We really don’t care how you release your album.
Drop it in the middle of the night unannounced, tease it with cryptic social media posts, preface it with a performance at the Super Bowl Halftime Show, act like you’re doing something radical by manipulating your internet presence when in fact you’re just being another marketing yob – whatever. Just, please, do us all a favor – make sure that, when the thing hits the open air, it’s worth our time and interest, and doesn’t demand that we treat it as a “media event.”
Radiohead – the most important art-rock band of our time – presaged the release of “Moon Shaped Pool” (XL Records, 4 stars) by gradually deleting its Internet presence in the days leading up to its release, like the slowly dying Hal 9000 computer in Stanley Kubrick’s “Space 2001.” This was anti-statement as statement, but still, it was marketing, ultimately, albeit a clever take on it. This band always has been ahead of the curve, music delivery-wise, severing ties with major labels and opting to self-release and self-promote its music as far back as 2007, when it dropped “In Rainbows” as a pay-what-you-like download through Radiohead.com. This turned out to be a game-changer in the industry, but by this point, it’s all become so trite, dull, pre-meditated and lifeless, with everyone from Drake to Beyonce flogging the near-dead “surprise release” horse. So the Internet destroyed the music business, and you need to find creative new ways to market yourself. We get it. Yawn.
What makes Radiohead different? The music, of all things. It really needs no publicity stunts to lend an air of gravitas where none exists.
“A Moon Shaped Pool” is outsider music, as all great Radiohead music has been since “OK Computer.” It’s dark, meditative, masterful stuff, and, as the album opener “Burn the Witch” suggests, it knows where you live, and it hits you there.
What could the world’s largest cult band possibly do to stimulate us with the shock of the unfamiliar this time around? Didn’t it already master the art of deconstruction-as-rock with “Kid A,” in 2000? Hasn’t it already made enough statements that blend righteous anger, disgust, ennui, existential terror, and yearning-infused dread, all set to a broadly cinematic and harmonically transgressive sound? Where do you go when you’ve already changed music a few times?
You go deeper.
Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway spend “A Moon Shaped Pool” proving themselves to be masters of a 21st century rock minimalism they had a heavy hand in creating. It’s a sound whose influence can be heard everywhere these days, from cutting-edge hip-hop to modern jazz mash-ups, and it owes as much to late 60s/early 70s Miles Davis as it does to Brian Eno and Bjork.
The Radiohead ethic for the past 15 years or so has been one whose main tenet is the whittling away of unnecessary information to reveal a tight and taut core, a music that dares to be as oddly funky as “Remain In Light”-era Talking Heads and as ruminative as the Nick Drake of “Five Leaves Left,” often within the same song. “Moon Shaped Pool” offers a master class in sound-sculpture and modular composition. With the possible exception of opener “Burn the Witch,” the songs don’t follow standard narrative templates, but rather, employ harmonic modules in the construction of a grandiloquent intertwining of melodic fragments. Seriously. That’s what’s going on here, in 2016, when “more is more” is no longer a statement anyone bothers to debate.
Of course, one needn’t be a musicologist to dip one’s toe into the “Moon Shaped Pool.” You just need to listen, repeatedly, preferably through a nice pair of noise-cancelling headphones.
The album kicks off with tense pizzicato strings heralding “Burn the Witch,” a tune that could be about a Donald Trump rally gone horribly wrong, had it not been written a few years before Trump was battling Beyonce for sycophantic column inches. The scene has been set: Trust no one. Keep quiet. Go along to get along. Leave a trail of bread crumbs, or you’ll never make it back home. You’re not being paranoid, things really are this bad. Ain’t life grand in 2016?
No one does the existential downward spiral quite like Thom Yorke.
You wake up sweating, only to be lulled back to sleep with the elegiac “Daydreaming,” a piano-led rumination that begins with Yorke letting you in on a little secret – “Dreamers, they never learn” – and ends with a sinister back-masked vocal that sounds like an irritable horned goat-lord intoning “You’ve been asleep”. This music bows to no pre-scripted rules. It follows its own logic, like a particularly potent fever-dream.
For the first time, Radiohead has leaned heavily on orchestrations, the work of erstwhile film score composer Jonny Greenwood, whose work on “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master” put him in good stead to take the reins here. Radiohead and orchestral strings turn out to be a match made a little bit to the left of heaven. No standard rock-with-strings, this, but rather, brilliantly orchestrated movements that envelop, swirl around, roil beneath, or echo the fragility of the sparse guitars and ominously pulsating rhythm section they serve. The only suitable comparisons, orchestration-wise, are to Vince Mendoza’s work with Joni Mitchell and George Martin’s with the Beatles.
When it comes to “A Moon Shaped Pool,” you have two choices. You can ignore it. Or you can clear your schedule and give it the attention it so clearly deserves. This is music that rewards close listening. However it got here, well, here it is.