Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

8.5 Production
7 Composition
7.5 Mood
7.7 Instrumentation

A release as massive as a new Radiohead album means that we need to put our collective heads together in an attempt to offer as robust a perspective as possible. If this sounds familiar, well, that’s just the kind of year it’s been. We have already done a collective review for Explosions in the Sky’s “The Wilderness,” and we certainly could have warranted such treatment for the new Mogwai, Cult of Luna and 65daysofstatic records, though we have opted for different paths with those releases. Soon enough we will see the release of new material from If These Trees Could Talk and Russian Circles, and again we will have some serious decisions to make. Radiohead was a no-brainer, however. While many publications were racing to be the first to bestow all manner of towering accolades upon one of the world’s most respected rock bands, we took some time to let the album sink in before making our feelings known. On Thursday, May 26th, Robert Westerveld, Mircea Laslo, Evan Lurie and David Zeidler convened via Facebook chat to discuss “A Moon Shaped Pool.” Readers can witness the results below. As always, we encourage participation on behalf of our readers. If you find yourself in vigorous agreement, vehement disapproval, or anywhere in between regarding our thoughts, feel free to drop us a line and make your voice heard.

Mircea: Because this year just had to deliver everything good, so that 2017 can feel like a total wasteland of irrelevance.

Robert: Funny you mention the word irrelevance, because my general opinion on this record is that it is the most irrelevant record I’ve heard this year.

Mircea: Robert, are you sure you’re not playing devil’s advocate? I mean, seriously? This record is the most vulnerable I’ve heard Radiohead be since… forever. They’re practically channeling Nick Drake…

Robert: To my own surprise, I’m not. Every time I put on the album this week, I was filled with a sense of disgust, and maybe even hate. Every song features the same typical beat, the same synthesizer that they have used before, somewhere in their discography, and Yorke wailing over it in his never changing voice. It’s like the band took their albums, made a really bad broth out of it, and then added flour to make a gruesome sauce. This is Radiohead album number X. It could be any Radiohead record, and that’s why it is nothing to me. They did not stretch themselves and try to be relevant. They securely nested themselves between U2 and Coldplay to get a share of the pop-rock pie.

David: Oof, the U2/Coldplay references are rough. I certainly wouldn’t put them in that company. But I hate U2, so of course I would feel that way. Radiohead definitely had their “U2 moments” on “Pablo Honey,” but that’s the last time I would have compared the two bands.

I have been at a weird place with Radiohead for quite some time now. “The Bends” and “OK Computer” were two of the most influential records for me as a teenager, and as such, I regularly claim that “I love Radiohead.” However, when they released their landmark “Kid A,” they also morphed into the kind of band that, for me, was more interesting than engaging. I own 14 Radiohead releases, but I haven’t totally connected with them in a while. Intellectually-enriching, for sure, but does their music necessarily make me FEEL, on a visceral level? Not as much as I would like it to, honestly.

As such, the album that I have most connected with since “OK Computer” has been “Hail to the Thief.” I thought that record achieved a great mix of pop structure and listenability with mind-expanding production and their tendency toward electronic experimentation. At the end of the day, it was still a collection of rock songs. For me, “Kid A” is only half-successful. When it works, it works immensely. When it doesn’t, I’m left feeling like “That was really interesting.” But that’s it. I feel similarly about “In Rainbows,” though I find that there’s more to enjoy on that one than on “Kid A.” “King of Limbs?” Well…cool, but no thanks. It’s like they forgot there were listeners present, and just went off on their own meandering way.

So, what I like about “A Moon Shaped Pool” is that, of all the post-“OK Computer” Radiohead releases, it is the most structurally similar to “Hail to the Thief.” It’s very listenable.

That being said, it’s still more of a 7.5 out of 10 for me. Really solid, not spectacular. More engaging than “King of Limbs,” for sure, maybe not quite as interesting as “Kid A,” “Amnesiac,” or “In Rainbows,” but more tangible. Something I can actually listen to for enjoyment, rather than for intellectual gain.

Robert: And maybe that’s exactly the thing I was expecting from them, another groundbreaking record. But for me, enjoyment is not an excuse. I’m a progressive consumer of culture. Art needs to be relevant to our lives today, it either needs to show us new grounds, or break the ground we’re standing on.

David: Yeah, but what about entertainment for entertainment’s sake? Has Radiohead established such a reputation for being groundbreaking that they are no longer allowed to produce solid tunes that can be consumed with enjoyment without having to be “the next step forward for art”?

Robert: By the way, my relationship with the work of Radiohead is equally troublesome as yours David. I bought “OK Computer” for 5€ from a bargain bin, and liked it instantly. It took me two years however to ‘grasp’ “Kid A,” and I have since decided to take it easy with their discography, opening it up album by album. I play “Hail to the Thief” on a regular basis, but that’s where it ends.

David: I love “Hail to the Thief.” I think it’s weird that that record seems to get the least talk of their entire output, aside from maybe “Pablo Honey,” which I think is viewed as “pre-RADIOHEAD Radiohead,” if you know what I mean.

Mircea: David, seeing you do this whole retrospective, I get the feeling that I’m in a bit of privileged position, since I discovered Radiohead only by the time they were doing their “Kid A” stuff, so the initial impact of their more alt-rock stage was mostly over and one with as far as I was concerned. Basically what I’m trying to say is that I never felt betrayed by their shift in tone. “Kid A” and the subsequent releases *were* the true Radiohead tone for me. If anything, “A Moon Shaped Pool” harkens back to their alt-rock roots in a completely unexpected way, at least for me.

David: Mircea, I didn’t feel betrayed by any stretch. I mean, I still am very interested in everything they do. I just don’t feel as emotionally engaged by their post-“OK Computer” work. Which doesn’t mean I don’t find their work highly interesting and valuable. “Kid A” set a template for popular bands to try something different without fear. “Hail to the Thief” reminded bands that they can be massively successful and still take a stand politically. “In Rainbows” essentially created the “pay-what-you-want” download era. “King of Limbs” proved that…well, you can try something, fail, and still move on.

So, their value is not in question with me. But, simply, I haven’t felt any of their 2000’s work in my gut like I feel “Fake Plastic Trees” or “Exit Music (For a Film).” I can’t fake that. It just is what it is.

Robert: Thinking about it now, I must say that I feel the same David. Radiohead the past fifteen years has not been an emotional affair. And I think that “A Moon Shaped Pool” does not do anything to change that. It’s lethargic, apathetic in my eyes.

What do you guys think of “Identikit?”

David: “A Moon Shaped Pool” works for me almost as much as “Hail to the Thief,” and more than their other 2000’s records. It’s approachable, but still intriguing. It has a nice sense of melody, which I think they have eschewed too much at times during the past 15 years. A song like “Identikit” is successful in ways that too few Radiohead songs have been in the past decade or so.

Mircea: I don’t get this tendency you guys have for judging Radiohead’s music as if they have some weird master plan to bend minds and somehow *use* their music to make artistic statements. That just sounds disingenuous to me, like an artist writing “ars poetica” over and over again. I for one completely trust that whatever they’re putting out is entirely heartfelt, and deeply human. Sure, Thom has a lot of political interests which show up prominently in his lyrics, but… well, they’re just lyrics, and I can’t understand his words most of the time anyway, so I’m just listening to the composition in musical terms. And there’s nothing fake about that, there’s no pretentiousness I can detect.

David: Listen, I’m with you, in the sense that I prefer a more “human” Radiohead, so to speak. That’s why I like this new record. Really, as much as it may have taken time for me to get on board with “Kid A” and “In Rainbows,” “The King of Limbs” was what really put me off. It was a massive struggle for me to even listen to that album all the way through once. To me, it’s a statement of artistic purpose, maybe, but it’s an interminable bore. I still haven’t heard the “Live From the Basement” session, though. But honestly, I shouldn’t have to seek out an alternate version of an album in order to “get it.”

Robert: Funny, David, I think “Identikit” is the most annoying song on the record. It’s very well written, but that hipster beat is just really terrible, and then that fucking lyric: “BROKEN HEARTS MAKE IT RAIN.” Oh my.

David: That lyric isn’t fantastic. But if Anthony Kiedis is still allowed to write lyrics, after the 35 years of nonsense that man has been committing to record, we can forgive Thom Yorke a line here and there.

But the melody is great. And there’s actually a cool guitar solo at the end. Who knew they were still into stuff like that?!?

Robert: Maybe my expectations are way too high, but like I said before, “Good is the new average.” And this record falls right into that trap.

But indeed. That guitar solo is pretty cool.

David: I love that line, by the way. “Good is the new average.”

Again, I don’t love this record. And I think that its release also exposes something that I don’t love about music journalism right now. Everyone was just drooling to proclaim it genius, and I feel like in a lot of the reviews I read, the writers already had their rhetoric thought out, and were just figuring out ways to make it fit once they heard the record. You know what I mean? It’s a good record. It’s not their best. Not their worst. Not the best album of the year, not by a long shot. But certainly very solid, approachable, and enjoyable.

Mircea: To me, “Identikit” is the one almost-dud on the album. It sounds more like a New York one-hit-wonder hipster group than it does Radiohead. It’s the one song where I feel they’re overdoing it in terms of aesthetic styling. Gee, we’re really not on the same page. That’s pretty cool.

David: We are not.

So what are your favorite songs, guys?

Evan: My favorite song is “Glass Eyes.” Love the opening piano.

Robert: I actually like “True Love Waits.” Despite its title haha. I’m not sure why. Maybe just *because* of the title.

David: “Glass Eyes” is pretty beautiful. Again, it feels more down-to-earth than I have become used to them being.

Mircea: My favourite is “Desert Island Disk.” It just hits home with me, it pulls on the same heartstrings Nick Drake does, and until now, Nick Drake has been the only artist I know with access to those particular chambers of my heart.

David: I also enjoy “Ful Stop.” It’s kind of grimy, and heavy without really containing much that immediately stands out as what one would define as “heavy.” It’s got clever production in that sense.

Robert: I think at face value they’re all nice songs. The acoustic guitar seems pretty prominent for a Radiohead record.

Mircea: Also, can I just say that Greenwood bloody kills it with the orchestration on this record?

Robert: YES!    

David: The album loses steam for me after “Present Tense.” If they could have put together a knockout ending, I may have put this on the same level as “Hail to the Thief,” but “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” is pretty boring, and I have never understood the fan devotion to “True Love Waits.” I have always found it to be a pretty average song. Maybe it’s just because it’s been so elusive for so long, not showing up on any albums, so it’s become like a cult hit. Maybe they should have left it that way. Now that it has an official album version, it maybe has lost a bit of its mystique.

Mircea: I agree with you on “True Love Waits,” David. I like the acoustic live version better. It’s trying to be “Videotape” here, but just doesn’t have anywhere near the same gut-wrenching sadness to it.

David: No, it doesn’t. That’s the thing that perplexes me – people speak of it like it’s this transcendently sad, moving piece of work. But I don’t particularly see it. It’s kind of a middle-of-the-road love song, for me.

Evan: The album’s orchestration is the driving force for me. Without it, I’m not sure if it would have the appeal that it does. I can respect the Greenwoods and the rest of the band’s effort to further diversify Radiohead’s sound, but it isn’t apparent on every song. I think “Burn the Witch” stands out because of it, but any song that doesn’t push that orchestral theme falls flat, and becomes “another Radiohead song” like Robert alluded to before.

Robert: Yeah, “Burn the Witch” really pushed the envelope, orchestration-wise. I loved the video too. Really “Radiohead-like,” but very nice.

Mircea: Yeah Evan, when you’re right, you’re right. Greenwood’s work really carries this record. And there’s quite the fault line between the Yorke and the Greenwood aspects of the sound. I won’t lie, I resonate more with the Greenwood tinge here.

David: A friend of mine who is a huge Radiohead fan alluded to his constant fear that they were eventually going to become an extension of Thom Yorke’s solo work, rather than the other way around. So it’s good to see this album featuring fleshed-out arrangements that give the sense of full band involvement.

Mircea: Your friend was completely right, especially after “King of Limbs.” Glad they’re proving something different with this new record.

David: Anyone care to indulge conspiracy theories regarding the fact that the song titles run in alphabetical order, or that “True Love Waits” closing the album indicates that Radiohead are retiring from recording?

Mircea: Radiohead conspiracy theories are a dime a dozen. If we could get into their heads properly, they wouldn’t be as divisive and genuinely interesting as they are. Just let them unfold, is what I say. Pointless to try and predict.

David: Yeah, I was totally kidding. I hate that stuff. I was on YouTube the other day and saw a video posted by some crazed Tool fan, where he re-arranged “Lateralus” so its tracks would unfold like a Fibonacci sequence, and he claims that’s how you’re “supposed” to listen to the album. Absurd.

Mircea: Final thought for me: I just hope Tool doesn’t actually release a new album this year, because that means the end really is nigh, and I’ll have to learn origami and make a tin foil hat for myself as I watch the sky turn red. As far as “A Moon Shaped Pool” in concerned – it’s an album I’ll be listening to for years to come. Not a triumph. Doesn’t need to be.

David: For me, I think that Radiohead has always been a band seeking to push boundaries, but critics (and fans) have created an annoying environment in which their work MUST be revered and MUST signal the next step in the development of popular music, which, frankly, is ridiculous. I appreciate Radiohead for the intellectually-enriching material they have brought to the table over the years, but sometimes it feels like they have done so at the expense of being emotionally engaging. As such, I enjoy “A Moon Shaped Pool” because it feels more tangible, more human, than a lot of their recent work. It’s solid-not-spectacular, but for the most part, it works. Also, it re-establishes the concept that this is still a band, which I think was lost a bit on “The King of Limbs.”

Robert: Every band has that one album that critics deem to be “one for the [true] fans”, or one that “you have to buy to complete your collection,” and “A Moon Shaped Pool” perfectly falls into those tropes. Listen to it once, maybe twice, it is a nice record; a record for the record.

Evan: My final thoughts on “AMSP” are positive. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s a satisfactory Radiohead record. I really think this album could shine live, and maybe that’s how these songs should be heard.

Note: The ratings listed above represent the average of each of the four participants’ scores.

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    • Welp, that didn’t take long haha. Thanks for the input, Tony. The beautiful thing about a band like Radiohead is that they inspire dialogue every time they release material. Regardless of which side you stand on, the fact that people passionately discuss their work is proof enough of their value, in an artistic sense. For the record, I am not on the “other side” of the Radiohead argument. I will say, however, that I don’t find this to be a spectacular record, by Radiohead standards, or any other. It’s a nice, solid record. But I hesitate to go any further than that in terms of lauding it.

  • This album roars, like a Targaryan dragon. Did you notice that? Probably not, because the arrangement, instrumentation and mixing is so smoothly blended, that tempests swirl up around you; there are no jarring transitions. There is immense complexity here, but it is always in service to the simple arc of the song. This album is a dynamic, emotional journey. No one is making music this rich, this complex, this diverse and this moving.

    I have no idea what album you were reviewing in your comments (credit Mircea for comments that reflect actually listening to the album itself, as its own thing) ; I can’t even recognize it as the one I listen to.

  • ClavisRa, rather than take the usual route to an album review, the idea behind doing a “real-time” (so to speak) group review was to capture a discussion about music. As such, I believe it was important to have a dialogue about more than just the album, which then in turn establishes a context for our thoughts on “A Moon Shaped Pool” itself. Having a conversation about their career arc helps to better inform (both for ourselves and for readers) our outlook on their most recent work. I am in the fortunate position of having been able to experience the entire Radiohead career arc to this point as it unfolded, and I am certainly more than just a “casual fan.” BUT, I also insist on bringing fair perspective to the table. I seems that a lot of critics and reviewers, when the opportunity to discuss Radiohead arises, have already thought out their rhetoric, and it’s just a matter of applying it. To me, that’s a harmful approach. Of course, opinions are opinions, and it’s hard to argue their validity either way. But as someone who has witnessed first hand the potential power of Radiohead, I would be lying to myself, and others, if I was to wildly laud “A Moon Shaped Pool” as some kind of groundbreaking work of art. It’s not my job to find the most eloquent way to say what people expect to hear; my job is to find the right words to express exactly what I am thinking and feeling. When it comes to this “A Moon Shaped Pool,” I think it is a solid, eminently listenable record, but to say things like “no one is making music this rich, this complex, this diverse and this moving” is to undervalue a lot of artists that are doing exactly that, if not more effectively. So, that’s where I’m coming from, at least. The 7.7 isn’t a tool to be divisive, it is a representation of how we honestly feel about the record, as a collective. And to view a 7.7 as some sort of slap in the face also speaks to the kind of unreasonable metrics that people have put into place when it comes to Radiohead. A 7.7 is a good album. If there is some sort of unwritten standard that demands reviewers MUST rate a Radiohead release as a 9 or higher, because, “ya know, it’s Radiohead,” that services no one.

    • I have to subscribe to your exposition on the grading. If I personally award a record an 8.5, that does not mean that I will listen to it more in the future than when I give a 7.3. There quite a few examples of this in my discography, one being Other Mountains which I gave 7.5 – the band were actually quite offended at this. But I still play this album quite regularly, despite all the great records I have reviewed since. It’s all about the charm in the record.

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