The internet gets weird during Radiohead season.
Radiohead fanaticism feels hardwired into the net (at least in music circles) in a way it isn’t for anyone else. You can at least hear The BeyHive coming with a constant buzz of “Yaaaas, slay” or see legions of Drake stans tweeting through their #woes. These are invading forces. Meanwhile, when Thom Yorke and his unmerry men make a move, and suddenly it seems like the normal gatekeepers and institutions are ready to bear witness to their lives being changed by OK Computer/Kid A/In Rainbows. This universal acclaim spreads to Radiohead reviews, too. People like, say, Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce might get higher scores, but K.Dot and Bey reviews tend to breakdown and discuss the record’s identity politics, while the glowing prose of Radiohead reviews spend more time extoling their place as Our Most Important Band; their cultural importance and musical brilliance are foregone conclusions. This isn’t a luxury afforded to, like, Pearl Jam. To say or imply online that Radiohead is anything less than the best is the equivalent of questioning American exceptionalism at a political rally, or calling Bruce Wayne overrated before a showing of Batman V. Superman.
I know that reads like the start of a takedown attempt, but it really isn’t. Like a lot of other people, I love Radiohead! They’ve made some of my favorite music! And A Moon Shaped Pool is possibly, probably their best non-classic album, which somehow makes it only fourth or fifth in their discography overall. It’s a desolate album with a lot of gripping moments, but doesn’t quite overcome its weaknesses to be the on-arrival Album of the Year masterpiece people are determined to make it.
A Moon Shaped Pool gets an early boost for the fact that it’s better than 2011’s ho-hum The King of Limbs. Even if pre-release tracks “Burn the Witch” and “Daydreaming” weren’t some of the album’s stronger standalones, they pass the “sounds better than ‘Bloom’” test. Jonny Greenwood’s orchestral string arrangements come to the forefront on “Burn the Witch” as they do for most of the album, where his compositions demonstrate complex moods. The chipper, constant string plucks at the start of “Burn the Witch” almost sound quaint, but the progression gives the song a menacing edge, resulting in a bright tone with shades of dystopia (in other words, it sounds like vintage Radiohead). Meanwhile, “Daydreaming” is a heartbreaker Radiohead ballad that starts quietly, and rises as it emotionally unravels in the vein of “How To Disappear Completely” or “All I Need.” It’s gorgeous.
A Moon Shaped Pool features a lot of material that’s been road-tested, and nowhere does this work better than on “Ful Stop.” Anchored by a few vamping bass notes and light drumming, the song hums along, gradually building energy. A few programmed noises making their way in and out while Yorke starts with an understated vocal. He hones in on the phrase “The truth will mess you up” as suddenly the drums and percussion lock step and guitars fall into place; by the time the song hits the 3:15 mark or so, it’s zipping along with the thrill of five pros in sync. I haven’t sought out any of its live iterations; all I know is it gives the album a much-needed energy boost. “Identikit” comes from a similar place, but doesn’t work as well. It’s built on a tight little drum beat and lightly funky guitar riff with a pretty slick solo, but the song is too polished and limp to be as satisfying as it could be.
The best song on A Moon Shaped Pool is an oldie, too. Closer “True Love Waits” has been rattling around in the band’s discography since 1995, but shows up here as a layered piano number that is the sound of someone gradually letting go of everything. The fragile, outlined chords are grim from start, Yorke begins with an aching melody that sounds utterly alone, and somehow it only gets sadder from there. By the time those last few watery notes creep to the surface as he pleads “Just don’t leave” as the album ends, he’s disappeared completely. For how much Radiohead are adored as 20th (and now 21st I guess) century doomsayers, their version of the apocalypse isn’t affecting because of technological takeover or the trees or George W. Bush, but because of how damaged and alone these things make us. “True Love Waits” gets that. That’s why it’s one of their best songs.
“True Love Waits” also elevates what’s an otherwise dreary second half. Listeners will pick up early on that A Moon Shaped Pool‘s songs follow a similar structure: a few minutes of organic, loosely psych-folk music with pianos or acoustic guitars, light rising tension, a gentle crest with some extra noise or Jonny’s strings, reduce to simmer. And it works for a while, but once you hit the stretch between “Identikit” and “True Love Waits,” not even the horror movie strings on (*inhale*) “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” make it stand out much against “The Numbers” and “Present Tense.” It’s the same flaw that plagued The King of Limbs: these are pretty, well-made songs, but not in a way that is emotionally resonant or invites multiple listens. It’s like see where on a wall a painter used different strokes or a roller: some folks think it’s serene and mesmerizing to get lost in the details; for others, it’s just staring at a fucking wall.
That A Moon Shaped Pool is an unfortunately low-energy album overall doesn’t help things. The production values are high, but occasionally too sterile; “Identikit” and “Decks Dark” are good songs with memorable features that are bereft of range. Could you imagine how much cooler it would if the mix had room for that choir on “Decks Dark” or “Identikit”‘s solo? Sometimes the energy’s a perfect fit (“Ful Stop,” “Daydreaming,” and “Glass Eye” spring to mind), other times, Radiohead’s delicate pacing sounds more like disinterest than a profound expression of melancholic enlightenment or whatever. The energy problem on A Moon Shaped Pool is more than the borderline strawman argument that the album’s missing an obvious “2+2=5” or “Bodysnatchers” style rocker; it’s that even quieter songs like “House of Cards” or “We Suck Young Blood” had an urgency missing from chunks of the record. There’s a fine line between expressing muted, aching sadness and monotony, one that A Moon Shaped Pool doesn’t easily traverse.
But when it’s on, it’s really on. I’m already obsessed with a few of the tunes here, one or two more show promise, and I’m sure everyone will spend coming weeks pouring every little detail. When The King of Limbs came out, there was a conspiracy theory that spoke of a second surprise album of material. This time, the theory is that A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead’s last record; why else would they commit so many old songs to tape now? I’d be a little bummed if it’s true, but if you’re going to pick one last hurrah, you could do much worse than this. The diehards have their newest masterpiece, and I have an album I kinda love but kinda think is overrated. For Radiohead, this puts everything in its right place.