Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool album preview
You can’t keep anything a secret these days. If you’re not having your inbox hacked by the work-experience intern at GCHQ, you’re being second-guessed by Siri about what to make for dinner – and if you’re in Radiohead, you’ve got the added excitement of boggle-eyed ginormofans checking your records at Companies House every hour to see if you’ve got a new album out soon.
The UK’s public database of registered companies may seem a somewhat esoteric place to look for evidence of new music by one of the world’s biggest bands, but its archive doesn’t lie: the five members of Radiohead form a new company together each time they release a new album (extensive reasons for which are explained here, but the TLDR version is that it protects the band if the album’s a flop), so when Dawn Chorus LLP arrived on the national books last October, the countdown to Radiohead’s LP9 began.
If previous timings are anything to go by, said album should be with us any week now, all of which means flagrant and salivating speculation of what the album will actually sound like is very much fair game, especially given the pattern of the band’s previous output.
Radiohead albums – or at least their periods of recording that occasionally result in two albums – seem to fall into pairs: the first record in each pair is an approximation of a particular aesthetic that will then be purified and refined for the second. Accordingly, Pablo Honey was a slightly ramshackle, see-what-sticks attempt at a Big 90s American Rock record, whereas The Bends is one of the crowning exemplars of the form. Similarly, OK Computer was cut-up art-rock driven by electronic burbles and paranoia, but Kid A (and Amnesiac, recorded simultaneously) is the triple-distilled version (for better or worse, according to taste). And Hail To The Thief attempted, rather imperfectly, to meld pithy rock songs with frenzied electronics, while In Rainbows did the same, but rather more elegantly.
So, continuing the pattern, what might a more aesthetically lean iteration of The King of Limbs sound like? Radiohead’s last record resembled a collection of remixes of far simpler songs (something rendered even messier by the sprawling TKOL RMX 1234567 companion) that, once the more obfuscatory arrangements were overcome, seemed to lean even more on the soul and RnB side of songwriting than ever. Sometimes languid and lush – almost sexy – there are more moments on The King Of Limbs that nod more towards Flying Lotus and D’Angelo than towards the totemic Radiohead touchstones of Jeff Buckley or Neil Young, or even the Warp Records electronica that the band fetishised so ardently in the early-00s.
So – bloody hell – might we be about to hear a sleek, fat-free electronic soul-jazz record played by five white Englishmen all approaching their fifties? The prospect might daunt in theory, but Jonny Greenwood’s increasing involvement with orchestral composition (and the now-deleted twitpic of the band recording last September with a full orchestra at Air Studios), paired with Thom Yorke’s appearance on two Flying Lotus albums since The King Of Limbs was recorded, suggests that Radiohead going soul might not be the car-crash that some anticipate. Indeed, if you squint your ears, their rejected Bond theme for Spectre – all luxuriant, crepuscular strings and sassy, heavy-swung percussion – could have been an Erykah Badu record.
Then again, Yorke’s recent solo performance of two new songs at Pathway To Paris, an evening of high-profile showcase gigs designed to coincide with and agitate against the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris last December, felt decidedly folksy, all resonating acoustic guitars and lyrics about people having power. Elements of that side of Radiohead’s personality cropped up on The King Of Limbs too, though (especially on Give Up The Ghost), so the possibility of a Laurel Canyon injection to LP9 rubbing up alongside more moody touches isn’t exactly remote.
For about ten years now, there has remained a background fear that with oncoming middle-age, Radiohead will one day reappear from the periodic cocoons they spin for themselves twice a decade resembling late-period Pink Floyd or U2, pony-tailed and listening to jazz, having moved to LA and writing embittered records about the break-ups of long-term relationships.
However inevitable that day seems, though, if it happens on LP9 it’ll be a shame: despite all the disparate side-projects and musical distractions that modern-day Radiohead entertain, despite Thom Yorke’s increasingly desperate rants against the changing music industry, despite the fact that they are now a band of grey-haired fathers who have only made two decent albums in the past 19 years, there feels as if there’s something unifying about the band when they’re on an upstroke: whether on giant festival stages (as they are booked to fill this summer) or in broad, expressive and complex albums (itself a medium that feels increasingly arcane, and worth preserving), there remains enough public good will to forgive most stylistic digressions.
In that respect, then, LP9 could be something of a pivot point for Radiohead: what the band do with the existing good will may have a large bearing on what they can get away with next.