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Radiohead's New Album Makes a Heartbreaking Case for Unplugging

'A Moon Shaped Pool' began with a retreat from the Internet—fittingly, it's the most painfully human record they've ever made.

by Colin Joyce
May 11 2016, 9:10pm

Daniele Dalledonne

Photo by Daniele Dalledonne

It starts with a fade to white. As you may have heard elsewhere on the internet, Radiohead heralded their ninth studio LP A Moon Shaped Pool with a characteristic bit of techno-trickery: they deleted every tweet they'd ever made, deactivated their Facebook account, and slowly dimmed their website to printer-paper white.

There was silence. It was a gesture many of us could identify with. When the chaos of modern life creeps in, it's easy to engage in this sort of digital annihilation—to rip your ethernet cable out of the wall, wipe the slate clean, and stew for a bit, unburdened by the weight of having to live a second life online.

This felt different from the way the band had dealt with tech to date. Since the turn of the millennium, Radiohead have been early adopters of pretty much every new technology the music internet has had on offer. Kid A was released with an ahead-of-its-time foray into the world of pre-release album streams. In Rainbows anticipated the proliferation of pay-what-you-want downloads (and was, for that matter, an early instance of a group of major artists selling directly to fans). Thom Yorke released a solo album through BitTorrent, and would eventually decry Spotify as "the last desperate fart of a dying corpse." In his eyes, streaming companies were just another instance of industry "gatekeepers" and Radiohead had already figured out how to cut out the middle man and navigate the Wild West of the post-Napster net all by themselves.

Even on their records, their embrace of the future was wholehearted. In the nearly two decades since the band released OK Computer, they've devoted at least some of the airspace on their albums to puzzling what it means to live, laugh, and love in a world increasingly mediated by technology—starting, most notably, when the beloved anthropomorphized text-to-speech generator Microsoft Sam reads a to-do list in the middle of OK Computer. As early as their late 90s B-sides, their ballads suddenly relied on the twitchy drum programming to carry their emotional weight. Even their electric guitar solos suddenly needed complicated, stuttering Max/MSP patches to fully blossom.

More than any year of the band's existence, 2016 most evidently reflects the Orwellian paranoia of their post-OK Computer output—it's only now that we're willingly wearing wristbands that transmit our biometric data to tech companies and entrust multinational corporations to deliver toiletries from warehouses to our front door. But now that the technological dystopia they've long-dreaded is finally here, on their first album in half a decade they seem to have largely abandoned their anxieties about it. They've supplanted the android vocal manipulations and skipping-hard-drive drum programming with the warmth of wood and bowed catgut, acoustic guitars, and distant choirs.

Many have speculated that the record is, at least in part, a meditation on the dissolution of the 47-year-old songwriter's 23-year-long relationship with the artist Rachel Owen (supported in part by the backmasked conclusion of "Daydreaming" that runs "Half of my life/half of my life" if you play it backwards). As you might expect there's a whole lot of second person on A Moon Shaped Pool—impassioned addresses to an unnamed "you" that start from the tensile opener "Burn the Witch."

Whether or not the record's lyrics represent a one-to-one correlation with his own personal life, A Moon Shaped Pool is full of the confused half-steps and desperate pleas that come as a part of interpersonal dissolution. There's the bitter anger that runs through the dizzy bass parts on "Ful Stop" (Yorke practically snarls the first verse's closing line: "Why should I be good if you're not?"). And there's few moments in the band's entire catalog as heartrending as the whispered "Just don't leave" over the top of the piano lines on "True Love Waits," a song that famously dates as far back as 1995 and draws some of its narrative inspiration from the harrowing story of a child abandoned while their parents went on vacation. It's heavy stuff, especially when employed here, at the very end of a record that spends its time meditating on interpersonal loss.

Orchestral swells are a tried and true signifier of open-hearted emoting, and A Moon Shaped Pool embraces that tradition right off the bat with "Burn the Witch" (which feels like Bernard Herrmann scoring an episode of Gumby), and through much of the rest of the record's 52-minute runtime. The resulting album is a complex, earthy, analog-feeling reflection on the twists and turns of the human heart at its most fragile and agitated. The anxiety that's come to characterize their work is still present; it's just focused inward instead of out. A Moon Shaped Pool is a far cry from the alien depersonalization of the Kid A era; the cool sensuality of In Rainbows; or the amorphous loops on The King of Limbs, both in the sense of dangerously circular thinking and instrumental repetition. The complicated twists and turns of the tech world are of little concern when your interpersonal relations are unraveling before your very eyes—that, they seem to argue, is what's really worth worrying about.

Even when technology creeps in—the "spacecraft blocking out the sky" on "Decks Dark," the croaking synthesizer on "Burn the Witch," the staticky transmissions that ever-so-briefly open "The Numbers"—it's quickly swept away in a swell of strings, a lattice of fibrous piano parts, or one of the album's many self-flagellating mission statements: You really messed up this time. Have you had enough of me?

From the outsider anthems of their earliest work to the dial-up tone deconstructions of Jonny Greenwood's more outré guitar solos, Radiohead has always made music that's fascinated with the idea of connecting—the struggle and strain to form real human bonds in spite of a social climate that intensely favors isolation. A Moon Shaped Pool is a compelling outlier in this respect—a suggestion of what happens when that effort to connect finally fails, a portrait of ripped ties and broken links. So when the going gets rough, you retreat into the familiar, into warmth. You unplug your synthesizers and close out Chrome. There are more pressing matters at hand.

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