by Adam Rothbarth
Radiohead’s music is about alienation. In their early records their project was oriented at exploring social alienation via technology; OK Computer (1997) was about Thom Yorke’s car accident and the question of the increasing role of technology in social life, and Kid A (2000), it is speculated, refers to cloning, although the program of the record is hard to pin down because of Yorke’s free associative lyrics. Both of these records explored the relationship between man and machine via the blending of acoustic and electronic elements during the recording process, resulting in two of the more coherent postmodern pop albums in recent memory. Indeed, during this period Radiohead’s criticism of technology was only possible through a thoroughly integrated approach to both songwriting and advertising that, ironically, involved a mastery of technology. They used instruments new to popular music, played guitars in ways not previously done in rock n’ roll, appropriated elements from techno and dance in an arguably successful way, and even took a critical approach to the technology of album releases; Kid A, emerging during the portentous moment of Napster and Kazaa, was one of the first major album leaks that was cultishly sought through these programs by fans.
With Hail to the Thief (2003), the band’s politics began to take a more concrete lyrical dimension: the album was unquestionably meant to criticize George W. Bush’s policies after 9/11. From the album cover depicting commodity-words buried in the ground to the texts of the songs (“We don’t really want a monster taking over/Tip toeing, tying down/We don’t want the loonies taking over/Tip toeing, tying down our arms”), Radiohead began to turn the corner from critique of empirical reality via musical form to criticism of empirical reality via appearance-level thematic opposition. Hail to the Thief was still on many levels a successful record despite the increasing imbalance between theme, text, and music, however, because it continued to explore the intersection of electronic and acoustic rock n’ roll, appearing to hold the fort on the level of form. The band also utilized musical space and tension creatively on this record, making it a dense and potent statement in spite of its political program.
The band’s “aversions” to technology, Bush-era politics, and the commodification of music continue to successfully convince fans that they are luddites; however, in the moment of In Rainbows’s (2007) pay-what-you-want release strategy, Radiohead officially become pop culture’s most successful manipulators of technology and mass media. With the release of In Rainbows, the music of Radiohead was no longer consumed, but, rather, listeners consumed the process of buying it and, secondarily, the band’s political ideology. The music of In Rainbows was generally good, but it has certainly been proven less impactful over the past nine years than the method of its release.
As rumors of an impending record crescendoed a few weeks ago, Radiohead disappeared from the internet. They deleted their Twitter and Facebook posts and their website went pitch-white as its HTML opacity settings decreased to 0% over the course of a few hours. This time their gimmick appeared as a criticism of social media, and those convinced of their luddite-ism viewed the unfolding as some sort of triumph, although the purported meaning and ramifications of this triumph were essentially as opaque and undialectical as their Bush-era oppositionalism. Yet, as singles from the record started to appear, the band again revealed themselves to be expertly pressing social media into service, driving those that saw themselves in solidarity with the band’s luddite-ness to, strangely, flock to social media and the internet even more regularly in hopes that news of the album would appear. Yet again, their ideology became not only free advertising, but a commodity for consumption.
A Moon Shaped Pool was released on May 8, 2016—Mother’s Day—to an absolute fever pitch, turning one commercial holiday into another as men and women ecstatically transitioned from celebrating their matriarchs to celebrating a new Radiohead record. The album, as pointed out by many concerning its single “Burn The Witch” days earlier, is overwrought with mercurial political allegories and unclear metaphors about romantic relationships and social reality. Pitchfork even published an above-the-fold article the following day claiming to have deciphered the song’s politics. If they had actually achieved this, it would have been an impressive feat for the publication; however, it raised more questions than it answered, especially regarding the seemingly incomprehensible cryptic resistance to modern life by the band. Due to the ambiguity with which Radiohead presents their program, it makes sense that listeners and critics connect with its false consciousness, mistaking the band's most symptomatic qualities for stoic critique. All this ambiguity accomplishes, though, is that it eventually congeals into an artistic tarp onto which the public may project their own pathologies and social opinions.
Fulfilling the promises of Hail to the Thief, their focus has left musical form and has centered on lyrics and political messages, leaving the music feeling secondary and inert, a tepid amalgamation of some of their earlier rock tendencies, Jonny Greenwood’s film scoring techniques, and Yorke’s interests in electronic music. Most of the songs on this record revolve around basic chord structures and repetitive phrases, relying on the additive techniques that the band cleverly applies to them, not unlike the minimalist music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass. The strings in “Glass Eyes” and at the end of the otherwise enchanting (although repetitive) “Daydreaming” are nothing short of melodramatic, oriented specifically at evoking melancholy or uneasiness from the listener. “Identikit” is probably the most compelling song on the record in terms of production and lyrics, but it, too, suffers from pushing its bass ostinatos way too far. Each of the songs on this record, in one way or another, deteriorate in time by putting too much weight on the labor of motifs, whether chord progressions, guitar/bass ostinatos, or piano arpeggiations. Gone are the days of indecipherable meters (“Pyramid Song”), otherworldly tones (“Treefingers”), a focus on the mastery of recording and studio production (“Reckoner,” “There There”) and general postmodern weirdness (“Life in a Glass House,” “The National Anthem”). With A Moon Shaped Pool the band has officially transitioned from ostensible aesthetic activity to political pseudo-activity. The tension and drama has all but left their music, leaving pop song skeletons in their wake to be dressed up in the band’s best post-production techniques and, even more glaringly, their political- and relationship-oriented text.
There are moments when the record’s weaknesses are its strengths, but those moments get lost in the general obscurity of the album as a whole. “Ful Stop” makes fine use of its Krautrock-inspired drum and bass lines, and the song’s use of vocal lines as instruments about halfway in is interesting as a wall-of-sound technique. “Burn The Witch” utilizes integrated, dissonant strings—one aspect of the record’s composition that does evidence a learned and imaginative approach to orchestration and string technique—and a passable sense of tension that longingly gestures back to their earlier works. But, on the whole, these moments are in the minority, and lose their critical capacity in context with the rest of the album.
With A Moon Shaped Pool Radiohead has finally found their footing in the ranks of contemporary political music, pressing ever onwards against injustice and what they perceive to be bad politics, orienting their work increasingly at cryptic resistance and melodrama rather than continuing their earlier tendency toward critical, integrated music. In their music video for “Daydreaming,” Yorke wanders through a labyrinth of rooms, buildings, and bucolic terrains, clearly in a dream logic. In one scene, he emerges from a door and looks around. Seeing a woman, he quickly escapes back through the same door. Eventually he emerges from the enigmatic series of settings into a mountainous tundra. Climbing up the side of a mountain, Yorke finally finds solace in a cave. It is a romantic scene, and as he lies down next to a fire and goes to sleep, one feels comforted by his having finally escaped the world. But the point isn’t to escape the world; the point is to change it.