Released 8th May via XL
Now listen here everyone, you can just take your socio-political complacency, romantic contentment and existential comfort and shove ’em, cus Radiohead are back, and this time they mean business. As summer once again rears its sweat-basted head, Abingdon’s finest have slung into our jort-clad laps what might just be the dourest album they’ve ever made, just in case anyone was planning on letting the promise of three months of beer and ice cream buoy them to a vague level of benighted happiness. Because in case you were about to forget, society’s still a moral toilet, the earth is still being choked to carcinomic death, and love is still a sadistic, chimerical fucking lie, and if you won’t take it from Comrade Yorke then who will you take it from? Maybe you all just love Big Brother after all.
But, despite having rambled thus, I actually have nothing against proselytizing and doom-mongering in popular music in principle; indeed, a sense of moral concern in any artist is to be commended (which isn’t to say that the absence of it is to be condemned). And when it’s made to sound as good as, say, Kid A did, then by all means hand me my standard-issue copy of Manufacturing Consent and point me to the nearest Green Party Conference. Judging by how A Moon Shaped Pool sounds, however, I sense that Radiohead are less energetic—if no less sure—in their convictions. With the exception of the choppy, anti-reactionary opener ‘Burn The Witch’ and the muttered, mantric anxiety-relapse ‘Full Stop’, everything moves slowly on this album, like a slightly portly middle-aged runner who sprints the first lap to prove a point and then jogs the rest. They are, I guess, getting on after all.
‘Burn The Witch’ is the least tacitly political song on A Moon Shaped Pool, in much the same way that the closer, ‘True Love Waits’ (a dull song carried by its strong lyrics but best iterated in its (at last) recorded form here on the album), is the least tacitly romantic; both are songs which have languished in the Radiohead laboratory for some time and have only now been reified on record. As such, their lyrical directness is incongruous with the meandering, free-associated, often repetitive lyrics of the other songs—younger songs written by older men.
Generally speaking, Yorke’s lyrics have never marked him as a potential candidate for Poet Laureate, but what considerable lyrical power the best Radiohead songs have had in the past has invariably derived from the adroit mobilisation of what are essentially catchphrases and often clichés. These unambiguous phrases sit in the middle of a musical context which is anything but, drawing attention with their familiarity and signifying by their redefining interplay with the rest of the lyrics and the sonic strangeness enveloping them—think ‘Little By Little’ or ‘Climbing Up The Walls’. What I’m trying to get at with all this meandering, free-associating repetition is that on A Moon Shaped Pool, the approach is far more subtle.
Which isn’t to say Radiohead have hitherto eschewed subtlety. But their best songs have never given you a choice but to listen—you can’t ignore the cosmic motion of the main motif of ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ any more than you can misunderstand its title. But on A Moon Shaped Pool, the songs let you come to them, and make you want to stay. And it’s important to do so, because their unhurried, diffuse sound-worlds’ power lies in their detail, most grippingly so on the shivering, string-borne ‘Glass Eyes’ (Johnny Greenwood you’re my hero), the ghost-jig ‘Identikit’ and the half-speed, half-finished, might-have-been trance-classic ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Thief’. While the aggregated nuances of the songs here may not be quite so seismically affecting as, say, the cosmic motion of the main motif of ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, they satisfy in a more long-range kind of way, incubating moods rather than charging emotions.
This album may be work to listen to, at least at first; but it sure ain’t hard work.