Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool (XL) Review

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The new Radiohead album came out today, after a long gap (King of Limbs, their last album, came out in 2011) and some recent teasing, via the mailing of leaflets and Instagram videos, then full-on videos (for the songs “Burn the Witch” and “Daydreaming”). They also have a string of sold out festival dates around the world lined up, some of which the band will reportedly play the whole album at, and a special edition of the album coming out full of bells and whistles.

So is it any good?

That’s a loaded question when it comes to Radiohead. I’m a pretty unabashed fan, and have been along for the ride through their many phases for a long time now, so I’m in it for the long haul at this point. I find their arc through music and the business of music a fascinating one, and, to my mind, there simply isn’t another band like them. They’re either the most experimental of mainstream bands, or the most mainstream of experimental bands, and I’ve long contended that they’re sort of an alternate universe version of The Beatles that finished the White Album and leapt forward in time and kept going.

I have friends who gave up on them when they released Hail to the Thief, and I have friends whose first Radiohead album was Hail to the Thief, and they can’t imagine them ever topping it again. Kid A either made them or was their downfall, depending on who you ask. And King of Limbs seemed to lose them as many fans as it gained, which sort of makes Radiohead fans some of the most contentious sons of bitches in modern music geeking.

But, yes, A Moon Shaped Pool is pretty good.

When I first saw the video and heard the song “Burn the Witch,” with the pulsing string section, I wondered if this was going to be their record that returned them to some sunshine a little. But large bits of the record are pretty moody, and it’s downright somber in spots. Much like In Rainbows, A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead sort of taking all the things they’ve learned from their various phases, and throwing it into the stewpot. Which is okay. They’ve arguably reinvented themselves more often than any modern band in existence, so they have certain strands of DNA that recombine from time to time, and they’re good ingredients.

Two of the songs on the album have been heard before in various forms — “Identikit” was played frequently on the King of Limbs tour during the band’s “double drummer” phase, and “True Love Waits” was the closing track on the band’s only official live recording (and it closes this album too). Both are in very different forms, though, so it feels less like a cheat or rehash than it does “they finally got them right.” “Identikit” focuses more on the groove here, and layered vocals, sounding a lot more organic, even when the synth comes in. And the guitars rip at the end. “True Love Waits” was an acoustic guitar ballad previously, but is now the piano ballad it was meant to be.

There’s no doubt that guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s time scoring films has had an influence here – outside of the bold string arrangement of “Burn the Witch,” there are cinematic strings on “Glass Eyes,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” (which is a mouthful for sure), and “The Numbers.”

When I woke up this morning and read a headline that said “Rock band Radiohead release new album,” I got really excited to hear A Moon Shaped Pool. After hearing it, though, I now sort of question whether Radiohead are a rock band anymore. They’re a great band, who write great songs, with great production, but, more often than not on their records, the songs tend towards either experimentation or production than actually rocking (with the notable exception of “Ful Stop,” which is their grooving krautrock jam, and one of the high points of the album). They’ve managed to distance themselves from being a rock band, but then the question becomes “what are they moving towards?”

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Bryon Dudley is a writer and musician from Ames. He has written about music and other topics for a number of local publications and blogs. When not playing music and putting out albums with groups such as Strong Like Bear, Liana, and Rockets of Desire, he is helping other Iowa artists record their music at his studio, The Spacement, and releasing it on the Iowa label he co-founded, Nova Labs. He has a tattoo of an aardvark and is adjusting to bifocals.