The Complicated “Return to Form:” James Brubaker and Brian Flota Talk Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, The King of Limbs, and Reference SNL for No Good Reason
Brian Flota: Hey there, James. It's apparently that time every half-decade where Radiohead decides to surprise-release a new album. On May 8, they released their long-awaited ninth studio album, A Moon Shaped Pool. For most critics it appears to be a brilliant "return to form." And while I generally like it, I'm not exactly sure what this is supposed to mean. I was one of the several people on the planet that quite liked The King of Limbs, the previous surprise-released album, which came out all the way back in 2011. Unlike their two previous albums, the dreadful Hail to the Thief (2003) and the slightly better but still yawn-inducing In Rainbows (2007), it was nice to hear them put some propulsion back into their music. I liked The King of Limbs because it was sort of like an EDM record for an audience who just sent their oldest child off to college. It was glitchy music for people who can't get glitchy anymore, and I appreciated the sedate, practically sleepy attempt at the frenetic it captured.
Further complicating any "return to form" narrative on my end regarding A Moon Shaped Pool is the fact that I find the group's two most celebrated albums, The Bends (1995) and OK Computer (1997), to be wildly overrated. In fact, I find OK Computer to be pretty dull. For a record that is supposedly one of the ten best albums ever made, it barely leaves an impression on this listener. If it weren't for the songs that had videos ("Karma Police" and "Paranoid Android"), I wouldn't be able to name a single song off it. At least The Bends has some good stand-alone songs! OK Computer (or OK Album as I like to call it) sounds very distinctly like a product of the 1990s, though it gets points for resisting the punk and metal influences that touched most 1990s radio rock up to that point, instead embracing a somber, prog-tinged psychedelia more akin to their humorless brethren Pink Floyd than, say, The Flaming Lips or Mercury Rev (whose psychedelic music always seemed to me drenched in a kind of punk Disneyana). For me, the group's unassailable masterpiece is Kid A (2000), as off-kilter a chart-topping album as there has ever been. As much as I love that album, it points to my biggest gripe with Radiohead. They are a band content to conservatively explore the avant-garde edges of popular music without fully embracing them. They don't go full-bore. They bring in the influences of electronica (especially Aphex Twin), trip-hop (like Massive Attack and Portishead), free jazz (like Albert Ayler or Charles Gayle) and psychedelic rock (The Boredoms or the aforementioned Flaming Lips) on that album, but never dive head first into these directions. There's always a hesitance on the part of Radiohead that always leaves me feeling like they're a bit insincere. That being said, Kid A, if it is insincere, is insincerity of the highest order.
My initial impressions of A Moon Shaped Pool were similar. On the first couple of spins, it appeared that the first and last songs ("Burn the Witch" and the re-tread "True Love Waits," respectively) were far and away the best things on the album. This gave me the initial impression of an imbalanced album kind of like a bland overstuffed sandwich with great bread but mediocre filling. After a few more listens, I came to enjoy the relative simplicity of the songs and how they are supplied with complimentary textures (effects, strings) that make them seem more complex than they really are. It could be said that Radiohead, with this sleight of hand, and after years of putting out nominally innovative music, started suffering from innovation fatigue. As a result, A Moon Shaped Pool is as concerned with sonic textures—and not with beats resembling digital detritus—as anything they have produced since the Kid Amnesiac era.
James Brubaker: Brian, you ignorant slut.
OK, I don’t really mean that, but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to drop an SNL reference.
But maybe I do mean it a little (but not really)—here’s the thing, you’ve said a lot about how Radiohead’s work never quite embraces the avant garde in which they dabble. I’m not sure that this is a fair assessment of their work because Radiohead have always been a populist band. They are known for their anthems and ballads. They’re known for their songs that sad people put on mixtapes when they’re going through a breakup. This always needs to be the baseline for discussions of Radiohead. That said, though, I get where you’re coming from, here because a lot of lazy music critics and overzealous fans have lionized Radiohead as “The Most Influential Band of All Time,” which is utter foolishness. Or is it?
Here’s where Radiohead get tricky—they have been influential, but not through innovation. They have been influential to mainstream rock and pop through their willingness to do two things—play against expectations, and bring elements of the avant garde to the mainstream. Kid A isn’t doing anything that hundreds of lesser known electronic acts weren’t doing before, but Radiohead, one of the biggest bands in the world in 2000, took the sounds that they were listening to and distilled them into a genius pop album that went a long way towards legitimizing electronic music in the eyes of rockist jagoffs and baby boomer critics the world over, while showing a way forward for rock. The funny thing about Radiohead is that so much of the conversation surrounding them is about innovation and influence, but, musically speaking—we won’t get into the In Rainbows release innovation—Kid A is probably the only time that Radiohead truly innovated, and even then it wasn’t by doing anything new, but by curating a sound and style into a form that would make sense to mainstream audiences.
If we look at Radiohead’s great albums, though, they are solid to outstanding rock albums, rooted in the traditions of great rock albums. The Bends is probably the band’s most straightforward work, a collection of hits, ballads, and anthems. OK Computer is the Pink Floyd indebted, concept album masterpiece. Kid A and Amnesiac were the albums that brought decades of experimental electronic music to the mainstream—I could go on, but you get the point. And I think this approach is part of what allows me to see A Moon Shaped Pool as a flat out masterpiece, not because it’s doing anything important or innovative, but because it’s a beautifully crafted album that explores familiar thematic territory for the band (alienation, isolation, loneliness, broken emotions, etc…) within lush frameworks that blend the organic with the artificial.
And one more point before I hand this back to you—you mention Radiohead’s humorlessness, above. I agree, they are humorless, and this is something that bothers me about a lot of bands, especially in the indie world. Too many bands take themselves too seriously, and it’s a bit of a drag, and maybe, in a way, part of indie rock’s self-seriousness is Radiohead’s fault. But here’s why it doesn’t bother me coming from Radiohead: Thom Yorke is a fucking alien. Or a robot. Or a robot alien. When Thom Yorke and Radiohead take themselves seriously, it’s not affectation, it’s not pretentious, it’s not disingenuous—in fact, I’d argue that Yorke isn’t even “taking himself seriously,” he just doesn’t function like other human beings. That seriousness feels honest coming from Radiohead, and it’s the mixtures of that seriousness of purpose and heavy emotions, mixed with the gorgeous arrangements that make A Moon Shaped Pool feel like something special.
BF: You are clearly a wild and crazy guy.
If Thom Yorke is an alien, or, rather, a "Subterranean Homesick Alien," then perhaps Jonny Greenwood is a starman (or a spaceman). Though Yorke seemed to impose his influence on Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows (which is basically an extension of his 2005 solo album The Eraser), Greenwood's stamp is firmly imprinted on the last two albums. The hyper-percussive aspects of The King of Limbs have roots in his soundtrack to the film Bodysong (2003) and the string arrangements of A Moon Shaped Pool are hinted at in his soundtracks to There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012). I think I prefer Greenwood's version of Radiohead to Yorke's. Which also bodes well for A Moon Shaped Pool.
Now I wouldn't call the album a masterpiece. But it is solid. As you point out, it is, indeed, very beautiful. However, it lacks a sense of forward propulsion for me. This is probably because several of the tracks take quite some time to develop (like "Daydreaming," and "Identikit"). Furthermore, there is a lull in the track sequencing near the end, with "Tinker Tailor" and "Present Tense" emerging as the two weakest cuts on the album—and clocking together in at over ten minutes. The sucks some wind out of the album's sails. The closer, "True Love Waits," is triumphant, though. For those familiar with Radiohead's back-catalog, it previously appeared as the final track on their live EP I Might Be Wrong (2001), and has always been one of my favorite Radiohead songs. This updated version at the end of A Moon Shaped Pool definitely has the more inventive arrangement. But I still prefer the simple, acoustic rendition from 2001 in part because it is more kinetic, Yorke's strumming contributing to one of the group's (though it is essentially a solo performance) most, dare I say it, sincere performances. It's interesting to see Radiohead go back into their songbook, as the album's other highlight for me, "Burn the Witch," has apparently been around for over fifteen years. This is a tactic that rarely works for most veteran rock acts. Radiohead at least has the creativity to make something fresh out of something dusty.
A Moon Shaped Pool is the group's best album since Amnesiac. I do hesitate to call it a masterpiece, as you do. While it is generally consistent and elegant in terms of quality, it never provides this listener with a sense of aural ecstasy or jouissance, though it gets close at times. There are times while listening to the album that I fleetingly have to fight off boredom. This happens quite early on in "Daydreaming." Fortunately, just as that sense of ennui threatens to kick in, the song changes direction for the better, right around the four minute mark. There are a few other examples like this that make the record fall just short of being excellent. So far, 2016 has been a pretty strong year for albums. At this point, Radiohead's album is my fifth favorite album of the year, trailing David Bowie's Blackstar, DIIV's Is the Is Are, Glitterbust's self-titled debut, and Beyonce's Lemonade. Please proceed to tell me what a wild and crazy guy I am!
JB: I’m going to skip an SNL reference, here, because I think we’re probably going to cut all of those, but in case we decide not to, I’ll use a Veep reference, and call you a Jonah Ryan-looking mofo. Although, to be honest, Jonah Ryan is more of a Brian Flota looking mofo. But that’s not quite right either. It’s more like, Jonah Ryan is you if you went into DC politics and were evil. But enough of that.
I’m struck, first, how different our top fives for the years are so far. Mine, at the moment, goes Radiohead, Beyonce, Kanye, Chance, Bowie—I don’t know if that order will stand, or what other albums will vie for the top spots, but you’re right that it has been an exceptional year for music, and that’s part of why I’m surprising even myself by liking A Moon Shaped Pool most of all, so far. But I want to dig into to some of your specific critiques, above because I don’t disagree with your description of some of the album’s songs, but they work very differently for me.
Without going on a long, detailed detour, let me say this: a big part of Radiohead’s appeal, beginning, let’s say, with OK Computer (Or maybe even “Street Spirit (Fade Out) off of The Bends), and continuing to the present, is in how the band establishes and builds atmosphere. Earlier, I mentioned that Thom Yorke’s seriousness in Radiohead works because he’s a robot alien, and part of that is achieved through the way the band establishes a tense, dour tone—Radiohead’s songs are grey and nervy, anxious and quietly unsettled. This is why songs like “Daydreaming” and “Identikit” need to slowly develop and build. In a way, these songs remind me of the later work of Paul Thomas Anderson, who, of course, directed the video for “Daydreaming.” In Anderson’s work since, oh, let’s say 2003 or so, beginning with Punch Drunk Love, there’s been a great deal of emphasis on tone and texture. Look at There Will be Blood, or The Master—you don’t see strongly plotted, traditionally narrative films, but slowly percolating character studies that burst into vivid moments of violence, or emotion, or both. This is how Radiohead’s songs have increasingly worked over the years, and they do so even more on A Moon Shaped Pool. Consider the first time we reach the “Broken hearts/Make it rain” lines on “Identikit,”—those lines hit hard, both because of how sad they feel, and also how distinctly human they feel when compared to so much of Radiohead’s work. “Daydreaming,” too, after establishing its loping, uneasy atmosphere, steers into its own, dreary dreaminess to become something transcendent—but here’s the thing, you say that ennui is about to kick in on “Daydreaming” before the song shifts to something better, I’d argue that without establishing something like ennui in those first four minutes, the power of the song’s shift is impossible.
As for “Present Tense” and “Tinker Tailor…” I don’t necessarily disagree that they’re the weakest songs here, and I initially struggled with how they impacted the album’s overall shape —at first, “Tinker Tailor…” felt like a flat introduction to gorgeous album closer “True Love Waits,” but upon additional listens, I’ve started to hear something else unfolding. The move from the almost, dare I say, light and airy “Present Tense” into the digital murk of “Tinker Tailor…” almost begins to feel like a slog, but then the penultimate song lifts into dramatic strings, one, last build before the ruminative album closer. It’s certainly a quiet, nuanced progression, not the kind of dramatic build the band is known for. So, maybe you’re right that those two songs are the album’s weakest, but every album has weakest songs, and this album’s weakest songs are still pretty great and important to the album’s final push.
As for “True Love Waits,” I don’t know if I have a preference between the two versions—I like them both for different reasons, but this one is the right version to close A Moon Shaped Pool.
BF: You are right about that. If the version from I Might Be Wrong ended the set, it would be awfully out of place.
Though we disagree about just how successful the new Radiohead album, we both like it. Considering how long Radiohead has been around and how sporadically they release new albums, I actually think each of their last three albums has improved upon the previous one. That's no small feat.
Also, apparently I need to start watching Veep.
JB: You should—it’s a great show.
Brian Flota is a Librarian who lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He co-edited The Politics of Post-9/11 Music with Joseph P. Fisher in 2011 (Ashgate). He also contributes reviews to Library Journal and The Hairsplitter. When he was a three-year-old, his favorite song was “Copacabana (At the Copa)” by Barry Manilow.
James Brubaker is the Associate Editor of The Collapsar. He is the author of Liner Notes(Subito Press) and Pilot Season(Sunnyoutside Press). His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Zoetrope: All Story, The Normal School, Heavy Feather Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Collagist, and Beloit Fiction Journal among others. He grew up in Dayton, Ohio and currently teaches creative writing at Southeast Missouri State University. Find him at jamesbrubaker.net.