It's Radiohead; nuff said...okay okay, I guess we'll do a roundtable.XL Recordings, 2016
8.9 / 10
Welcome to another Earbuddy Roundtable Review. To explain, Earbuddy assembles three or more writers to discuss a new album with each writer giving his/her thoughts on the release and their own personal score. Then an average score is determined for the album overall. For our latest Roundtable, Earbuddy writers Tom Alexander, JEDowney, and NK will be reviewing Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool.
Radiohead could be the best band at marketing their albums. It all started with the pay-what-you-want scheme for In Rainbows, continued with The King of Limbs, and now Radiohead’s ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool. This time the band removed its entire existence from the Internet before returning with a claymation video for “Burn The Witch” and quickly following it up with a Paul Thomas Anderson-directed video for “Daydreaming”. Then the announcement that the new album would arrive on Sunday of all days (also Mother’s Day). Sorry, mom, you’re going to have to wait until I finish this Radiohead album before giving you your gift. 2016 is shaping up as the year of the surprise release with Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, James Blake, and now Radiohead hitting us out of nowhere with new music. And since we’re talking about one of the most influential rock bands of the modern age, we can’t just give A Moon Shaped Pool a normal review. No, we need to Roundtable this one.
In the years between The King of Limbs and A Moon Shaped Pool, I was dreading something new from Radiohead. The King of Limbs didn’t reward repeat listens, the way most thought that it would. It was the first Radiohead album that was genuinely disappointing. And without the Radiohead name attached to it, it’s hard to imagine giving it that second or third chance. Atoms for Peace and Thom Yorke’s second album did not do much for me either. In those years, there was a strange, uncomfortable feeling. Was Radiohead done? Perhaps they weren’t done as a band, but perhaps they were done making good music. For listeners (and fans) like me, this is a weird thought; Radiohead is an institution. Before I really got into music, Radiohead was considered one of the best, if not the best, band of our time. Born in the late ’80s, hearing about OK Computer and Kid A was less like hearing about music than it was platonic ideals for what music should aspire to. So what would it be like for us now if A Moon Shaped Pool was bad? Would Radiohead be like Wilco — a band with several excellent albums that most everyone agrees is great but just kind of boring? Or would they be like U2, where their old fans continually begged them to stop? Or would they just fade into the noise?
Luckily, we don’t have to anticipate any of those answers because A Moon Shaped Pool is great. But how great is it? On the scale of things, I’d wager that it’s just as good as Hail to the Thief, but maybe without the commercial appeal. It is hard for me to imagine this record finding an audience outside of the usual Radiohead demographic. Unlike In Rainbows, or even The King of Limbs, there’s no “Bodysnatchers” or “Lotus Flower” to pull in people who weren’t fans of the band already. This obviously isn’t a strike against the record itself, but it does speak to the kind of music that you’ll find on A Moon Shaped Pool. It’s quiet. It’s patient. It’s melancholy, and it’s beautiful. With the exception of “Burn the Witch”, the album is going to wait for you to engage it on its own terms. My first few spins were decent enough, but it wasn’t until I isolated myself from distraction that I realized just how much is going on with A Moon Shaped Pool.
Whether or not this is Radiohead’s last album may be anyone’s guess. If it is, I’ll be at peace, knowing the band went out on a high note, and knowing that the band that everyone said was the gold-standard of popular music continued to be that until the end. Divorcing this album from its context has been hard, and doubly so since some of these songs have appeared in the band’s repertoire for years now. I remember back in college (circa 2006), a super-stoned friend pulled me aside and said “Yeah, you like Radiohead, but have you heard ‘True Love Waits’?”. “No, I don’t think so. What album is it on?” “Oh, they won’t put it on an album. But it’s their best song. It’s too important to put on an album.” So when A Moon Shape Pool arrived with its final track being “True Love Waits”, there was an eerie finality to it. The song wasn’t any longer speaking to a romantic encounter, but to what it’s like to be a fan of this band for years. For years, we waited, and we let it go, and we set ideas of a new music free. But true love? True love always comes back around.
Tom Alexander’s Score: 8.5
A wonderful May
A beautiful sadness
Best work since Kid A
JEDowney’s Score: 9.1
It’s become a cliché that many music critics have used over time, but Radiohead is one of the bands that shaped my music listening. I’ve been following the band since my middle school years into my angsty high school years then into my college years and then into post-college years and now into my cynical full-fledged adulthood. Radiohead’s music has been a staple much like Beck, and while Beck’s music since Odelay is debatable as great (I lean toward great; others may not), Radiohead have always been critical darlings…until The King of Limbs. While a 7.9 from Pitchfork isn’t shabby — many indie bands have built careers off such a score — it was like giving Radiohead a failing grade. The King of Limbs was one of the first albums I reviewed on Earbuddy back in the Blogger days, and being the Radiohead fanboy I am, I gave it a score of 5 out of 5 stars. Who was I kidding? Myself apparently.
Years have passed, and I haven’t returned to the album since that year. But like most Radiohead fans, I was still anticipating a new album from them whenever it might arrive. Thankfully they picked the present, a year where most of the music released could be summed up with the poop emoji. Radiohead’s surprise release is a breath of fresh air, despite the songs on A Moon Shaped Pool not exactly being fresh. These are songs that have been sitting on the Radiohead backburner for years. One of those, “True Love Waits”, has been considered one of Radiohead’s greatest songs to never appear on one of their studio albums. It’s here now and it closes the album out in a dramatic high fashion that hasn’t been matched by any other album this year. The rest of the album? Why didn’t Radiohead release some of these sooner?! Well, because we’re talking about Radiohead, a band of musical geniuses who understand patience. They took their time with these songs, working out the kinks, working some kinks in, and then giving us the final eleven songs in an alphabetical track list that’s consistent in quality and logical in order. Don’t question Thom and the gang; they know what the hell they’re doing.
Our first taste of A Moon Shaped Pool was “Burn The Witch”, a song I was initially skeptical of when hearing it for the first time on Sirius XMU, but then blown away by once I watched its accompanying video. The paranoia, the strings, the clay! My god, man! Then they release the equally amazing video for “Daydreaming”, which pretty much declared to listeners we were getting a great Radiohead album. And that’s what A Moon Shaped Pool is. It’s not merely scraps of throwaway songs finally put together on a compilation. It’s a great, somber, mellow Radiohead album that is either signaling the beginning of a revived band or one finally putting an end to a storied career. Hopefully it’s not the latter.
NK’s Score: 9.2
8.9 / 10