Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool [2016]

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Radiohead isn’t a band that needs introduction at this point, at least usually. But during the lead up to their first album in five years, it seems as if they were trying to reintroduce themselves. In the days before A Moon Shaped Pool dropped, the band completely erased their internet presence, leaving nothing but a blank slate devoid of posts across their Twitter feeds and Facebook page. And when those gears DID start turning again, it was only to dribble out tiny clips of a child-like claymation video, which lacked any music, branding, or information of any kind. It signaled very clearly that something was about to happen, something that wasn’t beholden to their past, something cleaner and purer than before.

A Moon Shaped Pool is exactly that – it’s some of the cleanest, purest, and most human music the band has put to tape so far. Of course, this is Radiohead we’re talking about, so they’ll always bear some of that cold, insular, and electronic edge they’ve explored for so long. But what’s so surprising about this record is the much more emotional and naturalistic side they’ve chosen to explore within it. Acoustic guitars, string sections, and pianos take far more precedence over drum machines, sequencers and laptops, and more than ever Thom Yorke’s lyrics are focused on the pitfalls of the human condition instead of his trademark claustrophobic technophobia and paranoia. “Burn the Witch” is a perfect example of this: opening with a percussive gush of strings unlike anything in their discography, it drives forward with little need for guitars or drums, while focusing on the division of different peoples and the fear-mongering that causes it. But that song is actually a bit of a feint, as it doesn’t take long for the band to dip into more downcast, defeated territory: “Daydreaming” is one of the simplest songs in their catalog, but one of the thickest with emotion. Built upon a simple repeating piano motif, Yorke’s vocals barely rise above a murmur, and are cocooned with flourishes of violins and electronics that establish the song’s true movement and feeling. And “Decks Dark” is a slow burn of a track replete with chilly, rattling guitar lines and an introspective piano line that buoys some of Yorke’s most expressive vocals since In Rainbows – ones that equate encroaching dread and fear to visiting aliens blotting out the sky with their flying saucers.

But it’s after that three track run that the album starts revealing its truest colors. For example, “Desert Island Disk” is the closest thing to a folk song that the band has ever recorded. Calm and quiet, it’s led by an aerobic acoustic guitar line, gentle swirls of background electronics, and an oddly out-of-character set of lyrics that inspire uplift and hope instead of fear and paranoia. This track also finds a cousin on the album’s second half in “The Numbers”. It’s another gentle, folky song that this time finds its inspiration in ’60s protest music, as Yorke quietly rails against climate change and the powers that be, insisting that the people have the power to create change – which doesn’t solely have to function as an instruction against global warming. And while not nearly as folksy, “Present Tense” is a Spanish-sounding love-lost groove that’s almost danceable despite it’s lack of any sort of beat and heartbroken lyrics. Acoustic guitars aren’t the sole driving force of this album, however. “Ful Stop” throbs along with a repeating bass line courtesy of Colin Greenwood that establishes the core of the song, a song which chooses to fully explore that groove rather than searching out another, more obscure path. And on “Identikit”, the rest of the band allows Jonny Greenwood to take his electric guitar out of storage, resulting in a song with plenty of spiky dynamics and angular guitar lines to complement its grooving drums and expressive chorus.

But as always with Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool has a moodier side as well. As “Daydreaming” foreshadows, this isn’t an album without its darkness. “Glass Eyes” is a short yet powerful piano ballad punctuated with otherworldy strings, exploring the anxiety one finds themselves faced with when arriving in a new place, and its bare bones musicality only serves to emphasize its narrative (one which is formatted in the spirit of a voicemail left on someone’s phone). And conversely, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor…” finds itself straddling both that minimalist slant of “Glass Eyes” and a bigger, more sweeping cinematic feel. Its first half drifts around with little direction and a listless energy, until Jonny’s Bond-esque string score swoops in to take the song into an entirely different world. What at first seems like an almost disjointed track soon makes sense, as that swirl of strings leads into the crowning jewel, and closing track, of the album. “True Love Waits” is a storied song in Radiohead’s catalog, having been played live in one version or another dating back all the way to 1995. But it’s been a notoriously hard one for the band to try and capture, as it wasn’t until Yorke’s 23 year long relationship dissolved that they were finally able to find the inspiration to nail it. Once written with the hope and promise of a new love in mind, the song is now transformed into a fragile, twinkling, and bittersweet one of loss, barely held together as its gentle dual piano lines threaten to spiral away from each other. Despite being so gentle and low-key, Yorke manages to wring emotion out of every syllable and key, and the rasp that creeps into his voice during the chorus truly sells it.

A Moon Shaped Pool strikes a very fine balance as a whole piece of work. Despite featuring downcast, dreamy tracks like “Daydreaming” alongside folksy excursions such as “Desert Island Disk” and “The Numbers” and percussive orchestral numbers like “Burn the Witch”, and despite also pulling songs from many different points in the band’s career (“Ful Stop” and “Identikit” originated in 2012 on the King of Limbs tour, “Present Tense” in 2009 a a Yorke solo gig, “Burn the Witch” in the Hail to the Thief era, and “True Love Waits” in 1995), it feels like a body of work that was created concurrently. These songs have been massaged and finessed into the gentle, moody, yet very human forms they appear in here, and feel like puzzle pieces that were always meant to fit together. Even more so, despite their disparate eras, the fact that much of their lyrical content syncs with the huge loss Yorke has recently suffered makes these tracks feel even more fated to be together. Radiohead may have erased their own social media presence, and in doing so took a stab at erasing their own past. But the album they did it in service of inverts that by collecting little bits of ephemera from throughout their career, and uses them to form their most gentle and intimate sounding record ever, and one that’s the closest thing to a traditional heartbreak album the band has ever made. Where they once feared the world’s ever-increasing reliance on technology, here they’re fearing the breakdown of personal relationships and the loss of love. After looking outward for so long, it’s not so surprising that they’ve finally chosen to look inside and take stock of their own hearts. No longer are they paranoid androids suffering from future shock, but instead have opened their hearts up a little more to reveal the glassy-eyed daydreamers they truly are.

Key Tracks: Daydreaming, Decks Dark, Identikit, True Love Waits

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Thrice – To Be Everywhere is to Be Nowhere [2016]

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In 2012, after over 13 years of relentless touring, writing, and recording, Thrice decided to hit that ever-infamous “hiatus” button. The grind of being in a band their size had worn them down over those years, and they needed time to spend with their families – the value of which had been made even more apparent after several members losing loved ones during their last album cycle. With that in mind, the band embarked on a “farewell” tour that dug deep through fan-selected favorites, culminating in a huge 33-song long final show in July 2012. After that, the band dispersed to their families and new projects: Dustin became a pastor, Teppei opened a leather crafts shop, Riley started a baseball-themed grindcore band, and Eddie put in time with Angels & Airwaves. But the break didn’t last long, and in the waning days of 2014, the band announced their intention to get back together. And in a little under two years, they’ve returned with their first album of new music since 2011’s Major/Minor.

To Be Everywhere is to Be Nowhere finds Thrice essentially picking up where they left off with Major/Minor. The grungy, dirty rock sound they’ve had on that album and on Beggars before it is still firmly in place, but it seems like reconvening has also given them greater appreciation of where their music has come from in the past. One of the most obvious cues the band has picked back up are the larger, meatier guitar parts reminiscent of their Fire EP – “Death From Above” and “Blood on the Sand” both move with more power and weight than the band has shown in years, and while not quite as heavy, “Black Honey” and “The Window” pick up much of that EP’s dark and brooding undertones as well. “Hurricane” opens the album with a thick swirl of guitars and brooding atmosphere appropriate for the title, feeling as if it really could be buoyed on the winds of a storm. In fact, this record finds the band turning up the sludge and brood in every aspect, not just on the guitars – this thing is downright dirty sounding. Even in it’s most friendly and approachable moments, there’s a sense of claustrophobia and grit in the mix that doesn’t relent. Yet “Salt and Shadow” exists on that same album, a song with a gentle, heavenly atmosphere that would be able to slot itself perfectly on the band’s Air EP. But that’s about the only air and light that manages to work its way in both musically and lyrically.

Lyrically, To Be Everywhere is to Be Nowhere finds Dustin focusing much less on faith (as he had on more recent Thrice albums) and more on the social and political issues he first touched on with The Artist in the Ambulance. “Blood on the Sand” is a take down of the frightened apathy that causes us to build walls to keep out our fellow man instead of making an attempt at connection, and “Death From Above” tackles our willingness to bomb those same people from afar without ever putting a name or face to them. “Whistleblower” is an obviously pro-Snowden song, celebrating the individuals who risk their freedom and lives to enlighten the rest of the world to a massive wrongdoing, and “Black Honey” focuses on our often blind conquest to take the things we need without considering how the blow-back might affect us. It’s refreshing to hear Dustin have something to get angry about again, because it helps lend power to both the music and his own vocal delivery. Plus, even though some of the lyrics here suffer from being very on-the-nose, it’s brave for a band of their size to deliver a comeback album with lyrics that could potentially polarize old and new fans alike.

But for all the base-touching they do on this album, it feels like they’ve forgotten to bring anything fresh to the table. As a longtime fan you might be happy to hear those flourishes from throughout their discography, and as a new fan, they might even seem unique to you. But it’s disappointing that after five years apart – in such vastly different bands and even parts of the country – that they haven’t found one new thing to bring to the mix. In fact, a handful of tracks find the band veering dangerously close to rock cliché instead: “Wake Up” featuring a tired cock rock-esque chorus that settles for repeating the song’s title in place of any sort of lyricism, and “Stay With Me” apes U2’s worst arena rock tendencies and mixes them with a dash of sludgy guitars to no effect. At its worst, To Be Everywhere is to Be Nowhere ironically finds the band sloughing off some of their character and flair in an attempt to be both radio-friendly and to pay homage to their previous sonic explorations.

Sadly, this album ends up being very much a mixed bag. There are flashes of the band’s former glories littered in almost every track, but they’re also tempered by some of the band’s blandest moments ever put to tape. It’s not a bad album in any sense of the word, but after five years apart and plenty of exploration for each one of their members, it’s a shame that To Be Everywhere is to Be Nowhere finds Thrice simply mining old territory and watering down the rest. Perhaps this is just the band’s way of getting back to ground, consolidating the parts of the band they loved the most as a springboard for whatever comes next. Or perhaps middle age and family life has dulled their fire to prove themselves and take huge risks. And perhaps it’s too easy to compare this album to the rest of the band’s towering discography, because if this were any other band, it might be something fairly special. But in the end, they’ve simply put out an okay album after so many great ones. It happens.

Key Tracks: Hurricane, Blood on the Sand, The Long Defeat, Death From Above