13 May 2016
Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
(Update - since this review was posted, the album has been nominated for the Mercury Music Prize 2016 - Eddie)
Well, they have been very fast on this one! First they delete everything, only to come back with two singles and an album within a week - some of these have been released on the hated enemies of Spotify and YouTube as well, it has been a week of reflections and reactions for this band and it has brought my holiday to an early and definite close a little sooner than I was planning. But once again I cannot ignore this release (also the rest of the blog team are happy I have picked this up, they are not exactly fans). However, I did not exactly great their first single "Burn the Witch" with the triumph that has been banded around by other people, blogs and the music press. I will go back over that in detail again later, but I found the song to be a little short of the usual standard I hold for Radiohead. Mainly because I have become accustomed to having my mind blown by this band, but it also follows a tradition that comes with the Oxford men for me - I never like the first single, always love the second. I did not like "Creep", I loved "Anyone Can Play Guitar"; I did not like "My Iron Lung", I loved "High & Dry"; I did not like "Jigsaw Falling into Place", I loved "Nude". I really could go on, but I think you get the point here - my initial introduction to a Radiohead album in the form of a single, inevitably ends up being the song on the album I struggle with. Now this album is just a few days old now, it is going to be a reaction review from the gut to be honest and that has gotten me into trouble before - but I did not start this blog to be nice, it is time to get this review on the road.
Starting the review is "Burn the Witch" - here is what I said on my review of the single: The song is built on a string pattern that anchors the song, giving it heights, withdrawing when needed and adding an impressive sinister edge towards the end of the song. It is a four-minute piece that is driven by either fear or anger; the build towards the end of the song with the strings sounded like knives are being slashed over the strings instead of bows. Thom Yorke sounds in pain in places, the drumming is electronic and minimal with the bass being used sparsely. But is it the be-all and end all that the press and some people have said? No, it is not even close to be honest; it is a good song and much better than "Spectre", however, the song is just that - a good song and not a jaw dropper, but I have been here with Radiohead before. I have had a few more day to live with the song and it is still just a good song, there is nothing jaw dropping here for me and whenever I think about it, the first thought is how good the video is and that overpowers this song for me. The song has been described as the band giving their views on modern society and the way they blame people outside of their comfort zone for their own problems - sadly, if you look at history this is actually the same as it ever was. But that message does ring true from the song, for that it does deserve praise and it shows that humanity needs to stop heading towards a new nightmare where hatred rules the hearts of men once more. So, much the same as before - a good song, but not the be all & end all that some people think it is. The second single "Daydreaming " is next and it starts with a strange whirling sound and gentle keyboards that start to focus on a lifting pattern that keeps a very measured pace before Mr Yorke starts to sing over the top of this minimalist song. It talks about not learning which carries on the sentiments of the first song, this time with even less going on musically than on "Burn the Witch". It is driven with a measured and slow pace, never going any faster than what is needed to drive home it's simple message - the damage is done and the dreamers have not learnt. It is a strong, dominating song that towers over "Burn the Witch" with a similar tone to the words. It is a mysterious number that builds towards a strong ending and it has lots of backwards vocals, high pitch keys, strings and then a sudden drop-off which leaves you wanting more. The tradition of the second Radiohead single off a new album being better than the first, is still alive and stronger than ever. "Decks Dark" is the third song off this album, continues the trend of this album with a minimalist approach to the majority of the song. But it is a song in the standard structure that other bands take for granted - there is a natural progression and it is not all strange chord patterns or obscure prog (which I love, but it did take a while for some people to get such work in the mainstream - got to love that sort of bravery). The song uses UFO's and aliens as metaphors in this song, there is something else happening behind the pictures on this song and you get a feeling that it could be about a relationship ending. It is easy to read that into this; it might be that simple to be honest. But whatever it is, it will be a while before the secrets are revealed. The song itself is another number that gives more with further listens, it is definitely keeping my interest in this album up.
"Desert Island Disk" keeps the stripped back appeal of the album in check with an acoustic guitar riff being the main drive of the song from the outset. It is looping in a way that have become the band's calling card of sorts, given their love of computers in their music. It has a hypnotic number, with Indian tones to the guitar playing and a gentle percussion that gives this song its heartbeat. I like this version of the band, it is something that gives me a warmth inside and shows that the band are able to create music that is easy on the ear and not all confrontational. "Ful Stop" starts with a muffled drumbeat, bass playing and a quiet guitar noise skipping around the speakers like a sprite in the wind. Horns sound as the music gains volume, the progressive rhythm slowly coming into focus and you are lost in a wall of sound (no, I am not being ironic) that comes in waves as the vocals come into light with a tone of regret to the vocals and the words. It actually has a feeling like Queens of the Stone Age in sections of this song, with a relentless drone and aggression to the drum beat that keeps the song on its metaphorical toes. It could have lost a minute or two to be honest, but it does not take anything away from the overall impact of the song. "Glass Eye" sounds like a dream going backwards into the void in places, you could be heading into a dreamlike sequence. It has a contrasting effect on the listener, drifting between the beautiful strings, gentle piano, haunted vocals and strange reversing notes the make the song sound as if it is not quiet really and it is on the edge of your hearing. Also, unlike "Ful Stop" it is a song that could have been given a little more time to grow into something else; but again this is not detrimental to the overall tone of the song. "Identikit" feels familiar from the opening sequence of the song; it reminds me an awful lot of "Jigsaw Falling into Place" off 'In Rainbows' and the drumbeat dominates this song to be honest. It continues the minimalist feeling that has been the calling card of this album, the music of this song is very sparse and almost hallow in places; but it is also a song that makes the hairs on my neck stand on end, gives me an excitement that is not always apparent upon the first few listens of an album. Unlike “Jigsaw Falling into Place”, I love this song and it is one of the jewels of this album, creating a noise that makes so much sense that it demands further listens.
"The Numbers" begins with a collection of noises, loops, percussion and blends them into a skilful opening that once again is the first part of a minimalist sound from the Oxford boys. The bass is the focus for me on this number, it is the solid point whilst the rest of the band move in their own mysterious ways. The song itself has some great passages where the string section comes into focus, changing the dimensions of the song and adding weight to an already solid number that sounds like the night has been transformed into song. "Present Tense" however is a song that takes a while to grab the listener’s attention, it is about this time that the gentler tones of the album start to strain a little for me. This song blends into the background a little for this record, it is does not have a stand out feature that makes it rise about the crowd; which means it will probably be a sleeper hit and the song I come back to in years to come, bitterly lamenting the "me" who is writing these words and saying that it one of the best songs they ever wrote. However, at this instance it is just a face in the crowd that drifts by without that much impact. The penultimate song of this album is called "Tinker Tailor Solider Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief", the fact I want to use a lot of commas on this title means that I have to step away from the keyboard every time I type it out. However, the music itself is one of the best passages I have heard on this album. It employs the string section to great effect, adding it to the slower sound of the album and creating one of the most memorable sections of this record. I love the way it sounds, it is not loud and demanding attention; but its very presence makes it impossible to ignore. If it was not for "Daydreaming", it would have been the top track of the album. Ending the album is the heart-breaking "True Love Waits" which focuses on a simple piano progression, a heart breaking set of lyrics and further editions to the song throughout that give it a slightly unsettling feeling in places. It is the obvious ending track from the songs on offer, it does not bring the album to an end with a big spectacular explosive ending; instead, it ends this album with a heart-breaking song asking for someone not to leave. It is a cry for help that could have been created in the dark of the night, as others are moving on to pastures new. Either way, it ends this album on a sorrowful note which ends the album in a rather fitting way.
This album is much better than I was expecting, after "Burn the Witch" I was a little sceptical about the album and how it would possibly turn out. It is a sparse record, the absence of the electronica sound and (for the most part) the electric guitars is very refreshing to these ears. It will be viewed as a break up record, but some of these songs pre-date the recent private events that have effected some of the band members. You can sense that this album is destined to be a companion for people on those long, dark nights to help people reach the dawn with some sanity still attached. So is it the be all & end all that other reviews has claimed it to be? No, it is not even close to that - but that is what happens when a band like Radiohead release an album, the world reviews the band and not the music and whilst it is good, it is not amazing. So why is it getting an 8 out of ten? Just because it is not the best record ever, it does not mean that I dislike of hate the album. I like 'A Moon Shaped Pool' a lot as it shows a different side to the band; but I see it for what it is, not for what will make people like my blog. It is a very good album that I recommend people hearing, just go into it with your eyes open and leave your preconceptions at the door. Also, bring some tissues; it may make you cry with a joint sense of sorrow and loss.
8 out of ten - Oh, now you have my attention and maybe my money, time and heart
Top track - Daydreaming
You can purchase the digital version of A Moon Shaped Pool on Amazon here
You can visit the Radiohead website here (which also has links where you can purchase the digital and pre-order the physical version of the album as well)
You can stream A Moon Shaped Pool on Tidal here
You can stream A Moon Shaped Pool on Spotify here
At the time of reposting, this album not available on Deezer ; I will keep an eye on this and update once they are up (if they do appear).
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