Review: Radiohead’s ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’: journey into a new kind of strange

Radiohead’s ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ fades in and out like the passing of days and thus has a fluid, open-ended...

Ali Bhutto May 13, 2016
The album cover reflects the texture of the music and emotes its soulful and at times distorted depths. PHOTOS: PUBLICITY

KARACHI: If it were possible for there to be a physical manifestation of the sound of Radiohead’s new album A Moon Shaped Pool, the album’s cover art, by artist Stanley Donwood, would be it. The image reflects the texture of the music and emotes its soulful and at times distorted depths. Like the image, the sound in the album has no specific beginning or end. It fades in and out like the passing of days and thus has a fluid, open-ended feel to it. This organic landscape is littered with tributaries of themes and forms that are little worlds in themselves.

The severe straight-lined contours in the cover art of Thom Yorke’s solo efforts, as well as those of his side project Atoms for Peace, reflect those albums’ use of a manufactured electronic sound as a means to an end. In A Moon Shaped Pool, however, there are no straight lines. And in some verses, there are no words. Only sounds. For language limits expression.

The lyric “Dreamers never learn” may at first sound fretful, but as the song Daydreaming draws us in, we soon understand that the statement is a declaration, a necessity of the creative spirit. The piano is Yorke’s constant companion throughout the album. And if anything drives home the point that a fast drumbeat and noisy guitar riffs aren’t necessary to create an upbeat tempo, it is this album. Listeners with little patience for self-indulgent melancholy and endless guitar solos will like this offering. The strangeness is to the point; the sound, atmospheric; the theme, surreal-pastoral.

Each song, at its start, leads one to assume at first that it may conjure up feelings of uneasiness. Yet the tracks have a surprisingly uplifting, almost healing quality. But for this to be felt, every track must be heard out. It is as if our solace comes from not trying to avoid pain. Nowhere on the album is there a feeling of heaviness. Even the darker tracks such as Decks Dark reach a rhythmic climax supported by a catchy baseline.

The track The Numbers, in its own fluid manner, evokes Led Zeppelin, with a little bit of Stairway to Heaven and Kashmir thrown in there, all while remaining in sync with the album’s general sound.

The lead single Burn the Witch is a commentary on the human tendency to pigeonhole things into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in an attempt to comprehend them more easily. This oversimplification and stereotyping diminishes the chances of understanding an issue as focus is placed on all the wrong elements. Hate is then channelled towards what is mutually agreed upon as the ‘bad’. The witch-hunt reference implies the use of persecution for the sake of convenience, to forward one’s own agenda. At the same time, governments and powerful institutions take advantage of peoples’ mental lethargy and play on their emotions of fear and hate, and channel these towards easy targets. An obvious reference would be Western governments’ paranoia of Muslims –this is a low-flying panic attack” — and the rise of intolerance in the developed world, through campaigns such as that of Donald Trump and the far-right in Europe. However, the analogy can work both ways and be applied towards the same tendency in the Muslim world as well.

What drives societies to resort to such tactics is their high sense of righteousness, under the umbrella of which negative, ego-driven emotions are justified. The song is about mankind’s twisted sense of morality  — “if you float, you burn; loose talk around tables; abandon all reason”. Morality itself must be re-evaluated.

A quick read of the lyrics confirms that the imagery of the song refers to the European witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries as well as the subsequent ones in the American continent. And Yorke’s chant-driven chorus (sounding a lot like Bono of U2), “Burn the witch… we know where you live” has a striking sense of urgency to it. He is holding a mirror up to humanity. Could this also be a clue to what the name of the album means? A moon-shaped (planet-shaped) pool could imply a body of water covering an entire planet, of which only a limited portion is illuminated by the reflection of the moon in the night. This illuminated area marks the life mankind has limited itself to by stereotyping and categorising. Yet there is an entire ocean that we are blind to.

Another possible interpretation of a moon-shaped pool could be planet Earth inching towards environmental catastrophe through global
warming, where rising water levels would cause land to submerge.

Verdict: Highly recommended for its artistic integrity and innovative approach.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 14th, 2016.

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