Only Radiohead could turn an antisocial act like wiping clear their social media accounts into a marketing maneuver. When the band's socials went blank last week, the world knew something was up. In a springtime that’s seen a glut of surprise releases––Beyonce, Drake, James Blake––the announcement of an impending Radiohead LP, their first in five years, has had the music world taut with anticipation. What does Radiohead sound like in 2016? Do they even make sense in a world that's traded postmodern ennui for posts-on-Facebook, in which the 'ring-road supermarkets' of old have been replaced with Amazon Prime drone deliveries? Is this the dystopian future they had sung about all along?
The stop-motion animation video for “Burn The Witch,” released last week, only heightened the intrigue. Its scratchy strings and searing warbles suggested a return to the great heights of their purple patch on either side of the Y2K bug. Titled A Moon Shaped Pool, the band's latest work came out today, and it's a much quieter, more introspective work than the immolated wicker man of the single's video would suggest. It steadily smolders rather than going up in flames, but (to use a colloquialism du jour) it's still fire either way.
It’s been a quarter century since Radiohead emerged, scruffy and seething, out of Oxfordshire with “Creep,” a wholly conventional alt-rock tune that could have very well seen the band resigned to one-hit wonder status. Instead, Radiohead grew to become the most important band of the postmodern era. Much of this deity status is due to OK Computer, an album so definitive that it effectively finished the story of rock music, rendering the art form going forward nothing more than retrospect and glorified pastiche. The band followed up with Kid A, rejecting the formula that made them the biggest band in the world in trading in their guitars for analog synths. Their about-face into electronicism was symbolic for our arrival into a brave new world for music in a whole new century.
It’s hard to change the world with every album you make. Radiohead came to terms with this fact when Hail to the Thief’s anxious thrashing found some critics wanting. A classic album though it was, it was the last of Radiohead’s era of grandiosity. Ever since In Rainbows, the group have pared back their ambitions and looked inwards for themes, rather than making grandiose statements about the human condition or trying to subvert the entire music establishment with every release. It’s a noble progression. Radiohead are so much a part of the cultural milieu that they are, whether they like it or not, a part of the establishment–– bunch of rich, old geezers writing songs about how Twitter will make us lonely and we’re all gonna die just wouldn’t hit like it did 20 years ago
A Moon Shaped Pool is fittingly gloomy for a Radiohead album. It’s mournful, even, soft-spoken, assured in its subtleties and concise in its moods. There are no anti-rock anthems, nothing approaching dancefloor material. The pre-released “Burn the Witches,” by no means a pop song, kicks off the record and is, alongside “Ful Stop,” the most pronounced tune on the whole LP.
Many of the songs reference past eras of the band: “The Numbers” is a blues-jam take on “Talk Show Host,” “Present Tense” has the arpeggiated prettiness of In Rainbows, and “Tinker Tailor…” sounds like an OK Computer interstice, just without self-loathing or an assuredness as to the impending doom of society at large.
The album closes with “True Love Waits,” a track first performed by the band in 1995 and a fan favorite ever since. Now, twenty years later, the garbled shimmer of this particular rendition of the tune expresses who Radiohead are now: A quiet, measured, introspective version of themselves who have survived the claustrophobia of their own success and would rather make music that speaks to their current experience than trying to rehash the glory of the past. Radiohead are aging gracefully, and A Moon Shaped Pool is a commendable work, but not a definitive LP by the band, whose fans seem to struggle with the weight of Radiohead's achievements more than the band themselves.
Either way, it's a fool's endeavor to take a band like Radiohead, whose work is so often a reflection of society's darker moments and spends its time nestling into your psyche, and totalize five years of their work so soon after release. Either way, as music's heroes of yesteryear seem to be dropping like flies in 2016, it's good to see a band that have done so much for music take their place as elder statesmen in the place of those who have fallen.
05-20-21 Amsterdam, Netherlands - Heineken Music Hall
05-23-24 Paris, France - Le Zénith
05-26-28 London, England - Roundhouse
06-01 Lyon, France - Les Nuits Des Fourvieres
06-03 Barcelona, Spain - Primavera Sound Festival
06-17 Reyjkavik, Iceland - Secret Solstice
07-02 St. Gallen, Switzerland - Openair St. Gallen
07-08 Lisbon, Portugal - Nos Alive Festival
07-26-27 New York, NY - Madison Square Garden
07-29 Chicago, IL - Lollapalooza
07-31 Montreal, Québec - Osheaga Music and Arts Festival
08-04 Los Angeles, LA - Shrine Auditorium
08-06 Golden Gate Park, CA - Outside Lands
08-08 Los Angeles, LA - Shrine Auditorium
08-20 Osaka, Japan - Summersonic Festival
08-21 Tokyo, Japan - Summersonic Festival
09-11 Berlin, Germany - Lollapalooza
10-03-04 Mexico City, Mexico - Palacio de los Deportes