I’m a big Radiohead Nerd.
I studied Radiohead in college, (yes I got college credits to write about Radiohead), I’m the annoying guy who knows all the lyrics, talks about the symbolism in their album artwork, and corrects people who think the band is a bunch of drug addicts (they have a strict “nothing harder than pot or you’re out of the band” policy).
So needless to say, I was pretty stoked that I was finally going to get to review one of their albums, but as I started to listen with the intent of reviewing, I realized how hard it was. Radiohead has always just been a band I listen to and adore, and I’ve never had to reduce them down to a few stars (waffles, whatever) before. It feels dirty! So before we go any further with this review, I’ll urge you to just read it, and maybe ignore my waffles.
I have an idiot stoner friend who knows nothing about music, let’s call him Ben for the time being, and he ended up listening to this album before me, and he described it as “boring elevator music”. I scoffed at him for being a dope, and couldn’t wait to love the album despite him, and then make fun of him. But astonishingly, I think he’s right to a VERY SMALL degree. “Boring elevator music” is still a really dumb way to describe this album, but I will concede slightly that it seems to lack some spark.
A Moon Shaped Pool is beautiful, it really is. The strings are gorgeous, the pianos are haunting; and I couldn’t agree more with Arcade Fire’s Winn Butler, who described it as “like walking through the forest and seeing the different parts of the ecosystem jitter and slime around you”. It has such a distinct mood and feel to it, and is certainly the prettiest Radiohead album by far, but for some reason I feel slightly unsatisfied.
So much of this album is absolutely gorgeous, and the whole time I listened to it I enjoyed it, but I also found it a bit forgettable. It reminded me more of a movie soundtrack. This album doesn’t really have any experiments, hooks, or grooves, which is fine, but for me personally they didn’t stick as much. Songs like “The Numbers” and “Ful Stop” barely have any life to them at all and meander for far too long, with the former never rising above a white noise of jangling piano and Led Zeppelin like guitar.
AMSP reminds me of Andrew Bird. His early work did a great job of combining his whistling and violin playing with experimental indie pop, and then his later albums were just really long and had a TON of violin. They were really pretty, but I doubt I’ll ever listen to them again.
You’ve probably heard that a lot of the tracks on this album are older songs that Radiohead has been fine tuning for years. Some people have accused them of being lazy, but I think it’s totally fine. It’s not like they released a collection of b-sides and demos, they refined these songs, and made them share moods and themes, so the album still feels like a cohesive unit. I think that’s actually really cool, and the opposite of lazy.
I will admit though, that this fine tuning resulted in an album that is a bit too reminiscent of the band’s previous works. This is normally fine too, as most bands have a signature sound and reference their past catalog, but for some reason I found it distracting. “Present Tense” reminded me of a less cool “Reckoner”, “Daydreaming” and “True Love Waits” reminded me of “Videotape” and “Motion Picture Soundtrack”. Even “Ful stop” sounds like a weird fusion of “Weird Fishes” and “Lotus Flower” and yet manages to be less interesting then both, and feels misplaced. None of this should be a problem, but personally, it made me want to go listen to those other songs instead, and I did.
However, tracks like “Burn The Witch”, “Identikit”, “Decks Dark”, and “Desert Island Disk” are absolute highlights for me. Perfect for a cloudy drive through the mountains as you reflect on your life. “Desert Island Disk” in particular is a gorgeous song about re-discovering who you are after personal tragedy, and “Burn The Witch”, the only lively track here, is an instant Radiohead classic and perfectly sets the tone of the album.
AMSP has similarities to Beck’s Morning Phase, but never gets as introspective or warm, which is odd for more for folk oriented music. But I will say that the album’s lyrics and themes are wonderful. Most of the songs reference Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, which in short, is a collection of writings in which Plato theorized about people spending their entire lives chained to a cave. They never see or interact with the regular world. He mused that even if set free, the people would probably prefer to return to the cave, and ignore the regular world.
Most of the lyrics on AMSP echo this imagery of people in caves. On “Decks Dark” we hear of people hiding and covering their eyes, and in “Burn The Witch” we hear lyrics about people avoiding eye contact and refusing to react. But then he also tells us on “Daydreaming” that it’s “too late” and on “Ful Stop” that we’ve “really messed up”.
What I gather is that Thom is telling us that in life there are tragedies you can try to ignore, but they don’t go away. You can cover your ears but you still hear them, and now that you hid, it’s too late to fix them. Whether he’s referring to his own divorce or Climate Change doesn’t matter, it’s an interesting concept nonetheless, and one we should all take heed to.
So, did I nitpick too much? Am I an uneducated fool? Did I give too few waffles? Should it have 4? Feel free to let me know what an idiot I am in the comments section, because to quote Radiohead, I might be wrong. But for now I believe this album to be very pretty, but a little forgettable. However, I think a pretty good album by the greatest band ever, is still a blessed thing.
Top Tracks: Burn The Witch, Decks Dark, Desert Island Disk, Identikit