’s performance beyond ‘Glass Eyes’ in which the ghostly falsetto is broken and it works well.
Maybe I wouldn’t have been as harsh on this album had I not loved their rejected Bond theme that they put online last Christmas as much as I did but I honestly think that this is a band partially on autopilot. Much like the completely throwaway The King of Limbs, it is an album that can come and go and when it’s gone, you can struggle to remember anything of what you heard. I want to make it clear, I knew some people might try to say ‘it feels like the kind of album you have to listen to multiple times to get it’. For this review, I’ve now listened to it all the way through about four times and it didn’t change my opinions between listens two through four. This isn’t the same band that made Kid A or OK Computer or even the same one that made In Rainbows and I at least admire them for that, despite what I said at the beginning, even with a handful of tracks being around for a while, this doesn’t feel like a cheap nostalgia cash-in. At the same time, it’s not an album in need of praise. But what does it matter, there will be people who love it and that’s fine. I’m just one angry man with an apparently controversial opinion. Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to go listen to something that doesn’t disappoint me.