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Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool (Album Review)

Tuesday, 10 May 2016 Written by Ben Bland

The one thing you can always say about a Radiohead album is that it is guaranteed to divide the crowd to some extent; to provoke reactions by its failure to be what one section or another of the group’s fanbase wants it to be. In this sense, they have never once shied from the challenge of making albums that are genuinely concerned with being worthwhile entries in a back catalogue few artists would turn down.

‘A Moon Shaped Pool’, though, is the sort of sleepy, non-committal record that was bound to turn up sooner or later. It’s a fairly languid exercise, one that is rightly confident in its patient and considered mastery of texture and tone, but one that in turn may be accused of lacking the passion for experimentation Radiohead have long been renowned for.

One thing it is certainly not is what was widely expected when Burn the Witch, replete with delightful Trumpton-style stop motion video, premiered last week. With its staccato strings and choppy acoustic guitar, it hinted at an album of veiled aggression leaning heavily on the dissonance of Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack work.

Instead it is the second of the two tracks shared last week, Daydreaming, that most succinctly summarises the sound of ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’. With its fragile piano lead, typically emotive Thom Yorke vocals and wide array of background subtleties, Daydreaming is, in many ways, Radiohead by numbers. That doesn’t, however, detract from its sheer beauty.

Yorke’s gorgeously world-weary delivery of the song’s lyrics should serve as a riposte to those who wrongly look to lump the band in with the mopey banalities so often served up by Coldplay and their ilk. Add in another superb string arrangement from the younger Greenwood brother, which takes the song to another level during its outro, and you are left something befitting instant classic status in the band’s catalogue, alongside Pyramid Song and Videotape.

Unfortunately Daydreaming sets standards in this department that cannot be matched as the album moves forward. Traditionally Radiohead have demonstrated considerable expertise in pacing and, given that it’s become increasingly rare over the years for the band to produce anything vaguely definable as “rock”, in the sense that the term clearly applied to ‘The Bends’ or ‘OK Computer’, this has only seemed more impressive as their career has progressed. ‘In Rainbows’, like this a collection dominated by slower tracks, is the best example. Having reeled in potentially restless listeners with the lively one-two of 15 Step and Bodysnatchers, it was then largely free to do as it pleased, relying on the artfully varied instrumentation to provide the flow.

‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ may be aiming for the same trick by beginning with Burn the Witch, but a trio of slow-burners quickly dispels the energy that tactic generates here. Furthermore, Daydreaming’s strength proves damaging to Decks Dark and Desert Island Disk. Both feel far too slight in comparison and their textures are too similar. 

Ful Stop (sic), in particular, is evidence of just what the bulk of this record is missing out on. The taut introduction might be the closest they have ever come to krautrock, driven - as many a classic Radiohead song has been - by a brilliantly hypnotic Colin Greenwood bass line. When the track finally dissolves, approximately halfway through its runtime, it fractures into a delightfully kaleidoscopic sea of spidery guitar figures, the sort Radiohead have become deservedly renowned for.

Identikit is the only other song in the album’s mid-section that injects any real life into proceedings. It’s not entirely unlike something from a latter day Massive Attack album and feels like the track that would have most belonged on ‘The King of Limbs’. The glorious refrain of “Broken hearts make it rain” is truly captivating, as is Phil Selway’s fidgety percussion and some surprisingly spiky guitar work in the second half. These two tracks are only made to seem more special by the  placid nature of those that surround them. The Numbers, Present Tense and Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Thief, in particular, pass by pleasantly but without making a significant impact.

This does not mean that the majority of ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is of poor quality. Radiohead have been nothing if not consistent, at least if we ignore ‘Pablo Honey’, over the course of their career and this album is no exception to that rule. ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is not an indication of diminishing returns so much as it is the sound of a band belatedly settling into an over-comfortable groove.

This is particularly disappointing coming after the restlessness of ‘The King of Limbs’, which has been harshly treated in recent articles on the band. That album contained some of the most intriguing detours of Radiohead’s career to date, not least in the shape of the hyperactive Feral or the labyrinthine Bloom. ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’, in contrast, feels like the first Radiohead album in a long time that is content with simply existing. As the reworked True Love Waits closes the album it is difficult to dispute the fact that Radiohead’s very presence is enough to satisfy, but there remains the lingering hope that their fourth decade may yet bring something genuinely new to the table.

Radiohead Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Thu May 26 2016 - LONDON Roundhouse
Fri May 27 2016 - LONDON Roundhouse
Sat May 28 2016 - LONDON Roundhouse

Click here to compare & buy Radiohead Tickets at Stereoboard.com.





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