How Radiohead Made the Anti-Meme, Twitter Unfriendly Event Album With 'A Moon Shaped Pool'
"'A Moon Shaped Pool' sounds like Radiohead feeling out its own future, not trying to fit in with everyone else’s notion of the present."
Even cave dwellers who haven’t heard The Life of Pablo, Lemonade, or Views know all about Beyoncé vs. Becky, Drake’s drama at the Cheesecake Factory, and Kanye’s love of Kanye. The first three “event” albums of 2016 came with instant storylines and lyrics that lent themselves to memes and hashtags and takes that stayed hot for days.
This trend does not continue with A Moon Shaped Pool, the long-awaited ninth album from British art-rock gods Radiohead. Sure, fans flocked to Twitter in lead-up to yesterday (May 8)’s 2 p.m. (ET) digital release, joking about how they were going to abandon their moms on Mother’s Day to give it a listen. But once people actually sat down with the record -- Radiohead’s first in five years -- they probably didn’t know what to tweet.
After all, these are Radiohead songs: winding, downbeat, uneasily pretty things that reveal themselves slowly, if at all. Further, the album doesn’t seem intended to make any kind of grand statement. When the tracklist went live, fans immediately recognized four of the 11 tunes (“Ful Stop,” Identikit,” “Present Tense,” and “True Love Waits”) from live recordings, and “The Numbers” turned out to be “Silent Spring,” which singer Thom Yorke debuted at a concert last December. Throw in the singles “Burn the Witch” and “Daydreaming,” which came out last week, and we’re left with only four completely new songs.
This is not a portal to new sonic dimensions, like Radiohead’s most celebrated albums. A Moon Shaped Pool is a labyrinth built from bricks that have been lying around for years -- and the craftsmanship is exquisite.
Piano, acoustic guitar, and strings -- especially strings -- are everywhere, making for a surprisingly soft and human-sounding record. And yet fans of Kid A and the blippier, itchier electro-rock of Hail to the Thief and King of Limbs won’t be disappointed. On “Decks Dark,” the band slides subtle programmed drums beneath twinkling atmospherics, heavenly background voices, and lyrics about a “spacecraft blocking out the sky.” “Ful Stop” is a menacing krautrock throbber about good times coming to an end. “Identikit” closes with a thrilling tangle of rock ’n’ roll guitar. The album is organic and electronic, jittery and calm, challenging and highly listenable.
But if you’re looking for memes, you’re out of luck. The line “broken hearts make it rain,” from “Identikit,” might read funny over photos of Thom Yorke looking especially bummed out. (Lots of options there.) “I won’t get heavy,” from “Present Tense,” is another ironic sentiment given Radiohead’s wet-blanket rep. Maybe pair that one with a shot of Thom grimacing. (Again, plenty to choose from.) But that’s about as silly as it gets.
If jokes are out, so are knee-jerk conversations about what it all means for humanity. While “Burn the Witch” and its accompanying video promised a political album -- a commentary on Trump’s rise in America and worsening xenophobia in Europe -- much of A Moon Shaped Pool seems to be about Yorke’s recent split from Rachel Owen, his partner of 23 years. Or not -- he’s a private guy whose band excels at turning vague anxiety into songs that comfort different people for different reasons. When Yorke sings “It’s whatever you say it is” on “Deck’s Dark,” he may as well be annotating 90% of his lyrics.
Radiohead certainly didn’t set out to make an anti-hot-take album. Like ‘Ye, Bey, and Drizzy, the band simply knows itself and its audience. (Do you, as the kids say.) Nearly a decade removed from the innovative pay-what-you-wish scheme of 2007’s In Rainbows, the group has become almost Prince-like in its views on social media and streaming services. Amid all of last week’s promo fanfare -- the two viral videos, the erasure of the band’s online presence, etc. -- hype never hijacked the conversation.
How could it have? With its intricacy and wounded beauty, A Moon Shaped Pool sounds like Radiohead feeling out its own future -- not trying to fit in with everyone else’s notion of the present. Highly respected yet no longer operating at the center of popular culture, the group has earned the luxury of a patient audience that will tweet some first thoughts and then go back for another listen, then another. The only people who ought to get riled up on social media are grammarians. The album title is totally missing a hyphen -- #compoundadjectives.