Radiohead are innovators; about this, there is no question. This is perhaps their most important quality: they pioneer/early-adopt sounds, concepts, and distribution models, and it’s made them very interesting to us, the music listening public, for a very long time. One such innovation is the surprise digital album – we can trace this phenomenon back to the 2007 release of In Rainbows, their pay-what-you-want middle finger to record companies everywhere. We paid attention then, and we’re paying attention now, in the wake of a new surprise full length (their ninth) released this weekend: A Moon Shaped Pool.
A funny thing about innovators – they occasionally come up with something new and perfect, but usually, they just come up with something new, which means that the job of perfecting is left to someone else. In the case of Radiohead and the surprise LP, the latter is true – In Rainbows was not the perfect unannounced LP.
Why not? Because it wasn’t event music – it certainly wasn’t populist, and it wasn’t even that urgent sounding. Beyoncé (2013) is the perfect unannounced LP, because it’s both of these things, and it had hits. But In Rainbows wasn’t befitting of its game-changing, industry disrupting release mechanism. Like every Radiohead album since Kid A, it’s background music for well-educated rockists and music critics. This style of music is another Radiohead innovation, and it’s one they’ve perfected. And they continue to employ it, to something like success, on A Moon Shaped Pool.
Nobody makes music that foregrounds the listener’s ego quite like Radiohead, and here, they’ve both doubled-down on this genre and devised new ways of achieving the intended effect. Yes, Jonny Greenwood’s orchestral film scoring and Thom Yorke’s middling glitch-tronica efforts are key influences on this new LP, as evidenced on the tracks “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” and “Present Tense” respectively.
But Greenwood and Yorke’s solo proclivities have been hanging like specters over Radiohead albums for a while – clearly they were hungry for a new challenge, and that challenge was probably articulated like this: “Hey guys, we’ve been making boring music with programmed instruments for a while…do you think we can keep things just as boring even if we’re using live piano and guitar, like we did in the 90s?” The answer is yes – they stuck that boring ass landing and they’re taking home the boring ass gold. Despite the beauty of the piano on tracks like “Daydreaming,” you will be fighting to keep your eyes open throughout. Make sure your modified bear latte has an extra shot or two if you plan on doing this record in one sitting.
Of course, there are bright spots, especially if you’re determined to like this album anyway: the Radiohead diehards that were cryogenically frozen during the Clinton presidency will get a kick out of the alien talk on “Decks Dark” and the occasionally Exit Music-y vibe of “Desert Island Disk.” And “True Love Waits” has been kicking around the Radiohead repertoire since The Bends, despite that it sounds far removed sonically from anything on that album, the one that put them on the map as artists to take seriously (and which, by the way, had hits).
So what’s the meaning of all this? And why do we still care about a band that refuses to make hits? Well, we care tangentially. We care about the job security of music writers. We care about maintaining the idea that bummer lyrics – like “dreamers they never learn” and “I’ll drown my beliefs to have your babies” – are good lyrics, because they’re closer to how we feel day-to-day then “I hope we eat cake by the ocean” or whatever. We also care because Radiohead are innovators, and who knows, maybe boring will one day be the new cool. We won’t really know, I guess, until Beyoncé makes a boring album.