Review: A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead

Music and Art

 

I still remember the first time I ever listened to a Radiohead song. I was 13 at the time, having just got back home from a football match called off midway as it was woefully raining cats and dogs.  I was absolutely knackered, and somehow through a few random clicks on YouTube, I came across this certain song called “Creep” – which I later came to know to be the single definitional song that everyone will, for better or for worse, inevitably associate Radiohead with. The music that I used to listened to back then on my first-generation iPod touch consisted mainly of the Jonas Brothers, Abba and a bit of Avril Lavigne – a pitiful combination I must admit. So, when I listened Creep and viewed the accompanying music, the 13-year-old me was in for a shocker. Jonny Greenwood’s sudden trio of dead guitar blasts in what was a beautifully melodic guitar-driven groove made me jump, and the way how he amped up the distortion to full gear in the chorus and literally began to lacerate his guitar was something I had never heard before. I obviously knew what the lyrics meant at the time, but I did not really find myself sympathizing with the self-loafing Thom Yorke as he yearns to be “f***ing special” and to be rid of being a “creep” and “weirdo”. The 13-year old me simply thought: Well, tough luck mate. There is plenty of fish in the sea – why so hung up about it.

But, 8 years later, and after a lot more Radiohead in my head now, I can daresay that Radiohead is, bar-none, the most musically diverse, adventurous and cathartic group out there. Till this day I still listen to “Creep” too, albeit my initial naivety has now been displaced with a grim empathy. Radiohead is more than just “Creep.” Radiohead is more than just “Paranoid Android”, or “Fake Plastic Trees”, or “All I Need”, or “House of Cards” or the criminally underrated “Thinking About You”. Radiohead is many, many things to me. Radiohead is almost like a religion, one which literally soars you into an unimaginably ethereal musical dimension. This is the reason, why I am willing to wake up bleary-eyed at 7 on a post-hangover morning to buy a ticket to their May 28 gig in London. I failed ultimately, which was rather sad. Even with Thom Yorke flippantly claiming that he was “f***ed off” that many Radiohead loyals could not see the five rock demigods live, I was undeterred, turning my hopes onto their new LP, which eventually was released on 8 May 2016 with the name “A Moon Shaped Pool”.

So what is my verdict? The answer to this, sadly but quite appropriately so, cannot be diminished to a mere yes-no dilemma. At the time of writing, I have approximately invested 37 hours into Thom Yorke & Co.’s newest offering. I kid you not, as my editor can testify.  In these 37 hours (and counting), I have attempted, to the best of my auditory abilities, to listen, re-listen, re-listen yet again, dissect, cross-check with the preexisting Radiohead catalogue, speed the tune up or slow it down, and in a particularly daring but futile endeavor, to recreate an entire song on the piano by ear. This just all goes to show one thing – there is simply so damn much going on in this album.

It is usually difficult, or even impossible, to review a Radiohead album without comparing it with the band’s earlier work. I will seek not to do so, but I will try to discuss A Moon Shaped Pool in isolation, as an album in its own right, as if I were a complete newbie to Radiohead’s music. However, like the album, the songs themselves are also difficult to be discussed within their respective vacuums. I shall, therefore, talk about three standout songs that alone is worth the £7 price tag.

The album kicks off with their first single off the record, “Burning the Witches”, a tensely pulsating strings-led tune that is brittle, taut, sinister and very, very dark, with Yorke’s signature airy falsetto announcing “This is a low-flying panic attack”. There is a very apparent sense of urgency here, or arguably even fear, augmented by the thick wall of reverb. The orchestral breakdown into a giant pair of gnashing teeth towards the end is perhaps not the most pleasant sound to sleep to – perhaps it seeks to mimic the fate of those burnt at the stake for practicing witchcraft? It certainly sounds so, for it is, genuinely, quite terrifying.

The second single, “Daydreaming”, is deceptively simple, but yet is an absolute gem of a song. This tune is arguably a depiction of the breakdown of the relationship between Yorke and his 23-year partner Rachel Owen, with Yorke pitifully whispers that “The damage is done”. This song sounds like a mess but only initially so. Minor piano arpeggios, wispy vocal samples repeated over and over, and the dissonant strings all culminate in a rather spooky ending, where a mechanically rumbling voice repeats an unintelligible phrase over and over. Upon some investigation on my part, I found out, with the help of some fellow Radiohead enthusiasts, that these certain unintelligible phrases, when played reverse, actually say “Half of my life” – an overt reference to the duration of 47-year-old Yorke and Owen’s relationship. And if you watch the music video, ripe with beautifully sourced locations, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the feeling of isolation and melancholy further intensifies, for it depicts an emotionless Yorke wandering aimlessly through various houses, malls, streets, and finally curling himself up in a fetal position in a snowy cave. Throughout the video, he does not interact with anyone. The sensation of alienation and disconnection hits you hard, and the emotional impact of the song is even heightened when you force yourself to carefully observe and count the number of doors Thom opens throughout his solo journey. In the entirety of the video, he opens 23 doors. 23 doors for 23 years of being in a relationship. Genius. Pure genius.

The album concludes with an existing but reworked Radiohead song from their work in the early 90s. True Love Waits is probably one of my top five tunes from the band, a bittersweet song that both soothes and aches. It was originally in the form of a simple ballad, accompanied by nothing but an acoustic guitar, where Yorke painstakingly and devastatingly urges his lover “Just don’t leave, don’t leave”.  In this album, however, the guitar is replaced by a piano, rife with Yorke’s signature unexpected chord changes. The rawness of the original is replaced by an ethereal, dreamy ambience which trades the original’s emotional intensity with a newfound acceptance but with much melancholic reluctance. The lyrics, remaining unchanged, are still as painful to sing as they are to hear: “I’ll drown my beliefs, to have your babies / I’m not living, I’m just killing time.” This song perhaps is a despairing plea from Yorke to want to simply connect fully, both physically and spiritually, with just one person he desires. But alas, he can do so no more. While the original version of “True Love Waits” evoked the sensation of a desperate lover begging his other half not to leave him, this reworked version suggests that Yorke has already come to terms with the departure of his other half, and is merely fantasizing what things might have been. It is like stumbling upon an old love letter years after a relationship has gone cold. The possible hint of redemption and reunion in the refrain “Just don’t leave” in the original version, now seems to be the most painful farewell. I am not going to lie – I shed a tear too many when listening to this. I guess it is fair to say that Yorke still dearly misses his partner (23 years, for God’s sake) and there can be no better choice for the final track that True Love Waits. Genius. Pure genius.