With each sporadic Radiohead release comes the same sort of fawning anticipation, although if we’re being honest, the product hasn’t lived up to the hype since “Kid A.” The key word here is “since.” With “A Moon Shaped Pool,” Radiohead has once again delivered an exceptional album and reminded us that the only way we could get to this point was to meander between here and there.
When listening to it, we’re supposed to dive into the circumstances, to think about the strings and Thom Yorke’s divorce. We’re supposed to ruminate on every occurrence and detail that has come before this moment. Much as with life, it’s not actually bad advice, even as we don’t always heed it.
Also much as with life, perhaps we will in time. For now, we simply get to enjoy the fact that “A Moon Shaped Pool” features beautifully composed songs and understated and highly skilled musicianship, and exists as a complete album rather than as a few singles with some filler in between. This time, the hype was right, and we get a return to form for an ever-evolving band that has sometimes taken its experiments a bit too far.
It doesn’t exist in the way “OK Computer” existed, but it would be ridiculous to expect that. That was more than a few years ago, and Radiohead has changed since then. As bands age (and age), they become less a voice against the prevailing norms and instead the luminaries that dictate the norms. “Kid A” made it obvious this was the path Radiohead would go down. Once you revolutionize, you cannot continue to be rebels.
Weird for Weirdness’ Sake
Things did get little odd from there, however, even if the rebels recognized they were now leading. “Amnesiac” is forgettable outside of a few songs whose titles are difficult to remember. The same is true for “Hail to the Thief.” Then came “In Rainbows,” which was better, but still nothing spectacular. “King of Limbs” was not really the king of anything. That one song was good, the one with the video where Yorke danced or had a fit or whatever.
Suffice it to say, the same could have been true for “A Moon Shaped Pool” (although replace the dancing fit with the animated Pilgrims from “Burn the Witch”). But it didn’t fall short as had “King of Limbs,” which is something to celebrate even if it isn’t groundbreaking.
To always attempt to reinvent oneself, to always seek to push something new and be groundbreaking even if you’re standing on firm territory, makes art into a construction rather than a naturally evolving product. Noise for the sake of noise or studio wizardry undertaken simply because it was possible become the ends rather than the means.
Had Radiohead not undertaken such foolish endeavors as noise for noise and studio wizardry simply because they could when recording everything between “Kid A” and now, however, they may not have been able to arrive at “A Moon Shaped Pool.”
From Young Revolutionaries to Elder Statesmen
From start to finish, the album flows from track to track. The strings and studio wizardry augment the songs; there is little noise. It’s more elder statesman than rowdy young revolutionary, which is befitting when we reminisce on how we got here.
For those of us of a certain age and bent, we remember hearing “OK Computer” for the first time. At the time, the post-grunge era was still lurching about, struggling to figure out where to go next. Many kids were similarly struggling, but that didn’t mean we deserved warmed-over grunge emanating from one thousand Eddie Vedders.
With “OK Computer,” something new happened. Then a lot of things happened, and now it’s almost 20 years later and, surprise, we grew up. Some of us more than others, but that’s beside the point.
Pushing Boundaries Without Breaking Them
What separated Radiohead from its beginning was the ability to push boundaries without breaking out into wholly uncharted and unenjoyable territory. Layers of distortion ripped through our speakers and lush soundscapes surrounded us. Occasionally words emerged through the din and offered us something to grab, like kids emerging from home and charting our own paths.
Then, the aforementioned meandering happened. It wasn’t aimless meandering, as it turns out. Or maybe it was what Bob Ross would call “a happy accident” and it’s merely providence that Radiohead arrived at “A Moon Shaped Pool” around the same time as we all arrived here, wherever that may be.
After all, that’s how all of us end up anywhere. We meander, get lost a few times, maybe take some details, then remember which way we’re headed. If we’re lucky and focused on the details, on learning from our mistakes and recreating our successes even as we recreate ourselves, then we too can get to a quieter point of nuance and subtle intricacy; a whole story rather than a few hits with forgettable filler in between.