By Alex Dobson
Since the release of OK Computer, there hasn’t been a single Radiohead album, song or even minute change to their website that hasn’t caused anticipation and speculation. Often, feelings are whipped up by Radiohead themselves, and the run up to their latest album, A Moon Shaped Pool, has been no exception. Thanks to a completely un-subtle media blackout on the 1st of May, and their two unsettling headline tracks (Burn the Witch and Daydreaming), it felt like yet again, nobody knew what to expect from a band that over its career has refused to settle into any one genre and finds joy in enraging their fans and critics through their incessant changes of style.
However, for maybe the first time, this latest album has the air of consolidation rather than change. This is by no means an insult, in fact A Moon Shaped Pool seems the perfect name for a work which has pooled many of the innovative and successful aspects of their previous work. As such, we have the textual and rhythmic complexity of King of Limbs; the drive, tension and power of Hail to the Thief; the influences of jazz from Amnesiac, the ability of Kid A to blend a number of styles into an electronic/ artificial mix, and finally, there are glimpses of the bold guitar riffs, moving, yet simplistic piano ballads and post-university angst that hails from Paranoid Android and The Bends. In fact, A Moon Shaped Pool feels like a ‘best-of’ album that Radiohead have been good enough to write new songs for.
In what is now basically the modus operandi of Radiohead, their videos have played a fundamental role in this album. Both the parodied dystopian Trumpton in Burn the Witch and the transcendent, greasy-haired meanderings of Thom Yorke in Daydreaming have garnered the same attention as his artsy Napoleon Dynamite-esque dancing in Lotus Flower. As seems to always be the case, no one has any idea what either of these videos really mean…
Daydreaming is somehow even bleaker than previously, with the unceasing minimalist piano accompaniment being the key part in a polyphonic throng of ambient and unsettled noise. Theories are abundant about the meaning of these songs; from “the witch” being any scapegoat you care to choose from current affairs, to the morbid lyrics of Daydreaming (“too late/ the damage is done”) conveying an irrevocably damaged society. Decks Dark, Ful Stop and Identikit are several tracks that feel like 00s Radiohead. To a varying extent, all three songs are driven by a recognizable rhythm and guitar groove. Ful Stop begins with a heavy, distant audible-from-inside-the-club-toilets bassline, over which guitar riffs build. The beat of Identikit however, with its unforgettable riff and Yorke’s mumbling voice, sounds like a love child of Idioteque, Everything In Its Right Place and Lotus Flower. It is delicious.
However, this album is not flawless. Throughout, although the grace and malleable nature of Thom Yorke’s vocals is astounding, it sometimes doesn’t work. Glass Eyes as a consequence of this is probably the weakest track of the album. The combination of string accompaniment, digital piano and Yorke’s overly gentle voice, at the bottom of his register, really grates. Alongside fairly vapid lyrics (“hey it’s me, I just got off the train”) Glass Eyes feels less like Radiohead, more like some whiny American popstar.
The string accompaniment, which plays a central role throughout this album, marks a significant caesura with previous work. In many places this is hugely successful, adding to the tension and pulse of Daydreaming that makes it practically palpable. In other cases, it is less convincing. Anyone familiar with Take That will know the effect of a pseudo-pop, swooping violin climax followed by staccato quavers to convey an ‘uplifting moment’, and this is only too audible in The Numbers. Furthermore, the use of strings in Glass Eyes- though an impressive bit of composition- feels very out of place.
The album concludes with True Love Waits (circa 1995), a downtrodden, fragile, desolate number, which when compared to Daydreaming, gives a sense of the whole album coming full circle. A Moon Shaped Pool is the culmination of over twenty years of Radiohead. It draws on many of the genres that they have experimented with over this period; from the fringes of dance music to be-bop, and they rarely fail to get the balance right. Although not perfect, and definitely not Radiohead’s best, A Moon Shaped Pool is a genuinely engaging album that shows how far the band have come.
A Moon Shaped Pool is available to download from iTunes now.