Album Review: Radiohead’s ‘Moon Shaped Pool’ offers something for fans and newbies alike

by | May 10, 2016 | MUSIC

I’ll preface this review by saying I was, for a time, a rabid Radiohead fan.

I’ll preface this review by saying I was, for a time, a rabid Radiohead fan. Back before torrents where big and Itunes was years from digital publishing, when you head to collect unreleased bootlegs from fan sites and IRC channels, that’s when much of my time was spend brooding in places like Mortigi Tempo.

Background – skip this if you’re up to speed

I’ve spoken to too many millennials who don’t really understand Radiohead’s history so bare with me as I try and show the band’s evolution with the help of snark and youtube:

Radiohead’s first release, Pablo Honey (1993), was more of a U2 album than anything else. But the song “Creep” helped launch them into the pop stratosphere. Don’t be fooled, the band tried to buck national attention during this release, and this was best highlighted by their hilarious appearance on MTV Spring Break featuring puffy shirts and a pool-stage dive:

Some solid b-sides exist from that era – mostly ballads and all written in the same key:

Their second full release, The Bends (1995), followed their history of high-impact success on songs like “Just” and “My Iron Lung” while the ballad “Fake Plastic Trees” lead to more tear-soaked pillows and awkward make out sessions than probably any other mid-90’s track.

Then OK Computer dropped in 1997 and the band went from pop phenom to international genre definers when they integrated computer effects and lyrics about loneliness and heartbreak into the pop mainstream. Tracks like “Paranoid Android,” a pretty obvious tribute to The Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” entered heavy rotation on MTV as its animated-style matched the network’s own successful animated line up. There were lots of happy coincidences which helped turn a great band’s great album into a great success.

The pressure was on after OK Computer and, as if knowing they needed to do something crazy, they embarked on a tent tour of national parks which they said was inspired by the writings of Canadian socialist critic Naomi Klein’s book No Logo.

Before long they dropped what would become two of the most important albums in modern-music history, Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001). These two records, recorded at the same time, are what I hear most future Radiohead compared too and that’s not unfair.

Whatever genre they defined with Ok Computer they managed to wholly reinvent it with these two releases. I often group the two together as one release to save myself the heartache of ordering them in my “Favorite Radiohead Albums” list – they are both incredible and will hopefully be remembered for their impact on all pop, electronic, and rock music hence forth.

It also lead to one of the best SNL performances ever:

Next came Hail to the Thief (2003). I spoke with a friend of mine about this album recently and he mistakenly put it low on his “favorite RH” list and I chastised him for it. The record strayed from the Kid A/Amnesiac stress on electronics but did return to a more “rock’n” sound with tracks like “2+2=5” and “There There.”

It’s also important to remember this record was more of a protest album about world politics at the time. The album title itself is a reference to then-president George W. Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s brand of conservatism and the War on Terror. Themes of isolation shifted from personal to societal, with feelings of helplessness in the face of organized power becoming more apparent.

Then there was a few years of near silence. It was around this time my RH fandom hit a fever pitch. They announced a new tour and before long In Rainbows hit the streets with a “pay-what-you-want” online distribution model. Singles for “All I Need” and “House of Cards” set a pretty melodramatic tone for an album that was actually a lot more upbeat. Tracks like “Reckoner” and “Bodysnatchers” had some pretty solid riffage – something some fans (like myself) missed and were glad to see.

Last, but not least (only because Pablo Honey was pretty terrible), came King of Limbs. In all honesty, I went through a rough breakup when this was released and it left a pretty sour taste in my mouth as I find myself association a lot of the tracks with some very personal feelings. I’m not sure if this is a real reflection of the release or my fandom as it’s hard to ruin music unless it means a lot to you. Either way, this release was important for a number of reasons which I am just about to get to…

Why, Radiohead Why?

Back around the release of In Rainbows a web app popped up that let people make videos with animated figures and computer voices. It is available below and we are about to enter the “fan’s” universe, so please bare with me.

The truth is, much like people love the show Twin Peaks, a lot of the hardcore love of RH comes from the band’s ability to create mysteries and keep fans guessing. They include silly easter eggs in releases, write tracks decades before releasing them, and generally do a lot of weird shit that few other bands would take the time or energy to do (like touring only at national parks).

Things like having the melody from “I Will” (off of Hail to the Thief) be the melody from “Like Spinning Plates” (Amnesiac) only backwards. Or burying a secret message behind the disc on Kid A.

The “writing and playing tracks decades before release” is by far their most endearing quality. Even as I write this I’m getting comments about how much a 20-year-old fan loves “True Love Waits” well with the knowledge they’ve never heard the song’s official live release off the I Might Be Wrong EP (2001) – 15 years ago, not that this was the first time the song was played either though.

As for King of Limbs, tracks like “Morning Mr. Magpie” had leaked as part of a webcast event streamed close to the release of In Rainbows.

Gigging new tracks ahead of album releases has been a large part of their routine since the beginning, and they often sound different then their final, official release (like “True Love Waits” (which I’ll get to shortly!). Similarly, earlier version of songs like “Video Tape” popped up ahead of In Rainbows and often sounded significantly more metal with guitarist Jonny Greenwood ripping chords to the beat.

All of this build up might be tiring for some, but for those who connected with the band, it can be a kind of religion, even if its only for a little while. I found myself tracking down obscure live versions of songs like “Go to Sleep” (Hail to the Thief) because they were a rare change to hear guitar solos. Or I’d dig into “How To Disappear Completely” to find longer versions as it’s one of the rare tracks to hit 10 mins+ plus live. It’s these little differences, and their final album releases, that offer a unique level of fan service for a band that is probably all too aware of us frothing at the mouth.

Then there’s the small army of b-side release from singles and EP’s that you can almost entirely find on Itunes now. Meanwhile, 2005-me was spending hard earned cash on import discs from Europe and Japan – you all have it easy, and I REALLY REALLY recommend diving in because some of their best tracks never make full album releases.

So, what about Moon Shaped Pool, you giant Radiohead nerd?

Oh man. It’s been an exciting two days, trust me.

The release of the “Burn the Witch” video turned me into a bubbling mass of goo. The song had never been played, but had floated around by name since pre-In Rainbows. You can’t see it because of the size of the image below, but I remember seeing the same image with “Burn The Witch” pop up in a list of possible tracks on one of the forums back in 2006 just before they ended up on tour –

Either way, the track is heavy and cinematic – a theme that will cary throughout the album.

From there “Daydreamer” harkens back to the electro-heavy and incredibly moody days of Kid A/Amnesiac. It’s a fairly obvious tribute to the arpeggio-era sound from In Rainbows. It took me a few listens, but I find myself liking it more and more every time.

“Deck Darks” could have been a Hail to the Thief b-side with its heavy bass lines and piano riffs. There’s also some of Thom Yorke’s ever-present love of Neil Young in here.

I could write another 2000 word article on RH and Neil young, but just go here and here for the short versions.

That Neil Young-love continues on “Desert Island Disk,” another acoustic track that plays on Yorke’s vocals and sparse electro-whirls and whistles.

“ful Stop,” however, is where things start to get real interesting again. A friend of mine described it as early 80’s Kraut-rock and that seems like a fairly safe comparison. Digital and analog drum beats build up into what is arguably the most dance-y track on the record. It also could have appeared on a late-Porishead album (if you’re into that sort of thing).

“Glass Eyes” sounds like a tinder conversation – Yorke might be having a few after a recent break up with his un-married baby-momma of 23 years, printmaker Rachel Owen.

NPR’s Robin Hilton thinks Yorke’s breakup weighs heavy on this album, but trying to say this album is any more somber or personally reflective than any other is an asinine practice for a band that made its name depressing teen-agers in the wake of bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam. Not to mention (again) many of these tracks were probably written long long ago.

“Identikit” is among the tracks that has been in rotation for sometime – returning to that mix of electro and analog beats along with harmonized vocals. It is stand out as much on this release as it is played live back in 2012.

“The Numbers” is another Neil Young-tribute for better or worse. You need lulls between peaks, and that’s what some of these more “mature” tracks inevitably end up being (like most of King of Limbs).

“Present Tense” could have easily fallen into In Rainbows territory with Yorke’s specter-vocals echoing over another repeated arpeggio. It stands above “The Numbers” because its less actually-Neil Young and more Yorke’s version of Young.

“Tinker Tailor…” is another delightful kraut-rock jam that I am incredibly bummed I haven’t seen live. This is the kind of track you know builds heavy when they play it live. It will no doubt flood over festival audiences just as the molly kicks in.

Finally, we get to what really sold me on this record – an official, album release of “True Love Waits.” How they managed to take one of their most epic arena ballads and make it more epic is hard to believe. Early versions of this track were responsible for more tear-filled nights than I care to remember, but somehow this version sounds more haunting and terrifying then specifically sad.

Honestly, they could have just made raspberries sounds into microphones for 45 minutes and then dropped this at the end and I would have called this the best album of 2016.

Moon Shaped Pool came out of nowhere for me, though I should have realized a new tour probably meant a new album. I miss the times where I devotedly logged into the RH forums to read gossip and prey for some kind of leak about a new release. Now I’m a few years older and wiser, but with the drop of this record, I find myself diving into the archives of live and unreleased tracks, refreshing my memory as to why I spent so much time, money and energy in the name of a band from England.

Is this album for everyone, honestly yes. I’d have trouble imagining anyone struggling to not enjoy at least one track here. But there are naysayers everywhere, but they’re not really living, they’re just killing time.

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

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