Radiohead’s new album A Moon Shaped Pool is a ham sandwich. Perhaps I need to elaborate on that just a tad bit…
I can’t recall the very first time I heard a Radiohead song but I can assure you that, much like the rest of the world, the first song that I heard was the band’s 1993 breakout hit Creep from their debut album Pablo Honey. Although admittedly I was a youngster at the time I still had an astute ear for modern music and noticed that Creep managed to quickly fade into the alt-rock landscape of 1993. Creep wasn’t a bad song, in fact, it was a good song but it lacked any trace of innovation and depth, two elements that could have catapulted this song from goodness to greatness. Had Radiohead moved back to England and hung up their instruments after Pablo Honey one might categorize the band as a one-hit wonder but as we all know this would not be the case. No, the band would not sit quietly beside the other angsty teen pop fluff groups of the time with their follow-up album, The Bends, but instead, they would begin to carve out their own unique sound. No longer following trends but forging them instead. This upward momentum would continue with the band’s following albums, Ok Computer and Kid A finally peaking with 2001’s Amnesiac. This is where the band started making ham sandwiches.
We all like ham sandwiches right? Well, maybe not my Jewish or Muslim brothers and sisters but you get what I’m saying here. We all know that ham sandwiches are a universally accepted lunch across the country but does anybody really love them? I mean, sure, I’ve had a good ham sandwich and they’ve always left me satisfied but I’ve never had a great one worth bragging about. I’ve had a great steak, I’ve had great fried chicken and I’ve even had great pork chops but ham sandwiches? Even at their best, they’re just good, not great. This is the Radiohead catalog from 2003 to 2016 to me. Not bad. In fact, good! Just, not great. Am I nuts to bitch about an album being good but not great? Probably so but that’s just because I’ve come to expect nothing less than greatness from the band because I know they’re capable of so much more.
So, what makes A Moon Shaped Pool good and not great? To explain this I’ll have to break the album down into three distinct categories. First up are songs I like to call “phoning it in” that really hold the album down for me. Songs like True Love Waits, Desert Island Disk, and Identik feel like they were thrown together at the last minute with barely a thought placed into their composition with the former sounding as if the band improvised the entire track. Next up are “same ol same ol” tracks. These songs are good songs just nothing really new and exciting. You’ll surely enjoy Daydreaming, Ful Stop, and Glass Eye but these tracks could have been on any of the band’s last several albums and they don’t really have an identity of their own. This brings me to the final category “nuggets of greatness”. These are the tracks that manage to break away from the rest of the pack and show what the band is really capable of. The opening track Burn the Witch is an excitingly unique song that blends plucked string elements that I’ve not often heard with a marching digital drum and bass track. Also, Decks Dark is a well-crafted song with its interesting mix of funk elements with delicate piano arrangements. Lastly, my hands down favorite track on Moon Shaped Pool is Present Tense with its haunting vocals, delicate guitars, and catchy chorus. It hits all the high spots all at once.
If you like Radiohead you’ll like A Moon Shaped Pool because it is indeed a good album. It’s not perfect but there are enough shades of greatness here to keep your thumb in an upward direction as you listen. This record might not top my “favorite Radiohead albums” list but it’s definitely not at the bottom and certainly worth a listen. I give it four out of five Thom Yorkes!