Radiohead release albums whenever they want, but there was a time when they didn’t, a time when we as music consumers naively believed that in order for a record to succeed, the humble ‘Head needed PR, a slew of singles, a label, etc. That was proven wrong in 2007 when, after breaking from major label EMI, the lads from Oxford released In Rainbows online without any publicity or set price tag. The Internet lost its collective shit, not just because the business model cut out the middleman, but also because the record featured some of the most tuneful, concise and nakedly emotional songs the band had recorded in over a decade. In 2011, they released their eighth effort The King of Limbs in a similar fashion, although to considerably less fanfare. Maybe the web changed in those four years. Or maybe the album, clocking in at under 40 minutes and carrying only eight tracks, was just too slight to make a splash.
Here we sit in 2016, a week after the release of Radiohead’s third surprise outing, the restrained and pensive A Moon Shaped Pool. While I’ll let you come to your own conclusions about whether or not we’re living in the dystopian future that’s had Thom Yorke so wigged out ever since 1995’s The Bends, the band’s eased off on that angle with this latest effort, and it works for and against them. By backing away from their techno-dystopian soapbox, the band have crafted a record that, while subtle and probably their most nuanced to date, fails to add up to more than the sum of its thematically disparate parts.
But that’s not to say these songs aren’t outstanding or that they don’t touch on the darker points of the modern world. This is Radiohead. Many of them respectively are and do. Case in point: lead single and opening track “Burn the Witch.” Featuring anxious strings arranged by guitarist Jonny Greenwood and performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra, the song simultaneously addresses the political and social climates of 2016, leveling subtle digs at the world’s reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis as well as the digital crucifixion anyone deemed #problematic on a certain social media potentially faces (it can’t be a coincidence that the music video opens with an image of a little blue bird).
Next comes “Daydreaming,” the second track and second single (I’m noticing a pattern here) that, between Thom Yorke’s wounded falsetto and yearning chords and Greenwood’s orchestral flourishes, is probably the most Radiohead thing Radiohead have ever done. But that’s not to say that the magic has run dry since Thom decided he wasn’t here and this wasn’t happening fifteen years ago, and nor is that considering the backmasked vocals which moan “half of my life” over ominous strings at the song’s fade. It’s here that I should probably mention that Yorke, 47, recently separated from his wife of 23 years, Rachel Owen. You do the math.
These two songs highlight the record’s dichotomy, as well as it’s greatest fault. In swaying back and forth between their typical twenty first century meltdowns (the lovely strummer “The Numbers,” performed previously in various live settings as “Silent Spring,” warns against climate change) and deeply personal tracks that often seem to deal with the crumbling of a relationship (the menacing kraut of “Ful Stop” and “Identikit,” the fragile and scared “Glass Eyes”), Radiohead have given us a record that doesn’t quite succeed as a call-to-arms to save the world nor features the singular introspection to completely work as a bloodletting break-up album.
And, looking at how most of these songs have been kicking around for some time, that makes sense. This isn’t a record born of a single session, but rather one assembled from a series of orphan tunes; “Burn the Witch” dates back at least to their 2002 Hail to the Thief sessions, and Yorke’s performed album closer “True Love Waits” live as far back as 1995 before first canonizing the song on the band’s 2001 live LP I Might Be Wrong as a surprisingly straightforward acoustic strummer. Here, it turns up as a stripped-back piano ballad that’s probably the prettiest song they’ve ever committed to 0s and 1s.
“Don’t leave” Thom whispers in the outro as layers of icy keyboards take the place of the triumphant acoustic chords that closed the live version. On I Might Be Wrong, “True Love Waits” stood as a reminder that, despite the fact that everyone had the fear and the ice age was most definitely coming, humanity’s ability to connect with each another could be its saving grace. Here, in 2016 and among muted songs of personal heartbreak, political turmoil and environmental devastation, it’s the sound of a man realizing that it might already be too late.