When The King of Limbs came out, I was twenty years old. It feels like a very different time in my life. This blog was very different. I wouldn't "invent" the live review "format" until a few months later. Almost all of my favourite active artists have had several albums release in that time. Some entire careers have flared up and burnt out in that time. I talked recently about how it seemed weird that Death Grips was still around after five years, but those five years were less than this waiting time, and absolutely nothing compared to the 31 years of Radiohead's career.
And after all that time, they still seem to be changing. Thom Yorke has split with Rachel Owen, his partner of 23 years, with whom he has two children. Earlier this morning I finished book two of Knausgård's personal-epic My Struggle, written in his 40s. Thom Yorke and Karl Ove Knausgård were born in the same year, in October and December respectfully. The story of My Struggle is as much the creation of these books as their content themselves: that is, that this established, successful artist could still write with such a burning, frenzied, desire, still place such importance on his art despite the personal life that grew around him. And not just that it happened, but how it happened: in visceral details, sometimes brutally thorough, this surging passion that had seized him through his life.
So, far from pessimism around the stagnation or even decay of a band entering their third decade of relevance, I really have no doubt that Radiohead has another masterpiece in them. In fact, it might be the most sensible thing for those with such a legacy of devotion. The lead singles has them merging the composition techniques they had refined in their beat-driven electronic projects with instrumentation recalling the ambiance of Kid A and the drive of Johnny Greenwood's orchestral work, and with the sorrowful edge of Hail to the Thief gleaming at times. Beyond that, I have no idea what to expect. I am excited beyond words.
Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
1. Burn The Witch
Alright yeah lead single I have heard this dozens and dozens of times already. It is such a bright and yet ominous opening, one that suggests this sort of creepy daytime aura... The lyrics are maybe a bit on the nose, but it really makes you picture them, especially after seeing the excellent video. BUuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurrrrrrrrrrrrn the wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiitchhhh, so good, the way everything shifts down just to accommodate that huge airspace for Thom's falsetto to just soar, and then the second shift at 1:30, into this place of really disjoint tension, jfc. And oh man the little quavering strings in the background around 1:50, that sound vaguely like children's laughter (at least to me), and thus form some crazy inverse to the kids on 15 Step, maybe. Ahhhhh. AHHH. It's still so good. The people comparing this to Viva la Vida just made me lol. Do they not hear the darkness in that plucking?? This is sheer Greenwoodcore. This is There Will Be And Is A Lot Of Blood-core. Ahhh. So good. ***
omg I can't believe this is the second track. This felt like near the end of the album, when I first heard it. Good lord it is just so so so beautiful. The panning effects at the start here, no one has done them like Kid A. "Good luck with Kid A" - Yorke at most arrogant. And that piano omfg it's like luscious, it's gushing, it's snow. Is this a perfect song? Is there any way to improve this song? Thinking directly about how it ends while hearing the beginning is like that Pitchfork review of Kid A lmao. The baby simultaneously playing and stillborn. People mock that review but they still talk about it so I think mission accomplished??? The little bloom at 2 minutes in, so apprehensive, so minor, almost "nervous", and then at 2:20, when it "completes", everything comes together, the piano becomes continuous, all those sparkling effects start to really shine... People were saying "where's the drums" and yeah I can see how actually fucking awesome it would be if a jazzy Amnesiac or Matryoshka style kit came in here but without it they can go so much further in this direction. A WHITE ROOM, BY A WINDOW, AND THE SUN COMES THROUGH, why is this so haunting? and oh man, at 4:00, you just know, this is the real one, this is the absolute arc, AND THE BASSLINE AT 4:10 GOOD GOD "get god on the phone" - kendrick. and these backwards ass vocals shoutouts to 15 years ago when kid a greatest album of all time was released. it just becomes this absolute carnival of joy and light here, but already you can hear the darkness, that almost pastiche of the vocal line on the bass, and that deep monster rumble, it really is Yume Nikkiesque in the best possible way, you just think "what is making that sound" and "maybe it is a friend", an innocent feeling. Omfg. I really cannot express how perfect this song is to me, how many things that I like are going on at once. The space they give this outro, GOOD LORD, another dimension. *****
3. Decks Dark
OH SNAP BEATS, and some other crazy trill thing panned hard right makin me think my DAC's actin up again. woahwhahahwaoaiah. "Their spacecraft blocking out the sky" oh hell yeah we're on that alien abduction blues again, or the situations that feel like it. "It's the last sound you've ever heard", my god, those icy pianos in each ear, the franticness of it and the languidity, I am so impressed. OH MAN at 1:25, it bends lower than I thought it'd go and HERE ARE YOUR DRUMS AND GUITARS, now LITERALLY EVERYONE IS HAPPY, and OH SO SAD BECAUSE IT SOUNDS LIKE A WHOLE CHOIR OF GHOSTS. "It was just a laugh" - someone you can't picture laughing ever. my god. "You gotta be kiddin me" yeah ofc. "It's whatever you say it is": really really good. AND THEN THE PIANO COMING BACK IN. it was like a whole trip through dark waters to another point of light. and the way these complex patterns decay to the right, trailing away from you, what in the hell??? this is a mastery of whole new... jesus... what... OH AND THIS BASSLINE, so aggressive, fighting for relevance, contrasted so wonderfully with that very "modern Radiohead" splash effect thing, a super distorted cymbal? "And you had enough of me" oh no i am not ready for this level of sad thom :((((( thommy thom please. that was SO COOL tho. ***
4. Desert Island Disk
woah okay yeah i hear the desert island, this tropical acoustic guitar, this sort of flair, it feels so unlike them, and that heavy bass drum, i am being whisked very far away very fast and i do not need to come back. Thom on his super mopey flow "so you gotta let me go, up up and away", or something... "My spirit light/totally alive"? And this... he's sorta like describing the "Daydreaming" video lol. The effects in the background are so well done, they reminded me briefly of uhhhhh Popul Vuh :O and then this switch up around 2:30 god DAMN, what exactly changed? everything became so twilight coloured... sorry, i'm not gonna be making much sense this time. "You know what I mean". "Different types of love" oh no :( and YET ANOTHER SHIFT at the 11th hour, now into full on night, the moon is bright and reflecting in the pool, will i be able to haitei?? **
5. Ful Stop
woah okay this is like TKOLcore sorta. or TMBcore. okay but ELECTRIC GUITAR maybe? creeping up on these post-warp beats? this feels... so indulgent LOL. they're really stringing us along (pun). but they have 6 minutes to really make this one great. This is like... some minimalist inverse of The National Anthem. You know how when you invert a complex picture and then only the empty spots are visible, and it's sparse but complex?? "You really messed up everything" lmao okay what. His voice is so... lilting? Is that the word I want? So fragile and jumpy... haunting already... a promise of haunting... and these crazy schizophrenic background noises. "This is a foul tasting medicine" haha geez. WOAH OKAY. just when I was about to say "i feel claustrophobic", it opens right up, or spells right out. "The truth in"... "Mexico"? that can't be right LOL. but oh man yeah this is EXCITING AS HELL. it's like they were advancing the track at some rate and then accelerated into something on the next uhh, the next power up in acceleration, or whatever. All the good times. This is exactly what I predicted/wanted. Rebuilding the complex world of TKOL with the sensibilities of IR/HTTT. "Will you take me back again?" oh my god my heart is breaking, 23 years, almost as long as I've been alive. hoooooly... how will this one end? One final burst or a fade away? which is more poetic? which is more dramatic? ah yes, the subtle decay, only the loopy energy spiraling away, shrieking into the night, omg... ***
6. Glass Eyes
woah WOAH. Gorgeous. WOAH. this... what the... what in the world am I hearing? is this a liquid piano? is this my favorite sound of all time? are these strings descending from heaven? o SHIT is this some thom yorke answering machine core??? move over drake??? oh my god. these lyrics. this is... holy shit. Not since "I Will" have they felt so hymnal. oh the tension at 1:20, this bend, it almost feels unnecessary. this song is just statically perfect. this path trailing off... ...... ... i think im gonna cry, maybe. oh my god my god. the cello or whatever. ****
oh HELL YEAH, another live treasure unlocked in studio, this one they've been playing for years and years, since around TKOL, i think it was the first post-TKOL track. these dark muttering lyrics, this super catchy beat and bassline, "Sweet faced ones with nothing left inside", Jesus. Everything is just being "let rock", I love it, it feels almost jam band-y, even though they are very far from that LOL. "When I see you messing me around, I don't want to know", this is a very Knaausgard sort of feeling hahaha. my god. at 1:55, I have heard many bootlegs of this, but I was not ready for that. "Broken hearts make it rain" jesus jesus. The Raindrops, The Raindrops. AND AT 2:30, I was not ready for that either! this sort of transcendence... this faith in the people's love for the whole track thus far... it's Kanye-esque LOL. I love ALL the synth sounds, and the guitar sound. oh man at 3:30 i just got HEAVY ASMR things, like, full on goosebumps lmao. just from that one sound! how did they know?? and this GUITAR SOLO??? now even the DADS ARE HAPPY??? hahahaha. holy moly WOAH hahwahwaha Johnny is going full S2J Johnny stock on that one. ***
8. The Numbers
wait what? woah woah. this is too much of a fusion. it's the piano from glass eyes GONE CRAZY. and then the acoustic guitar? and this almost WESTERN CLAP N STOMP BEAT? have they all lost their minds? sleighbells sliding sound... what world did they dream this in? "Horse is like a phantom"? that can't be right lmao oops. ahh. "See the moon smiling", I am smiling too, my smile is one of disbelief. What in the hell am I hearing? there is so much going on here. LOL i think those are actually sleigh bells. the absolute madman. And that jazzy but aggressive piano, the way it gets mixed to the forefront sometimes, oh my god. "Future's inside us", i choose to believe he is referring to the Atlanta rapper. Woahahaha at 2:50, another huge shift, how are they SO GOOD at this? How are they so determined to find these whole new dimensions of expansion, track after track? woah OH MY GOD THE WAY THE VOCALS DECAYED INTO THIS SINGULAR WANDERING SOUND, OH MY GOD THESE CINEMATIC STRINGS, so dramatic! and the mirroring of the piano and the violins!! it is almost ABSURD it's so beautiful. "Take back what is ours", and again this very slight political edge... what the heck, where the hell is it going? that decayed vocal line from before is now being opened, opened so wide and free, what in the hell??? what insane movie did they think this would score? AND THAT LAUGHING SAMPLE, omg, what does this remind me of? it will drive me crazy. ***
9. Present Tense
This is another live show hidden classic, at first people thought it was a Thommy Thom solo track but NAH we got the whole band on here, got Phil on the shakers, got dat GREENWOOD ACOUSTIC GUITAR, sounding like some flamenco balladeer who's never had a happy day in his life but comes close sometimes, Thom's gorgeous flowing vocals, oh MAN this is the real one. "This dance is like a weapon", what could that mean? It's a weapon against the present tense. Ah. Well, that speaks to memory or something, speaks to Knaausgard again, or maybe more like Proust. Who knows what the hell I am saying or what it means because this music is so radiant and crystalline it doesn't matter at all at all at all. "As it all comes crashing down, I'll be dancing", ah so, dancing as an escape from the unbearable present? Ahhh. Sad. Sad but maybe hopeful. Maybe something close to hopeful. Jesus. "It's no one's business but mine", o sorry :( and those wonderful choral backups, are those children? has he harnessed a children's choir again, like he did for that one theatrical show? that sounded so good. "In you, I'm lost", ah, well, in this song, I am lost (sorry). Gosh though. What a beautiful blend of songs. What an exciting rhythm. And that huge drum on the outro, hell yeah. ***
10. Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief
what is this title oh man I had to copy paste it. what are these beats im getting nightmares already. it is like those sounds that make people hallucinate in "ghost houses". or something. that static-snare, that... clocktower grind sound, this plodding sinister vocal line... i was hoping this might be a Wolf At the Door-style "rap", reading the title, hahahha. "And all you had to do is say yea", I think. This feels very political. Oh man at 2:00, that expansion again, it is like casting light over the whole catacombs, these drums. And that on the border of border of abrasive sound in the right ear, that swelling, jesus christ. OH MAN THESE STRINGS AT 2:30, this sudden movement of everything, skeleton-rattling. at 3:00, the way it "catches" at a high place and goes even higher, it reminds me of Arvo Part lmao. but i don't know much about that sort of music. there was a "flapping" sound, and this distant drum solo, this feeling of descent. My god. That sound. I think it's tape decay. Shoutouts to Basinski. Shoutouts to decay. Oh my god. It feels like some big black sheet fluttering as it descends on my brain. ****
11. True Love Waits
holy fucking shit i cannot believe my eyes. after 20 years, literally twenty years, we are hearing True Love Waits in the studio. did you wait? did you start to cry as soon as you read this title? 90s radiohead, coming back at you. and you thought Nude was a long wait. wow. this piano is so gorgeous. so different than the Daydreaming one, and obvs the Glass Eyes one... so much more acoustic, almost rusted, the heaviness of every key. these lyrics are beyond quoting. it is too sad. this is when he was singing "fake plastic trees". oh man. at 1:20. i thought this would just be straight street spirit core but they're bringing in the BEATS in a strange indiscernible way. "I'm not leaving, I'm just killing time", sorry, I had to. he probably wrote this about them at the start of their relationship. "Your crazy kitten smile". a man who is in his 40s and a millionaire (probably) and renowned on every level of critical and commercial success is THIS sad, and now so are we. but it's so much more than this. the piano spiraling out of control. the bass rumbling darker and darker. oh my god... ......... this is... how... *****
Crying, floating, watching the world turn from a pool on the moon
I had tried to approach this from the angle that Thom Yorke had just ended this very long relationship and that maybe whatever schism lead to that would manifest in this album. But then it seemed like maybe it was well "post-" that, and it was more about the loneliness, the decay of feelings, the memories. But that doesn't suffice either.
I tried to formulate some equation of other albums that would anticipate the content. Drive of HTTT plus structure of TKOL plus instrumentation of IR. Or maybe... ambition of The Bends, times the exploration of Kid A, to the power of OKC? But it was a fool's errand.
The narratives that usually surround a band going into their third decade of activity, and their ninth studio album... things like "calling back to their old sound", "complacent in their audience", "still boldly experimenting"... none of these come close.
It could be partially attributed to fan response, a direct, person-by-person response to everyone who has ever liked the band but didn't like some aspects of it... the people who wanted more guitar, more drums, more beats, more ambiance: they have all been taken care of. The people who were waiting for "Identikit" and even "True Love Waits", their patience has been rewarded. Even the people who wanted Radiohead to have more alien abduction references or islandy acoustic guitar, whoever they are, they would be well sated.
But at the same time, it's something that you know must appeal to them, first and foremost. It's indulgent in many ways, an indulgence that feels very internally facing, one where you can feel them compelled to push further in some directions, to bring about the full weight of a song to bear. And who could have asked for, say, the liquid piano of "Glass Eyes", or the Pangaea-utopia that is "The Numbers", who could have even articulated that desire? And yet they give it to us with the same fullness and gusto they did the long-awaited drums.
It is thus a confident album, one that operates through the assumed success of its sounds and experiments... many songs have a pattern where some dynamic and tonal shift occurs about halfway through, one that would fall completely flat if the first mode had missed the mark. And yet it also feels apprehensive, meek in some places, letting its most experimental ideas sneak in, balanced with some of their most solid and straightforward guitar/bass/drum interplay in years.
If those last two statements feel paradoxical... they are. It really feels like the mixture of domestic bliss and blinding hell, and the struggle to bridge them, with which Knausgård illustrates his home life. But again I narrativize too much. I don't think I can arrive at something like an answer yet. I can say words like "dark" and "personal" but they don't get us far. I can say something like "beautiful" and "rich" but it means little. It may take me another five years to say something sensible, five years stained with repeated listens of this album. I am plunging into those five years with a smile.