A Moon Shaped Pool
, May 13th, 2016 10:55
Remember when Radiohead had fire in their bellies, blood in their mouths? When there was drama to their music, a singular lurch and lope; when they were truly themselves and several years ahead of dancing around the handbag of self-pastiche? I was reminded of that phase in the band’s career recently, when a trailer for the new series of the BBC’s Peaky Blinders (it’s alright) popped into position on my tellybox. It lasts just 20 seconds, but that 20-second snatch of Radiohead’s OK Computer-featured ‘Climbing Up the Walls’ has more drama to it, more intrigue and innovation, than anything I hear on its makers’ ninth long-player proper, A Moon Shaped Pool. And trust me, I’ve been desperate to hear anything on this set that wasn’t the sound of Radiohead chasing their own tail, blissfully unaware of the requirement to pay anyone else the slightest mind.
Bands have long tortured themselves over the right way to capture a song, to do justice to something they’ve been turning over and over in rehearsals, on stages, in their heads. Radiohead are no different, and a whole bunch of the cuts collected here have been doing those proverbial rounds for a while. But because there’s so many in one place, A Moon Shaped Pool has something of the “B-sides and Rarities” feel to it. Certain tracks feel less than fully fleshed out, really given the treatment that their age warrants. ‘Ful Stop’, which first circled into view in 2011, rides a relatively rote motorik beat for three minutes before doing anything that might qualify as interesting, the percussion busying itself and frontman Yorke striking a mantra of “the good times”; but it’s still very much the sound of a band this accomplished, a band you know is capable of so much more, with the auto-pilot engaged.
‘Identikit’ is from the same King of Limbs touring period, and is too lethargic to recall all that much about, however many times you press it into your ears. The drums simply exist, Thom does his floaty voice thing that he’s done forever, and the guitars chime without direction or impact. If it was on the flip to a single from Hail To the Thief, you’d not bat an eyelid. Its sole striking aspect is an ugly guitar outro that sounds like a first take after several pints of something thick and potent. No doubt it aims for headiness, but it just gives me a headache.
At this point in the band’s career, we have to call into question what is motivating Radiohead. Money’s not a factor, we assume, and so that hunger to make a living from your art has long since dissipated. Status, too, is assured, however much A Moon Shaped Pool tries to undo it. The whole release method, putting the album out without too much warning, dropping teasers into inboxes and stirring Twitter into a funk – we’ve been there, seen it, and Radiohead themselves have worn the t-shirt through. What’s actually progressive, here? Where’s any of that OK Computer-era desire, or the In Rainbows inventiveness, the Kid A unpredictability? This set is stuck in a state of limbo between these points, with little of note to say for itself except: remember our older stuff? Perhaps you should go back and give that a spin.
Because that’s all so much of A Moon Shaped Pool does: it turns, and then you reset it. It turns, and you reset it. Repeat, go blue in the face, do whatever you can to find an anchor, something to grab hold of that has that same roughness, that singular feel, of this band at its best. There are pretty songs, albeit shot through with some real Fisher Price: My First Radiohead lyricism – ‘Present Tense’ is a fine case in point, a twitchy shuffle on the skins with a gloopy layer of choral vocals atop it, Yorke declaring: “I won’t stop now / I won’t slack off / Or all this love / Will be in vain.” The irony is measured in fathoms, truly. ‘Glass Eyes’ is another example of delicacy being mistaken for intimacy, for affecting introspection – its fractured piano lines and gently rising strings tick all the aesthetic boxes, and there’s certainly a couple of seconds in it where the walking listener will slow their step to really zero in on the mix. It’s beautiful, categorically, but clichéd with it – again, it’s nowhere near close to Radiohead’s own best in show when it comes to this approach, to songs like ‘Sail To the Moon’ for example or ‘Exit Music’.
Go back and listen to ‘Exit Music’, actually. There’s barely anything to it. Its just as skeletal as a lot of what you’ll hear on A Moon Shaped Pool. And yet it’s urgent, desperate, impassioned. “I can’t do this alone,” Yorke said then, as if struggling with an impossible weight. Christ, he meant it. Here, now, on ‘The Numbers’, he mumbles about climate change with all the sincerity of a talent show wannabe murdering ‘Earth Song’. It’s got a neat orchestral drop in it, but we’re decades on since slipping a violin into an “indie” track had it automatically dripping with emotion.
‘Daydreaming’ is gob-smackingly gorgeous, though, a song I can hold against my chest and feel my heart swell in synch with its fluttering keys; and the you-took-your-sweet-time studio recording of ‘True Love Waits’, a song that’s been in the Radiohead canon since the mid-1990s, shakes the soul like nothing the band’s put out since ‘Nude’ – another song of the 1990s that didn’t see an official release until ten years later. I don’t know what that really tells us: that Radiohead were at their best in the 1990s? When they still had it all to do? Before Coldplay, before Muse, before any of the bands that rose in the wake of OK Computer? Possibly.
There’s simply so little spark here, barely glowing embers and blackened dust where once Radiohead blazed a fascinating, furious trail for others to attempt to follow. None could, not to the same state of singularity, and that’s left them in competition with only themselves, which can’t be healthy for productivity. The penultimate ‘Tinker Tailor…’ has an effect in it that quite literally sounds like tiny pockets of gas being popped, fizzing into the air and lost forever. It’s like a last breath caught on a loop. A wheeze of defeat, but the credits can’t run yet. Perhaps they should.