Yesterday, Radiohead released their 9th LP through online streaming services (excluding Spotify, so we’ll all have to work a bit harder to get ahold of it until the physical release for now). Moments after release the reviews began pouring in, as both small and larger mags and critics scrambled over each other to get their piece out ahead of the curve. In my experience, and this is an experience shared by many, Radiohead are never to be judged wholly by the first listen of an album. Songs that seem to simply blend into one another at first contain many layers, and with each new listen through the ear will pick up on a melody here or a clever lyric there that was missed at first. With this in mind I provide a disclaimer to this review: My opinions are likely to change, and I may well post an updated review in 6 weeks after I’ve inevitably had the album on repeat in the office as the soundtrack to my day for a month or so.
Tuning in to the BBC 6 listening party, I couldn’t help feeling a bubble of excitement and the vague sense of belonging that comes from being part of a moment you know will be remembered in your personal history, if not in musical history as a whole. This was one such moment, as the album was introduced as a ‘worldwide listening party’ and Burn The Witch, the single released earlier this week and first track on ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ wriggled its way through my anticipation and the inevitable hype and began to sink in, properly. Where the music video drew some of my concentration away from the sound, I could now focus, a focus that is always heightened when listening with a view to review. My university-honed analytical skills were activated, and I began to appreciate Burn The Witch as a comment on society rather than just another vaguely unsettling track from a vaguely unsettling band.
I won’t go through the album track by track; Radiohead albums work best as complete pieces. You wouldn’t review a book chapter by chapter (unless it’s a book of short stories, but that doesn’t apply here). Radiohead should be played continuously as a stream of consciousness. Throughout, Radiohead maintain their well-honed knack for creating a hypnotic waking dream which makes you feel like the protagonist of a drama that probably ends in a horrific car-crash after an extended driving-through-the-rain-at-night-to-the-sound-of-Daydreaming sequence. It makes you feel uncomfortable and out-of-sorts no matter where you are; which is particularly disjointing when sitting in a brightly-lit office listening through headphones whilst the rest of the world goes on around you.
In some parts, A Moon Shaped Pool sounds like a teenager experimenting with the various novelty buttons on an electric keyboard, but they layer sounds with such technical brilliance that it would be sacrilege to accuse them of not knowing exactly what they are doing. The album is full of lilts and lulls, growing in richness and volume, stripping itself back to almost nothing but vocals and a base line, and then layering instruments so seamlessly you don’t realise you’re riding the waves until the track trails off and into the next. It would be very easy to accidentally listen to 4 or 4 songs continuously without being able to discern where one ends and another begins, which for an album of this magnitude is perfectly reasonable.
The creative choice to end the album with a remastered version of ‘True Love Waits’ is an interesting one. Whilst the new version has received mostly positive reactions, I am left unimpressed. There are many, arguably much better versions of the song floating around the Web if you know where to look, especially some well-recorded live versions that do much more with the bare bones of the original song than this one. Perhaps it’s a way for Radiohead to remind us all that they are a Big Deal, or maybe they’re feeling nostalgic. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a good album, an interesting experiment and a testament to Radiohead’s fearless commitment to creativity. Love them or hate them, at least they’re not producing the nondescript indie-rock that is saturating the market.