Radiohead A Moon Shaped Pool

[Self-Released/XL; 2016]

Styles: music, band, chamber rock, art rock,
Others: Paul Thomas Anderson, Beck, Nick Drake, Harry Robinson, Haruki Murakami, Melody Nelson

Somehow, in a moon-shaped slice into cultural consciousness, alienation, anxiety, sentiment, and dulcet sympathy spilled out into a weird pool. New, hybrid strands of critical music fragmented “the band” into 1,000 electronic vessels of pained identity formation — literal vats of sonic influence that often provoke sensibility through extreme measures — be it imagistic, cultural, ironic, or virtual. The rallying force of some of music’s most iconic figures has faded into memorials, into monuments depicting an eternal sonic battle against permanent themes. These monuments attempt to erase themselves by ornamenting their stature into simple, noble statements of their regalia. These monuments are great. The monuments are impressive. But these monuments are also stoic against the swarms of micro-flows that pivot angrily and capriciously around our wholly transitional present. Music in 2016 has been impatient and brutal. Here, too, is a refusal for musical authority and power, of the political privilege that has allowed musicians to speak abstractly on behalf of others. Rather, our new music is unstable. Our new music is vicious. Our new music is bitter.

Perhaps that energy — that urgency — once informed some of the music continuum’s great figures — their OK-ing of new modes of expression, of event-oriented changes in sound, of cultural momentum and “definitive” gestures of emotion. These tactics all gave way to the massification of indie themes and alternative structures. They wrapped them in cellophane and CD cases, repressed them to vinyl, shipped them in large, beautiful containers that would help promote the idea of reform and aesthetic newness, of struggle, anxiety, and reinvention on the molar scale. It is now unquestionably clear that massive statements of radical sound are exhausted. Beautiful children they were, their nature could only be sustained as representational — cinematic — “Motion Picture Soundtracks,” “Exit Music (For a Film)”: large and entirely tragic soundworlds that can ruin generations in their sheer ability to emotionalize and produce special little subjectivities.

The notion that Radiohead’s new music could be “like nothing you’ve ever heard” was ridiculous. Firstly, because it just couldn’t be true; secondly, because it’s an idea both obvious and stupid to consider against the grain of the band’s report of regularly (every five or so years) delivering a musical statement for the masses. If anything, the best thing the band could do — or has ever done — was to keep making music so that it could erase the notion of transcendent music. The process began with King of Limbs, although it was a broken record in its relationship with the beginnings of a massive cultural shift toward club sound. 2011 saw Thom Yorke grossly flirting with club aesthetics and running wild amongst the absurdity of the band’s five-member legacy. Now in 2016, with A Moon Shaped Pool, the band properly attempts to peel back its own layers of regime to reveal the substance of its myth: a real band making simple and evocative music through straightforward, tactical demonstration.

A Moon Shaped Pool is the maturing of attempts at transcendent, quasi-subversive myth-building. Such maturation allows Radiohead to dissolve their regime of symbols and pressurized cultural force. Their music can now be pure literary evocation — orchestration and embellishment, flourishing attempts at subtle and/or potent musical gestures. This is a wholly positive assessment. For one, it serves to unwrap the idea of newness in Radiohead’s otherwise poisonous relationship with the new. Yes, Radiohead is erasing their online presence. Yes, Radiohead is “burning the witch.” Many will try and use this record to “pay respects” to their memories and youthful belief in the sublime. Many will note its orchestral nature and proclaim it as their “eternal return” away from the cybernetic nature of their previous albums. Still others will use the album as a blank canvas to project their desires, hopes, anxieties, and cultural ghosts — to satisfy their genetic memory of goosebumps.

All of this is completely necessary for listeners to proclaim in order to begin erasing, interpellating their relationships to big, male music. The premier venues for A Moon Shaped Pool are in airplanes and in strangers’ cars; in hospitals, crowded parks, and large stores; in public space situations that require one to reach out for “comfort” with empty evocation — of a music that will always (but never actually) be enjoyed. These public contexts are similar to some film and are often inextricably associated with cinematic soundtracks. Greenwood’s use of bow-slapping wood stuff, of animal hairs scraping melodiously and dissonantly against taught wires — his scoring and diagramming of these techniques — is secondary to the fact that such orchestration is flecked on like transparent statements of bleary, sluggish behavior in crowded space.

And then there are the songs: “Burn The Witch” features a nice upbeat violin technique to drive the track. “Daydreaming” is retrospective and paired with a mysterious video directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. “Decks Dark” represents every instrument well, leading up to a funky breakdown. “Desert Island Disk” is an acoustic ditty with a serene, meandering feel. “Ful Stop” is a motorik jam that encapsulates Radiohead’s obvious relationship to Krautrock, giving itself wholly to the band’s foreboding, groove-based strengths. “Glass Eyes” is a fragmented and beautiful pool of watery tones and affectual production techniques. “Identikit” snaps sharp percussion over jaunty palm-muted guitars, opening up into a funny guitar solo. “The Numbers” hits all the black keys on the piano while guitars strum a Nick Drake vibe, Yorke’s voice deadpanning stoically. “Present Tense” is a bossa nova track that oddly doesn’t feel out of place due to its contemporary, hookah lounge atmosphere, plush with pillows colored like a rainbow-ed laserdisc. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Thief” is exactly a Radiohead song. And “True Love Waits” is a decades-old fan favorite that has “finally found its home.”

A Moon Shaped Pool is a “grower,” because all music is a grower. Here, there is perhaps a wider opportunity for the music to grow due to there being an audible release of sign and substance as a ghostly after-image of the band’s event-based trauma. Bookish and serene in its presentation, the album recalls lazy afternoons — perhaps a nod toward needed cultural relaxation — a cold spa or flotation tank that gently uses slowly pulsing hot-tub jets to massage legs sore with built-up lactic acid — stored eternally from attempts at catharsis. The attempts at transcendence in Radiohead’s past make this album full with potential for retroactive catharsis due to its normality and lack, a sort of vernacular normcore presentation that delivers strands of Radiohead’s past in a utilitarian and casual manner. With room to breathe, their instruments do resound with a harmony applicable to finding quiet, flexible space in our otherwise vicious cultural moment. A totem of difference, perhaps such a serene application of myth can remind music culture of the damage done through years of forced cultural climaxing, the spectacular assaults that have yielded flawed power dynamics embedded in our consumption of music. Perhaps we can see the skin shed and turn our gaze to the cataclysmic, reverberating pit of 10,000 musics crawling with life, listening not with ears tuned for transcendence, but for a productive shift toward both music’s impossibility and the plateauing of a new form into unknown, incomplete, wrong waters — unstable, moon shaped.

Links: Radiohead

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