A week or so ago I downloaded three albums that I felt would transform the music of 2016 so far: PJ Harvey’s “The Hope Six Demolition Project”, James Blake’s “The Colour in Anything” and, the big one, Radiohead’s “A Moon Shaped Pool”. I can’t really comment properly on the first two yet because, inevitably, the Radiohead album has taken over. Top of the league, as ever…
We knew something was happening as there were a few tour dates and then two videos, for the tracks “Burn the Witch” and “Daydreaming”. As it happens they are the two opening tracks for the album and are, perhaps, its signature tunes.
“Burn the Witch” is maybe the closest thing to a classic Radiohead song, if you still hanker after the more upbeat sounds. Upbeat in rhythm that is, not in lyrical content. That is the usual paranoia and alienation! There’s a difference in the sound though, as the song is introduced with some jerky violins – not an instrument that has featured too much in earlier Radiohead, but more prominent on this album.
“Daydreaming” symbolises what I felt most about the album when I first listened all the way through, which is that it feels like a film soundtrack – there’s a lot of space in the music, the pace is often languid, there are layers upon layers of sound, which slowly reveal themselves. Association with film isn’t new for Radiohead – “OK Computer” had a track called “Exit Music (For a Film)”, and “Kid A” ended with “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, but this album is suffused with the atmosphere of film music.
I loved both of the opening tracks, and it wasn’t long before others made a real impact. “Ful Stop” especially. An ominous bass drone, some sounds that sounded almost like sirens. Eerie, unsettling. In a sense, similar to the impact that “The National Anthem” had on me when I first listened to the groundbreaking “Kid A”. And then, as the paranoia and angst hits just the right level, the first line:
You really messed up everything…
Good ol’Thom, always knows how to poop the party. And we love him for it!
In keeping with that film soundtrack air, “A Moon Shaped Pool” strips out most of the hard edged beats that have populated the last few Radiohead albums – beats that really come into play live. And brilliantly at that. “Identikit” tends the electro flame, and could fit nicely onto “In Rainbows”. It has a twist though, when a kind of gospel chorus appears half way through. It’s as if Radiohead are acknowledging some of the things that feature in modern pop, without falling in line with the mainstream. The track ends with a slightly beserk, scratchy guitar solo. Not something you’d get on an Adele record! (Not yet, anyway).
Another of the tracks which made an early impression is “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief”. (Radiohead like to use everyday sayings in their songs, which contrast with the other-worldliness of their music). It’s another slow-paced piece, which slowly builds up the atmosphere, and entrances. Those violins, or something that sounds like them, resurface. Radiohead go orchestral – but in a weird way, of course. We had a foretaste of this when the band put their theme for the last Bond movie, “Spectre” online. It didn’t make the cut for some reason, but it was perfect.
We even get a bit a little bit of samba – Radiohead style – in “Present Tense”, another song that might have worked well on “In Rainbows”. The more I’ve listened to “A Moon Shaped Pool”, the more I think the other it resembles most – in spirit and variety of sounds – is “In Rainbows”, although the more stately pieces retain that beautiful sadness that seemed to characterise its immediate predecessor, “The King of Limbs”.
Radiohead, as ever, move on. Further than ever away from the rock sounds of “The Bends” and “OK Computer”, which I suspect many fans would love to see return. They probably never will, and I, for one, am more than happy to stay with Radiohead on their musical journey. Forever fascinating, different, taking in the sounds they hear around them. Twisting them, adding depth, melody, angst. Beauty. So much beauty.
The album ends with “True Love Waits”, which I remember Thom playing solo on the piano at the O2 in 2012. It is a love song. Lyrics a little ugly if you read them. Deliberately of course. But this must be an ode to someone. The closest maybe, that Thom will get simply to declaring love. We should treasure it!
And I’m sure it will feature at the Roundhouse this week. Yes, I’m lucky enough to have got a ticket, for Thursday. I just cannot wait to hear – and see – how the new album is presented. That’s one of the great things about Radiohead. The audience welcome all the new stuff. As much as the old favourites. And new ones become old favourites very quickly. A band that set out its stall very early and said, we will do different things. Come with us if you will. And so many of us did.
“A Moon Shaped Pool” confirms that Radiohead are the best band in the world.