RADIOHEAD – A Moon Shaped Pool (XL Recordings): For the first time I understand how disaffected OK Computer fans have felt since Kid A—they got into the band for the three-guitar attack, not the bleepity-bloops Yorke & Co.’s been obsessed with post-2000. Me? I like those bleepity-bloops quite a bit, up to and including Yorke’s solo albums The Eraser (2006) and Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes (2014), which many fans and critics thought would have been better if beefed-up by the band (Eraser) or considered a phoned-in effort (TMB). I even defended The King of Limbs, a pretty mild affair as far as a follow-up to In Rainbows could be, though if I’d known the second half of that eight-song cycle (and no, I’m not talking about “Lotus Flower” or even “Separator,” but rather “Codex” and “Give Up the Ghost”) were indicative of the sound Radiohead would pursue on their ninth, maybe I’d have joined the protest.
That’s not to say I don’t enjoy slow burners like “Codex” or “Give Up the Ghost.” I do, just as much as I enjoy “How to Disappear Completely” or “Nude.” But one of the big reasons I’m able to appreciate them the way I do is because they’ve always been accompanied and balanced out by fist-pumpers like “Idioteque” or “Bodysnatchers.” The closest A Moon Shaped Pool comes to a spaz-out moment is “Ful Stop,” which sounds like the distant cousin of “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” your host’s least-favorite track on his most-favorite Radiohead album by far. Not to mention A Moon Shaped Pool finds Jonny Greenwood’s motion picture-scoring hobby taking center stage, paired with mostly acoustic guitar and a lot of piano. In other words, this album is slow. Really slow.
“But it’s gorgeous!” the entire music-loving community cries. “It’s so pretty!” Well, duh—Radiohead albums are pretty by default, but A Moon Shaped Pool comes dangerously close to having prettiness be its main attribute, which would render it little more than a good Coldplay album. When Rolling Stone’s Will Hermes described this as “artisanal Radiohead,” I was amazed to find out he wasn’t making a joke.
Worse, I can’t pretend to appreciate the lyrics like I normally do. I’ve never thought Thom Yorke was a poetic mastermind, but I’ve always enjoyed the words in theory, the way he imbues seemingly innocuous or clichéd phrases with sinister, dystopic undertones that would sound cheesy (or just stupid) in the mouth of Muse’s conspiracy-theorist-in-residence Matt Bellamy but somehow strike as almost profound under Yorke’s guidance. None of that is here. Save for the chorus of “Burn the Witch,” the innocuous phrases come off as innocuous, the clichés cliché; I can’t help but cringe when Yorke, now forty-seven, repeats “Broken hearts make it rain” as if it were anything more clever than a chapter-closing line of dialogue from a Nicholas Sparks character.
And I don’t believe for a moment these songs’ seemingly more personal subject matter (I say ‘seemingly’ because let’s face it, Yorke lyrics are so vague people construct wacky narratives out of them) have anything to do with Yorke splitting with his partner of twenty-three years, Rachel Owen—“True Love Waits” has been kicking around too long to suddenly apply to her now (and if it applied to her back then, well, uh…). Besides, Yorke actually sounds happy here; there’s little of the paranoia or outright anger and confusion that marked a lot of their earlier work. At best Yorke sounds like he’s in a tizzy about a little thing called love. At worst he sounds like someone who’s never experienced it trying to explain it to an alien.
I get no pleasure out of writing this. And despite all the ways I’ve bashed it, I still like the album fine, will still listen to it albeit not as often (probably) as other Radiohead albums. I don’t mean to come off as bitter or disappointed or, conversely, meta-contrarian; I know they’re getting older and won’t always make music I like and have no obligation to. It’s just that there’s something poignant about a band you love seemingly going on the wane, about not anticipating the album drop date like it’s an impending Christmas morning. Part of getting older, I suppose.
So yes. There was a time when this aging Radiohead obsessive would have written a several thousand word essay “decoding the politics” of lead single “Burn the Witch,” or painstakingly and foolishly wrung every lyric dry of its supposed meaning, or dropped $86.50 on a heavyweight double LP with artwork booklet and attendant, useless shellac 78 rpm records. And that was a Radiohead enthusiast who celebrated The King of Limbs when so many fans were once again disappointed they didn’t get OK Computer Part 2, who thoroughly enjoyed the simplicity of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes and The Eraser amid cries the band could have properly fleshed-out the primitive tracks. No more. B PLUS (**)