Loved and loathed: An adult life with Radiohead in it, and.... a reaction to A Moon Shaped Pool!
I often talk about how my experience of music is inextricably tied to my life experience. My recent Billy Joel tribute release, for example, is not merely a nod to one of my favorite songwriters, it’s also an acknowledgment of a catalog of music that informed my formative years. Much of how I now understand the relationship of songwriting to personal, relational, and emotional experience is represented in those songs.
Radiohead, on the other hand, is a band whose music has accompanied some of my most profound adult experiences. I found their now legendary contribution to the canon of 90’s alternative rock to be a perfect vehicle with which to transition away from the terminally cerebral music geek mindset that still dominated my brain from the trauma of earning a college music degree.
Their follow-up series of releases in the early 2000’s continued to set an unreachable standard of genre-defying, experimental-yet-accessible work- haunting, it seemed, the creative toiling of every indie rocker of my generation worth their salt.
During what turned out to be the official end of my youth (which took the form of a nasty bacterial infection that landed me in a quarantined hospital room for four days), they released a record that seemed to reflect my own growing musical journey away from the Johnny Greenwood-inspired-guitar-noise-maker, to the singer-songwriter that I am continuing to grow into today.
It was that transition that took me away from Radiohead almost altogether. The alternative country and Americana that occupied my career for the following years seemed to expose a fatal flaw in Radiohead’s overall aesthetic and production style. The gratuitous noise, indulgent arhythmic percussion elements, and (worst of all) the consistently obscured vocal/lyrical delivery flew violently in the face of the standards of the audience-friendly, dance, pop, and country music now allowing me to make a living as a musician for the first time.
Probably now have a more mature relationship to the world's most influential band and can see them in the light of my own growth, both personal and musical.....
These days Radiohead has a brand new release called A Moon Shaped Pool (AMSP). Oh, don’t worry, it’s ridden with all the things that I’ve loved and loathed over the years. Chief among them are things like ’classic’ music instruments (as NKOTB man-boy Joey McIntyre might say), reverse tape effects, purposefully inarticulate robot-alien noodlings, and of course, vocal performances deliberately designed to obscure anyone’s understanding of actual human words.
The opening (and maybe most accessible) track ‘Burn The Witch’ introduces one of the principle elements of the record’s sonic palette with its unnerving bed of ’col legno’ string texture (think ‘Psycho’ meets Phillip Glass or Steve Reich). The lyrics of this tune are standard Thom Yorke fare complete with haunting utterances warning us of the dangers of intolerance and unchecked political power. Of course, you’ll need a few listens and a bit of luck (and maybe one of those old-timey ear horn things…”what’s that, sonny?!”) to decipher what is actually being uttered by his Yorke-ness in this song- and the rest of them for that matter. But, we’ve come to expect that by now.
Other standout tracks on this record include ‘Decks Dark,’ which has a super-sexy, relaxed groove, and nice, riffy moments reminiscent of ‘Punch Up at a Wedding,’ ‘Nude,’ or even ‘Paper Tiger’ from Beck’s Sea Change (also produced by Nigel Godrich). ‘Full Stop,’ which is the most uptempo offering on the record strikes me as something of a nod to Bowie’s final release Dark Star with its use of drum and bass elements and meandering, vibrato-y vocal repetitions. Another of my favorites, ‘Identikit,’ has maybe the most accessible and singable vocal melody that reminds me of Misery Is A Butterfly-era Blonde Redhead or even that famous song by Dido. This one also features the only ‘guitar solo’ which I put in quotes for reasons that may become clear to you upon listening.
The overall production of AMSP is pretty amazing but not without it’s difficulties. There are moments in some of the songs where the strings simply overpower everything else. I’m not sure if that’s problematic, but it always strikes me as distracting and pulls me out of the song, to a degree. Also, the record is loud. If you shuffle play this with your other favorite stuff, it’s bound to check in at a few db above its competition. This is also a way thicker sounding recording than anything they’ve released in the past. The low-mids are slamming and (again, for my taste) prove to be a bit much when listening on earbuds or reasonably high def headphones (some of which already boost low-end frequencies….ya feel, Dre?).
Overall, this is likely to be the kind of record that I’ve come to covet from what is probably my favorite band of all time. It’s clear that many of the obscurities will most certainly give way to hidden musical moments awaiting such a time as when my ear can begin to ignore some of the surface elements that seek initial attention.
This is to say that there is no accounting for what listenings future life experience will allow for….