Review Summary: This is not Radiohead's most experimental album, but it just might be their best.
Is Radiohead the last great band? It’s a question that has been making rounds as Nirvana met an abrupt end in the mid-90s following Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and as U2 fades further into the rearview mirror while age and loss of relevance take over. In terms of influence, there are currently few other acts that come to mind with the same amount of historical importance as Radiohead; and the sheer relevancy that they’ve maintained over the course of their multi-decade spanning run essentially pegs them as the “generational band” of the 2000s, a tag they’ve been awarded with practically no competition. It’s not like the 1970s when you had Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen, The Rolling Stones, The Who and others all making music at the top of their collective games simultaneously. The musical landscape of 2016 is so different from what is was in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and even early 2000s that anyone directly transposed to the present would likely find themselves in awe over how digitized and trend-driven things have become. The elite status that was once held by stadium-packing rock groups can now be found in private venues, the result of niche scenes and cult followings that have become the envy of artists with musical integrity and creative ambition. There’s obviously no current shortage of phenomenal music, but the way people organize to deliver it and the means through which it is consumed have all changed so much that when a band like Green Day gets inducted into the rock n’ roll hall of fame, it is almost an afterthought…it feels like they’re joining a mythical place in the clouds more than it does a current, sought after fixture in the world of music. This shift in dynamics might explain why Radiohead has become the
band of our time, not only because they have tremendous talent and monumental cultural influence, but also because they’re a product of two different generations with an equal sized footprint in both. They’re one of the biggest (if not the
biggest) bands in the world , but they’ve adapted to the digital age, embraced change, and in the process captivated a younger wave of listeners that might have otherwise turned a deaf ear on their efforts. Radiohead could have ended up going the way of other musical dinosaurs, but instead they’re the alligators lurking in our rivers and providing us with album of the year contenders more than twenty three years after their inception.
Radiohead’s status as frontrunners of rock/alternative/indie certainly afforded them some luxuries that others could only dream of. Some of their mistakes will be hailed as genius moves just because of their legendary reputation. If they tweet half of a lyric from a new song, the entire world stops in its tracks as if the president is addressing the nation. Need an example? Time Magazine
wrote a lengthy piece covering the release of ‘Burn The Witch’ within twenty four hours of its release. To some extent, you would think that such praise and widespread fandom may cause them to rest in their laurels. It seems logical not to break your back reinventing the wheel when so many people willingly eat up whatever it is you decide to release, good or bad. However, Radiohead has in part maintained the trust of their fanbase by doing the exact opposite. Most recently, they released In Rainbows
digitally for a fee of name your price
, a.k.a. free, and then followed that up with the weird yet vibrant King of Limbs
– which proved to be their best example of adapting to modern trends since 2000’s Kid A
. Amidst all of the experimenting and pushing of boundaries, there was always this voice in the back of many of our heads that wondered what would happen if the band stopped trying to always be on the cutting edge of change, and if they just sat back and wrote the best indie-rock record they were capable of. Your mind probably automatically went back to OK Computer
, which is fair, but that was how long ago? If there is such thing as a standard Radiohead album, what does that sound like in the year 2016? With A Moon Shaped Pool
, we finally have our answer.
A Moon Shaped Pool
is a downright brilliant blend of Radiohead’s best traits. The analogy was made by a user on this very site that the record “sounds like [if] In Rainbows
and Kid A
had a baby and that baby drifted off into the far reaches of space with an acoustic guitar.” There’s honestly few better ways to describe this record; it possesses the warmth and indie-rock foundation of In Rainbows
and the icy, spaced-out feel of Kid A
, all set atop pristine acoustic picking. The guitars are such a critical component of A Moon Shaped Pool
, tying together both worlds that Radiohead has put upon display. They strike a balance between these two extremes, allowing the album to feel like a blend of the emotionless Radiohead that brought us the likes of ‘How To Disappear Completely’ and the heartfelt, sincere Radiohead that graced us with ‘Nude.’ Sometimes it is even both, if you’ll cite the ice-tinged pianos that shimmer across ‘Daydreaming’ with a Sigur Ros circa ( )
level of art, only to evolve into a beautiful string-laden bridge packed with so much emotion that it almost isn’t fair how quickly they yank it away, sending us spiraling back into the cold unfeeling depths of space. It’s a line that only Radiohead could tread so finely.
When the band isn’t enveloping our senses with the type of glistening indie-rock that dreams are made of, they also show themselves capable of creating a handful of the best straightforward rock tunes that they’ve ever composed. ‘Identikit’ comes to mind immediately, with a mellower mood that gives way to the stratospheric heights of its chorus – a haunting chant of “broken hearts make it rain.” Perhaps it plays its ace prematurely, with the most interesting reveal coming about 2:20 in, but it is nevertheless one of the most memorable moments on A Moon Shaped Pool
. ‘The Numbers’ is another qualifier in this category, gradually introducing each instrument as it progresses before arching into a full-swing of gentle acoustic strumming backed by elegant piano notes and dramatic orchestration. “We call upon the people, people have this power…we’ll take back what is ours / one day at a time” give it a more piercing edge than the primarily tranquil majority of A Moon Shaped Pool
, save for the standalone gem but misfit puzzle piece ‘Burn The Witch.’ The aforementioned lead single is driven using its string section as a form of percussion, constantly stutter-stepping while anxiously swelling and fading again and again. It endows the track with an incredible sense of urgency; a craft that Radiohead has been perfecting since their heyday circa OK Computer
and Kid A
, and it is once again not lost on them during the occasional paranoia that creeps out of A Moon Shaped Pool
’s shadows. The excerpt “it’s a low flying panic attack” remains one of the most memorable and quote worthy lines from the entire album.
For the first time in quite a while, we’re hearing Radiohead craft music that isn’t necessarily pushing an experimental limit, but is rather attempting to piece together the best album they could possibly make this deep into their respective careers. In that sense, this record is more of an OK Computer
than it is a Kid A
or The King of Limbs
, and that’s perfectly fine. For many of us, A Moon Shaped Pool
is the album we’ve always wanted but never thought we would get: a simple and beautiful post-2010 indie-rock offering from perhaps the greatest bands of our time. Filled to the brim with gorgeous pianos, acoustic guitars, strings – and with but a few unexpected forays into uncharted musical territory – A Moon Shaped Pool
provides us with exactly that. This may not be Radiohead’s most experimental album, but it is without a doubt their most sonically pleasing, elegant, and acoustically immaculate offering to date – and it just might be their best, too.