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As good as the hype

The band’s ninth studio album sees them return to form as rock music’s most sonically interesting, and most depressing, group.  

About 10 days ago, fans who had previously bought Radiohead’s records or merchandise received a cryptic postcard in the mail. ‘BURN THE WITCH’ it screamed, along with the lines ‘Sing a song of sixpence’ and ‘We know where you live’. Even as fans were mulling over this slightly creepy message, Radiohead initiated a theatrical, highly public withdrawal from the Internet. The band’s website faded in opacity over the course of several hours, till you were left with nothing but a white screen. Their social media accounts went blank, with a year’s worth of posts being deleted one by one.

All that the fans — many of whom were now climbing up the walls in excitement and anticipation — had to go on was a tiny teaser video on Instagram showing a claymation blackbird. It was exactly the sort of hype-building manoeuvre one would expect of the band, and Twitter was awash with buzz about the much-awaited, almost mythical LP9. When the album, A Moon Shaped Pool, dropped on Sunday, the Islamic State could have nuked a major American city and the music Twitterati would barely have noticed.

This little tactic isn’t nearly as revolutionary as many breathless headlines would have you believe. Surprise album drops have become almost de rigeuer in the pop music world in 2016 (see also: Beyoncé, Kanye West, Death Grips).

Radiohead themselves were one of the tactic’s early pioneers, with 2007’s In Rainbows. As for the playful tease of their virtual ‘disappearance’, Radiohead has long been surpassed by acts like Death Grips, for whom cryptic hints and alternate reality games are a way of life, and whose fans live on the edge of hysteria, spending more time as Internet detectives than on listening to the music itself. Sure, they did create an incredible amount of hype, but keep in mind that this is Radiohead, the grand old statesmen of indie rock and the only mainstream rock act that doesn’t sound like Luddites trying to resurrect the glories of a past that disappeared over a decade ago. Noel Gallagher might have been a bitter, jealous has-been when he said, “If Thom Yorke f***ing shit into a light bulb… it’d get 9/10” but he was also right.

So we should all be grateful that the two-day old, and already critically acclaimed, new album is actually as good as the hype suggests. Following on from 2011’s somewhat turgid, somewhat disappointing King of Limbs, the band’s ninth studio album sees them return to form as rock music’s most sonically interesting, and most depressing, group. Opener “Burn The Witch”, a maximalist up-tempo number propelled by paranoid, jittery strings and ominous bass and drums, sets the tone with its tense ruminations on Europe’s increasingly panicky and xenophobic response to the refugee crisis.

“This is a low-flying panic attack,” Thom Yorke warbles on the track, perfectly capturing the public mood on the continent as well as providing us with a great metaphor for his music.

The second single ‘Daydreaming’ is obviously influenced by guitarist/keyboardist/composer Jonny Greenwood’s recent forays into the world of music soundtracks. It’s an ethereal, cinematic piano ballad that seems to be about Yorke’s separation with Rachel Owen after 23 years. “Dreamers/ They never learn,” he sings; his voice dripping with sadness and painful loss. The song ends with a scratchy, drony sound that is Yorke singing ‘Half of my life’, only reversed. These themes of loss, of impending devastation, grim futures and heart-wrenching pain, either personal or global or both, run throughout the album. Radiohead worries about climate change, economic devastation, technology’s dehumanising effects, joy that is fleeting, and carries the seeds of its own tragedy.

Warmest music

But while the lyrics have you reaching for anti-depressants, the music is the warmest and most accessible it’s been in years. Having run their alienating, glitchy techno-dystopian aesthetic into the ground on their last record, A Moon Shaped Pool sees them return to humanity’s warm embrace. While electric bleeps and glitches — and the occasional explosion of white noise — persist, the album is largely dominated by understated cinematic soundscapes and the sounds of piano and acoustic guitar. ‘Desert Island Disks’ is almost folksy, as it channels the Pink Moon-era Nick Drake to give us one of the album’s few positive messages (‘Different types of love/ Are possible’). ‘Present Tense’, with its Latin groove and beautiful acoustic guitars, is a reminder that the band once crafted some of the most beautiful, catchy ballads of the 1990s. And even on the less organic tracks, like the dancy, Idioteque-without-guitars of ‘Identikit’, the sibilant, white-noise-percussion of ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor…’ or the propulsive krautrock of ‘Ful Stop’ retain a sense of analogue, human radiance.

There is a sense that A Moon Shaped Pool is the ending of a chapter, Radiohead tying up all their loose strings. This is evident from the fact that the album is a microcosm of their entire career, carefully built from the bricks of their many different sounds and experiments over the years. And then there’s the fact that many of these songs have been played live for years, including the haunting, heart-wrenching album closer ‘True Love Awaits’, with its refrain of “And true love waits/ In haunted attics.” The song has been kicking around in their live set since at least 1996, finally finding a home 20 years later.

Some fans have speculated that this might be their last album. I’m more inclined to think that this is a stock-taking, Radiohead looking at everything they’ve done in the decades of their existence and creating something new with everything they’ve learnt. Perhaps the next Radiohead record will be something completely different, renewing the band’s early 2000s drive to explore new territory. Maybe it will be more of the same. But if A Moon Shaped Pool is any indicator, we can rest assured it will be amazing.

The author is a freelance writer

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 2:28:45 PM |

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