Radiohead ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ – Review

22 May

There was a time when Radiohead were the most important band in the world, something that you have to remind yourself of when listening to ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’, a reflective, personal record that does everything to diminish its own significance. That time when Radiohead were angry, conflicted, political, popular and groundbreaking – that time my friends is called the past. For all their strengths, and this being Radiohead they are still a band with so many, they’ve made a quiet record with modest aims and mixed success.

They wisely bookend the album with their two best songs in at least a decade. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that’s because the songs were written over a decade ago. ‘Burn the Witch’ can be traced back to the ‘Hail the Thief’ days whilst ‘True Love Waits’ has been a fan favourite and concert staple since the mid 90s. Releasing them officially only now can be interpreted cynically as showing a lack of new ideas. Alternatively you could argue that it’s a case of the stars finally aligning for these songs. You could certainly make this case convincingly when it comes to ‘True Love Waits’ which is given a breathtaking, minimalist arrangement that compliments one of Thom Yorke’s finest ever vocal performances. Like a more alert and sober take on the sparse despondency of ‘Motion Picture SOundtrack’, the song relates some of the record’s simplest sentiments with one of its most memorable melodies. ‘Burn the Witch’s bruised politics and orchestral bite feels slightly less in keeping with the rest of the album’s sedate glow but it’s a fantastic tune nonetheless.

Then there are the newer songs – newness being a relative term. Many were debuted a few years back during acoustic Thom Yorke shows, and most retain that folky atmosphere. You can divide the keepers and the throwaways pretty evenly. ‘The Numbers’, ‘Desert Island Disk’, ‘Ful Stop’ and ‘Present Tense’ are varying degrees of bland and monotonous and are impossible to recall, even after hearing the album many, many times. ‘Identikit’ is better, one of the few songs other than ‘Burn the Witch’ to have any kind of tension or energy.

One of the rare songs that hasn’t been heard before is the gorgeously melancholy ‘Daydreaming’, an early album standout. The track introduces the album’s key theme – romantic disentanglement. ‘It’s too late, the damage is done’ Yorke purrs cryptically. He’s no more enlightening when he sings ‘have you had enough of me?’ or ‘different types of love are possible’ or ‘I feel this love turn cold.’ It all adds up to something frustratingly vague but often devastatingly beautiful. A breakup album? It’s never really that cut and dry, though it often points in that direction. This uncertainty is symbolised by the soundscape of the mesmerising ‘Tinker, Tailor…’ where the red raw melody floats through beats that makes a sound something like bullets muffled by clouds. It’s delicate and lovely but somewhat unsure of the point it’s making.

All in all the album measures up to a pretty but somewhat insubstantial album with a couple of classics to add to the collection and a few songs you’ll  never particularly want to hear again. In the rush to be the first to review the album, surely critics were too generous too soon – perhaps they were in awe of this great band. Now that the dust has settled surely the final conclusion must be a simple and blunt one – sure; sophisticated, stylistic, mature, nuanced, measured etc, but overall, isn’t it just a little boring?

As stunning as ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ often is, in its own way, I’m left longing for a Radiohead song that once again attempts to transcend the solitary process of listening through earphones – the best way to experience this and all other Radiohead albums since ‘Kid A’. I don’t know about a pool, this album often has all the actual depth of a puddle. I want a Radiohead song that wears its heart on its sleeve and lets you stare into THom Yorke’s soul as you belt the gigantic chorus right back at him. Radiohead used to craft honest to God anthems, it was their greatest strength, but ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ falls short on them. It falls short on anything with that level of passion and drama. Yes, puddles can reflect great beauty and ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ often does but surely Radiohead can access their old well of genius?

7.5/10

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