Radiohead fall into the pseudo-deified class of bands hailed as musical geniuses. Famous for their eclectic, ground-breaking musical arrangements and stunning vocal talent, the beacons for the misunderstood headed by Thom Yorke have decades of success, industry respect and strangeness associated with their image. Unfortunately for bands with such stellar credentials, the curse of astronomical expectation hangs heavy. Two weeks ago the band flew off the grid, erasing their social media presence online and becoming a blank slate for fans to judge. A week later A Moon Shaped Pool was released, and judge we have.
With the weight of the world on their shoulders, Radiohead have risen up to give us A Moon Shaped Pool. But is it the work of genius we’ve come to expect, or something far more tepid?
On first listen the album falls short of the reputation Radiohead slings over their shoulders. Many of the tracks appear to follow a basic formula with little of Radiohead’s famous deviation from the norm. A Colin Greenwood bass line, a repetitive grand piano arrangement or swelling chamber strings, some subtle drum lines and of course, Yorke’s up-in-the-clouds vocals hitting off notes with the reverb turned up to 11.
While this set of constraints is sonically pleasing, constraining is exactly how it comes off. The first half of the album is particularly guilty of this slewing restrictiveness, with the opening four or so tracks riding the vocals almost completely. Considering the opening two songs, Burn the Witch and Daydreaming, are also the two currently available singles from the album, their uninventiveness feels particularly punchy. Listening through, I kept finding myself asking one question: “Is this it?”
Context breaches any Radiohead release, and one must remember that they have been a subjectively enjoyed band from their origins. Audiences have been divided by all but their best work. No muso will argue against Ok Computer’s strength, and a generation of the dejected may have cried the first time they heard Creep, and it is because of Radiohead’s finest that fans often forget the band can be extraordinarily hard to like at times. Such is the struggle of the experimental artist.
Thankfully, a set of three songs later on in the track listing are the trio which cut through the rest of the album as exemplars. Identikit breaks from the album’s established mould in glorious fashion. While the vocals up until this point had been haunting and almost creepy in Thom Yorke’s usual “I’m standing right behind you” brand of beautiful, this song gives way to catchier choral repetitions. A guitar solo ends the breakaway track with an octave-d bang. The Numbers is next, starting with drawly guitar riffs which shoot you into a swinging-door bar from a Sergio Leone film.
The song builds dramatically with some sharper strings which again, would feel at home in a soundtrack. Rounding off this auditory trifecta is Present Tense. No Radiohead release would be complete without an angelic ballad for the bent and the broken hearted, and this song is A Moon Shaped Pool’s version, and suitably very powerful. Yorke strikes you as a man who doesn’t find life easy. Perhaps struggling with his work’s enormous potential energy takes a toll. It feels wrong to criticise Radiohead, it’s a grey moral headspace. I wanted to like this release the whole way through and couldn’t help wondering if I would have if it had the record come from another, less-established band.
Erasing Radiohead’s past work, the context of their place in the industry, and opinions of the band’s members from memory is impossible, and given the progressiveness with which they have always operated, A Moon Shaped Pool feels incomplete. On the other hand, maybe it is wrong to ascribe any band the unrealistic expectation of musical perfection every time they hit a key, pluck a string or hit a high note. Maybe I don’t understand the album’s genius, or maybe Radiohead is making the bold declaration of a new, more established and consistent sound.
A Moon Shaped Pool is in many ways a beautiful record – echoey, daunting and ethereal in all the right places – but it won’t wow listeners to the degree that the bands past releases have. The strongest tracks are objectively gorgeous pieces of music, but aside from these the album, sadly, feels more like an orchestration of old ideas, not the work of geniuses.