Radiohead is not only my favorite band, but an obsession.
It all started in 1993 on my birthday. A year later I would see the Rolling Stones at Jack Trice., but in 1993, my sister bought me a cassette single. It was Radiohead, “Creep”. It had a B Side. It was a song called “Faithless: the Wonderboy”, and I fell in love with the guitar in that song. It was the song that got me into music. The boys were rocking out as the song started to fade during a great guitar riff. I was pissed. I wanted to hear the rest of the song. This led to me buying everything thing Radiohead I could get my hands on, hoping they had recorded the song under a different name. Oddly, that was a very Radiohead notion, and I didn’t even know it. “No Surprises” and “Like Spinning Plates” are both the same song…one played backwards.
But anyway, I ended up with a huge collection of Radiohead CD’s. “The Bends” is still my favorite album ever recorded. I read once that Foo Fighters and Dave Grohl said it was the best alternative rock album of the ’90s. Dave was part of Nirvana and Foo Fighters. He could have claimed “Nevermind” as the best ’90s album, period. I don’t know if he ACTUALLY said that, but it always stuck with me.
Radiohead, over the years, became more than just a band I liked, it became a purpose. I was an awkward kid in junior high, but I found many friends in high school and college because of Radiohead. In fact, I was wearing a Radiohead shirt at UNI, when a kid stopped me and said, “Hey, great t-shirt, let’s hang out this weekend.” His name was Dan and he would become a good enough friend that I was in his wedding as a groomsman. Radiohead made that happen.
Steve Bartman happened in 2003. The Cubs lost. Then that weekend I lost my job, and my girl. I went…a little bit off the deep end. My best friend from high school calls me from the Vatican, while studying abroad. I spent half a day that summer with him trying to get tickets to Radiohead in Dublin while he was studying in Ireland. We got the tickets, he held one for me. I ended up in Ireland watching Radiohead. I introduced that buddy, Kyle, to Radiohead and he spread their gospel like wild fire.
I’m laying this pretense out for you because I have been obsessed with Radiohead since 1993. That’s 23 years. But I hated the last album, the King of Limbs. Ironically, my lucky number is…23.
23 years later. I finally got the deluxe edition of A Moon Shaped Pool in the mail. It came a few days after my birthday. Nearly 23 years TO THE DAY that I fell in love with the band. They’ve grown up, and so have I. I fully expected to hate the new album, but I was pleasantly surprised.
Radiohead does not write singles. They write albums. Complete works beginning to end. Many artists write songs for singles to make money, and they are very successful at it. Even more successful thanks to iTunes where you can buy just ONE song. Radiohead still makes albums. They tell stories, they paint a world of pictures with music. So….let’s break down this album track by track.
1- Burn the Witch
The guitars kind of have a “Walking Dead” open credits feel. With the strings of “Pyramid Song” underlain. It’s different, it’s weird, it’s intoxicating. To be honest, it’s just nice to hear guitars again. The way the music fades subtly and quickly when the chorus starts, with Thom’s voice hanging is the reason why so many people freak out over Radiohead. Thom has one of the most underrated voices in music. He’s almost a modern day crooner.
Starts with a record being properly tuned to the correct time on a turntable. Piano slowly comes in and takes over. Similar rhythm and feel to “Like Spinning Plates” and “No Surprises”. Thom’s voice comes in, sounding computer like. Almost apologetic. There are no drums in the song, but you can feel the rhythm with the piano and all the synth dubbed in. Radiohead is good at layering music as Jimmy Page was with Led Zeppelin. It’s not something you can hear unless you really put forth the effort. The music has a hypnotic tone to it. Almost puts you in a trance, much like Kid A did. The entire album, not the song. Then the vocals and music get mixed with the computer and lost, as strings come in and take over. The melody from the piano begins to make a comeback as the strings get louder. The strings fall out, and a single note is held with the strings as the piano melody continues. A voice that sounds like a walker from the “Walking Dead” echoes throughout as the song ends.
3- Decks Dark
Holy (bleep), drums! Oh wait…it’s a drum track. Apparently Radiohead forgot that Phil Selway was a member. Seriously, where the hell have the live drums been the past decade? Anyway, we have Thom’s voice, piano, echoes, and a drum track. Actually hearing some bass from Colin. Oh wow…live drums. Real. Drums. This is turning into a real, like…song. A pre-chorus. A chorus. This actually has structure. This could be played on the radio. This is what was missing from the King of Limbs. It’s not music for the sake of art, it’s music for the sake of music.
(my cat, Bonham is freaking out right now, ironically named after drummer, John Bonham)
4- Desert Island Disk
Oh. My. God. An acoustic guitar. Almost a classical guitar. Me likey. Thom’s voice is singing in the deepest register he’s ever sang in. The guitar riff is nice. There isn’t a ton of atmosphere created by noise, like most Radiohead songs have become. Oh god…LIVE DRUMS – again! Drums. Cymbals. This has been lacking for a while. The bass is subtle but smooth. It sounds like a Kid A era or Hail to the Thief era song.
5- Full Stop
Very In Rainbows start. Has a fill that sounds like the music soundtrack to an 80’s movie or video game. Solid drum beat driving the song forward as the drum track is pushed to the front and back of the music. Some synth, trumpets and horns come in. Thom’s voice sounds like it’s through a computer and cheap pair of speakers. His words are barely audible. Song kind of hangs – then… LIVE DRUMS. Again! Who is this band? When did they start recording live drums again? Oh wait, the vocals are repeated, looped, and dubbed heavily. This is DEFINITELY Radiohead. A single guitar can be heard playing single notes. It’s nice to hear. (My cat is freaking out again) All the music fades…briefly. Thom’s voice brings everything back. The drum track soon follows. The music follows after that. Like a runner out of breath, slowly getting a second wind and striving forward, but not at a regular pace. It’s slightly…off. Like a limp. Then the music fades away into an odd noise.
6- Glass Eyes
The music seems to fade in and out like the soundtrack to Matchstick Men. The only clear thing is Thom’s voice and lyrics. This has not happened in a while. Synth strings fade in and out, crescendo and fade. This is familiar – like the start-up music for the original Playstation. (My cat is still freaking out). An oboe comes out of the blue and holds the last note.
Drums, a guitar, and a bass. Real music. (My cat is startled). Thom’s voice is heard, but you can barely make out the words. The beat and melody are definitely there, even if the vocals aren’t. Thom’s voice repeats in the background. Thom’s voice takes over the lead vocals, but his voice is distorted. Present, but distorted. You can kind of understand what he is saying. It’s like waking from a dream. You get it, but not entirely. “I don’t want to know” he says. “Broken hearts, make it rain” the chorus repeats. Then suddenly a choir of that chorus comes out nowhere. Gets really loud, then fades away. A single guitar, playing single notes begins to come to the forefront. It sounds like Ok Computer era Radiohead guitar. We have a guitar solo. Then…we have abrupt silence. How Radiohead of them.
8- The Numbers
Wave of noise, piano chords, laughing, ribbits, and electronic cricket noises. An acoustic guitar and drum emerge. The guitar riff sounds familiar, although I can’t quite place what song it reminds me of. Thom’s voice is distorted as it comes in. Is it “I Might Be Wrong”? Is it “You and whose army?” I definitely know this riff…just don’t remember where. Heavy strings come in about 3:30 in. Johnny Greenwood is the head of a symphony. You can hear their work now. It’s “I Might Be Wrong” that the song is hearkening back to. It’s the subtle bass, driving the song. It’s almost a parody but not insulting it. Radiohead is saying…you know this melody. You like it. But we are going to alter it slightly. Later I realize it sounds like “Everything In It’s Right Place”.
9- Present Tense
Nice guitar almost like “Faust Arp”, but a sexy feel like “Go Slowly” or “House of Cards”. You can almost hear “throw your keys in the bowl…kiss your husband goodnight’. Is Thom beat boxing? It’s definitely his voice sounding like drums. Layered, repeated. His voice does the same. Layered. Repeated. Finally understand “Self-defense against the present, present tense”. A guitar plays a riff, very much classical guitar but electric style, as Thom’s voice is turned into a repeating chorus that caves in on itself. Drums emerge, as the guitar riff becomes cleaner, purer. You can hear the fingers squeak on the fretboard of the guitar. The same noise Jonny Greenwood said was a million times better than a wall of distortion. There is a definite but hard to explain melody. You know where the song will go but you can’t explain it. It ends…with a bass drum? Ok…that was unexpected.
10- Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor man Beggar Man Thief
Noises, like an electronic rain storm from a Matirx movie start. Then we get a piano/organ playing a rhythm. Drums are there but very much synth. Thom’s voice comes in like a ghost and hangs on every note. The piano/organ continues the haunting but intoxicating melody. You can nod your head to it. Thom’s voice leads the story forward. Then fades. The single piano clears up to a more pure sound. Drums come in for a bit. Then the song fades back into the electronica as a real drum and cymbal keep the beat. The synth orchestra sweeps up and down as Thom’s voice hangs. The synth chorus plays crescendos as the drum keeps the same beat. A very, very electronic Thom voice is heard in the background singing slight octaves. The violins take over and sweep everything away, and we are left with what sounds like a heartbeat, but to an electronic being.
11- True Love Waits
(this song was amazing live on guitar)
A distorted piano plays the melody. Thom’s voice is sweeping, again, computer wise. The lyrics for this song have been some of my favorite for a decade. I prefer the live version to this, like MOST Radiohead songs, but this still works. No drums. No bass. Just piano and Thom’s voice. Shaping a world. Telling the story. “I’m not living, I’m just killing time” (One of my favorite lyrics, ever.) Some find it depressing, but to me, it’s the best lyric ever written. The song continues to plod along. “And true love waits…in haunted attics” the cleanest vocals in this recording. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s beautiful. It’s pure. They didn’t record this song for over a decade, but it’s pure. It’s awesome. It’s perfect. It ends with a piano key fading…into obscurity.
Well, the new album:
a) frightens my cat, (which is ok because Radiohead once said “You can be frightened, it’s ok” in “My Iron Lung”)
b) is very much a Radiohead album.
c) is really damn good.
d) will get better with repeated listenings
You probably don’t need to buy the Special Edition, but should pick up the album. If you are a Radiohead fan, I recommend the Special Edition. The packaging is really nice and you get the CD’s, Vinyl, and downloads. There is a bonus CD as well. There are no weak tracks or songs you want to skip. I have yet to listen to it on headphones but it sounded great through a laptop and surround sound on my entertainment center. The album definitely returns to the In Rainbows era, which is a positive. I’m hoping that the King of Limbs was Radiohead’s version of U2’s Popmart. It’s nice to be able to easily get into a Radiohead album again. It’s not for everybody, but Radiohead is not for everyone.
On a scale of 100. I give A Moon Shaped Pool an 83.