It’s safe to say that the current state of the music industry is far from ideal. Artists are earning far from enough through streaming and physical sales, live music makes even less money, and the worldwide economy is still not stable. Pair that with frequent bus crashes, heroic artists dying and chaotic new means of promotion (something which Reverend & the Makers’ Jon McClure spoke of here) and you’ve got a year which is far from ideal. And then there’s Radiohead, the gift that keeps on giving. Nine years ago, the band introduced the “pay what you want model” on the stunning In Rainbows, before The King of Limbs’ (2011) masterful visual accompaniment demonstrated the band’s knack for a surprise release. Now, the Oxfordshire quintet are back, having just put out ninth studio album A Moon Shaped Pool with just two days’ notice.
Why is this all relevant, though? Haven’t Radiohead passed their best, I hear you say? Well, when you live in a world where everybody’s next step is even more predictable than the one before, it eventually makes you beg for something to come along and inject some fresh life into the music industry. In the month leading up to A Moon Shaped Pool’s announcement, curveballs were thrown left, right and centre as the hype spiralled stratospherically. Then, everything came all at once: two new songs and a brand new record, all announced and released within the space of five days. Radiohead are back. The chaos which ensued during the two days before the album’s release show just how important the band are for modern day music. The album, which may well be Radiohead’s best, draws from a variety of influences and fuses them into a diverse melting pot which has been bubbling up since at least 1995 (when album closer True Love Waits first surfaced during a live show). The record has been five years in the making, with its surfacing yesterday well-received by critics and fans alike the world over. Such positive reaction can’t be for nothing, right? Exactly.
Part of Radiohead’s charm is the element of surprise. Not many modern day rock acts are capable of pulling off such a surprise release, let alone even staying relevant twenty years later. Whereas 1997’s seminal OK Computer bemoaned the rise of technology, A Moon Shaped Pool embraces it and embeds it within the realms of Thom Yorke and co.’s consciousness. The synth-flecked Identikit and the fuzzy Ful Stop (both premiered live in 2012) each possess a technological undertone which helps Radiohead’s deeply ingrained thought pulsate alongside jagged guitar stabs, wobbly basslines and Yorke’s wailed vocals. Although both tracks are predominantly downbeat (the majority of the record is slower), they stand out on a record full of strong moments. Album closer True Love Waits (a twenty year old piano ballad) and the Caribbean-flecked (slightly) Present Tense both put Yorke’s vocals on a rawness pedestal, placing him on the spot in an extremely emotional light. Album opener Burn the Witch employs hints of industrial rock, something which has been translated to its string accompaniment, whereas lead single proper Daydreaming warbles Yorke’s vocals alongside melancholic piano lines and serene strings (for which guitarist Johnny Greenwood is likely most responsible). The focus isn’t all on Yorke’s vocals, though. The rest of the band (Ed O’Brien, Johnny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway) all contribute equally, with their parts far more distinct this time round than on The King of Limbs. There’s far more focus on instrumental intricacy, ranging from every guitar jab on Decks Dark all the way through to Glass Eyes’ slow yet enthralling build-up.
Certain tracks do outshine others on A Moon Shaped Pool, however the final package does represent a band who have made an album which is worth listening to from start to finish. It’s not necessarily a concept album, but each song still feels like an individual piece of a puzzle which started in 1995 and is still, here in 2016, relatively incomplete. Where can Radiohead go from here? Musically they may have explored quite a lot of avenues, yet it’s just as interesting to consider the various ways in which they’ll surprise the world from a promotional perspective. Will they drop LP10 out of nowhere? Or will they, for the first time since 2003, stick to a regular promotional campaign? Who knows. One thing that we do know, though, is that A Moon Shaped Pool is the literal kick up the backside which the music industry needs to be able to keep itself relevant and thinking on its feet. Bravo, Radiohead.