Sunday, May 15, 2016

album review: 'a moon-shaped pool' by radiohead

Most of the time, I have absolutely no issue going against the critical consensus. Sure, it's nice to know that my opinions are echoed by popular opinion, but I've taken some hard and controversial stances before and I'm not afraid to stand by them. I've found albums that critics adored to be tedious or mediocre, and I've found some albums that were critically savaged to be hidden gems. After all, as much as critics like myself like to think we're the ones who can shape history, reality often proves to be vastly different.

And yet when we get to Radiohead... goddamn it, I wish I liked this band more than I do. The way I've always described the critically beloved group is that I respect them more than I like them - I can appreciate what they did to push boundaries in alternative rock and blending in electronica throughout the 90s and 2000s, but in terms of the records themselves? My favourite Radiohead album has always been The Bends, and while OK Computer and In Rainbows definitely have their moments and are great records in their own right, I've never been able to get passionate about this group. A big part of it is Thom Yorke himself - I can appreciate his expressive delivery to a point, but I've never found him to be the profound or interesting songwriter so many have said. And sure, melodically Radiohead have put together some potent moments and great songs, but when pushed through every shade of melancholy in the book - especially with the increasingly diminished returns of the 2000s - the material just doesn't connect for me. Hell, I'd argue part of it started with Kid A, certainly a good record with some spectacular moments but not worth the ocean of praise the majority of online critics - especially Pitchfork - ejaculated all over it in 2000. And no, it wasn't going electronic that hurt Radiohead for me - In Rainbows found a synthesis of it that was looser, more melodic, and really quite potent, it really is the brighter side to OK Computer - but I will say that the more humanity and organic instrumentation Radiohead tends to embrace, the more their gift for melody comes to the forefront, something which their 2011 record The King Of Limbs didn't emphasize all that effectively in its choice to play for choppy, looped rhythms and minimalism.

So when I heard that their surprise new release A Moon-Shaped Pool was going back towards more organic instrumentation, perhaps even bringing in elements of folk that they've flirted with but never completely embraced for decades... hell, I was intrigued. And even though I'm decidedly in the minority when it comes to Radiohead albums, I figured I still liked the group enough to dig in, so what did I find with A Moon-Shaped Pool?

Well, I like it more than The King Of Limbs, that's for sure - but granted, if that's the standard for which we're holding Radiohead, anything was going to be an improvement. But that's not quite fair, because A Moon-Shaped Pool is indeed very listenable and melodically satisfying in the melancholic way so much of Radiohead's music is... but it's not a record that I'll say rises to the heights of their best or makes me a fan of this group. It's fine, it's pleasant, it's got its moments... but I'm not wowed or all that impressed by this, as it pretty much fails to satisfy on every level.

I should explain, and let's start off with the factor where I'll immediately alienate a whole crop of Radiohead fans: Thom Yorke does nothing for me on this record. Oh sure, he's plaintive and expressive with that trembling mews, but I've never been wild about his voice and pretty much nothing changes here. Of course, by Radiohead standards he's sounds fine - outside of a few gimmicks like when they reverse his vocals on 'Daydreaming' or shove in some awkwardly layered pieces like on 'Present Tence', he's very comfortable and in his wheelhouse. But I've never been able to find much about Yorke's delivery that grips me, and that doesn't really change here. I will say I dug some of the symphonic backing vocals that showed up on 'Decks Dark', 'Identikit', or the second half of 'Present Tense', but beyond that... he just doesn't grip me.

And that's a big problem, because a lot of the instrumentation didn't grab much attention either. For as much buzz as Radiohead got for going for a more rich, acoustic sound, I'm not entirely convinced the hype was worth it, mostly because it translates to more acoustic guitar and some well-placed strings sections. And yes, it's all got great, smooth texture - not a lot of grit but I've learned not to expect that from Radiohead, and when the strings and very muted keys build to some swell, I tend to like it. The ragged, pluckier strings that actually come from a technique where the musicians hit the strings rather than saw them on 'Burn The Witch', the meatier strings section on 'The Numbers', which is probably my favourite song here with the guitar groove, and the melodic arrangement really makes 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief', really rescuing it from that fizzy popping beat and muted keys that didn't really develop. Granted, most of these songs don't develop much - I was desperately hoping that we'd get a little more bombast and swell on 'Burn The Witch' or off the rickety groove on 'Decks Dark', or the krautrock crescendo on 'Ful Stop' or off that richer synth and lower groove on 'Identikit'... but we never hit that climax point. Yeah, the guitar solo on 'Identikit' was nice, but it was a shame it felt completely unsupported by the rest of the mix. And that's before we get into the elephant in the room, namely that a lot of these melodic compositions and the smoother blends of guitar, synth, and semi-symphonic backing vocals remind me way too much of Steven Wilson. Now in a sense that's fine - I like Steven Wilson and early Porcupine Tree did borrow from Radiohead so I have no problem with the reverse situation. But it also ignores that Steven Wilson took similar textures and not just added an edge, but allowed them to pay off melodically, or at least build to something with a thicker, more ominous atmosphere. And it's bewildering that given the powerful feelings of melancholy that Thom Yorke is trying to convey vocally that the atmosphere of these mixes feels so tepid, especially considering how muted and restrained so many of the keyboards are.
So what saves this album from being worse? Honestly, it might be the lyrics and themes - like always, Thom Yorke's brand is often brutally simple but a little abstract, and thus requires a deeper listen to tie themes together. And considering that most of this album is comprised of songs that Radiohead has had in their set list for years if not decades in the case of 'True Love Waits', you need a thematic connection to hold this together. Initially there's been a lot of speculation that it's focused on the separation of Thom Yorke from his wife - and yes, you can definitely see that relationship melodrama creeping in. And note that I saw melodrama here because there's not a lot of emotional nuance in the writing - Yorke is desperately trying to hold things together but it gets awfully whiny at points, and at the very least it's thinly sketched. But then we get songs like 'Burn The Witch' and 'The Numbers', tracks that seem to be focused on climate change or scapegoating by the masses or even being confronted with powers beyond oneself on 'Decks Dark', and this is where the themes materialize: ignorance is bliss. In typical Thom Yorke fashion much of this album retreats upon itself, but there's an undercurrent of how not knowing the truth would make things easier or better, when if you face reality you have to deal with the pain or the very real crises staring you in the face. Sure, it's terrifying to stare into that moon-shaped pool, the reflection where the most discovery will actually take place, but ultimately it can at least help the process of moving on... and I wish the sequencing of this album remotely paid this off. For some ungodly reason this record is sequenced alphabetically and it makes for a listen where thematically it's jumbled as hell - the arc to this record feels misshapen, and it completely hurts potent moments, like the pretty damn good ballads 'Desert Island Disk' and 'Glass Eyes'. 

So as a whole... look, there are some beautiful moments here, but this record felt underwritten, underwhelming, and unsatisfying as a whole. I'm not going to deny that part of it was probably due to Radiohead picking up songs they've had in their setlist for years rather than recording a completely cohesive album with all new songs, but even if that was the case, this record would probably still be scattershot and lacking dramatic payoff. Now some will argue that's the point - facing the truth isn't always straightforward - but there's a way of approaching this sort of emotional decompression that can connect. Hell, Sufjan Stevens understood it with Carrie & Lowell, but that record also had an undercurrent of narrative subtext that could still be paid off, whereas the subtext A Moon-Shaped Pool has is muddied and out-of-order. And the more I've listened to this record, the less I find it comes together, so I'm thinking a strong 6/10 and only a recommendation to hardcore Radiohead fans. Keep in mind, again, that I have long accepted that Radiohead is not for me, but even fans if they're being honest can probably admit this is pretty far from their best - they've definitely done better.

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