Ultimately, it’s a young person’s game, being in a band. That’s not to say it can’t work outside of youth, but if we want to identify the perfect preconditions for forming a band, we have to zone in on the period between late teens and early twenties. This is the optimum time — the point at which family has all but receded into the distance and the idea of starting one of your own couldn’t be further from your thoughts. If you know the right people, this family-sized space can be filled by a band. Because, at that age, a band is a family too. Indeed, a family is what it has to be if it’s to withstand the confined spaces of transit vans, communal changing rooms and hot smelly rehearsal rooms. It’s going to be tense at times, but then, that’s the tension we’re paying money to see, funnelled into a hungry five-headed engine. That tension — along with the new-found camaraderie and the magic you make together — is precisely what makes you exciting.
If you’re smart, you realise that it won’t be like this forever. If you’re really smart, you know that you need to start planning an escape route RIGHT NOW. This feels kind of unjust in a way. Why can’t you sit back and enjoy your moment? When the demands on your time and attention are unprecedented, why should you worry yourself with what might happen next? In fact, the reasons are happening all around you. The extra leg room. The superior hotel rooms. The passing of time. The fact that, almost by stealth, you wake up one morning and there’s no real reason for your group to exist beyond mere expediency. Now, I’m not knocking expediency. Expediency is what makes most people go to work in the morning. And, if you’re not careful — when a few years pass and, in between albums, it suddenly feels weird to go to the pub with your band mates — you might find that cold hard expediency is suddenly the only glue keeping your band together.
Not for the first time, it’s worth turning to The Beatles to see how, at least for a short time, they did it. When the manual was still being written, it seems that they worked all of this stuff out for themselves. Playing live was something that you had to do when you were trying to make it. Indeed, playing live was pretty much all you did when you were trying to make it. But, by 1966, The Beatles were all in steady relationships, scattered around different parts of London and the commuter belt. Were they to try and draw upon the same energies that propelled them to superstardom, they would surely find that the tank was close to empty. Revolver was the record that effectively saw them deassemble and reassemble as a studio collective. An ever-shifting and adapting collective that existed to solve the problems presented to them by their increasingly ambitious songs. The Beatles were the first band to realise that you can never go back — not even when you embark on a project called Get Back, conceived to try and help you do just that.
On Sunday evening, when Radiohead’s ninth album A Moon Shaped Pool became available to buy, I looked at the options on their website and wondered, on Twitter, whether I should by the £60 edition or the £20 one. Misunderstanding my badly-worded tweet, several people replied, thinking that I was asking which Radiohead album — of all their albums — I ought to buy first. Several people suggested that I needn’t concern myself with anything beyond OK Computer. For these people, I suspect that there’s something unbeatable about listening to a band that can still just about summon the live power of their early ascent — not just that, but also the knowledge that what they’re hearing will be replicated in a fairly straightforward way when they go and see them live. It’s possible that, in 2016, they might pine for this version of Radiohead, that they just wanted them to stay this way forever.
But, like we said, life isn’t like that. In order to survive and avoid becoming their own tribute band, Radiohead have had to find a different way of being Radiohead. That painful metamorphosis is now the stuff of legend: in particular the protracted genesis of 2000’s Kid A, which entailed long periods of inactivity from members who wondered if there would even be a role for them in the band by the time the record was finished. As Thom and Jonny fiddled around with laptops in one studio, poor old Colin Greenwood described what it was sometimes like for the others: “We had this sense of duty that you should sort of hang around, which was probably not necessary at all. Sometimes it was a bit like two years of intense manual reading. You felt like an underpowered middle manager for, I dunno, a shoe company, who the bosses are trying to edge out. So they tell you they’re moving you to Tokyo and you have to learn Japanese in a week, or else. And you’re on the language course, and you haven’t got a hope in hell, but you have a go.”
That different way of being Radiohead is well represented by the publicity image that emerged last week with the announcement of A Moon Shaped Pool. Whether by accident or design, five separate mugshots side-by-side underscored the sense that, these days, Radiohead is as much a workshop as a band — a Radioheadphonic workshop, if you’ll allow me that — of musicians who seem happy to reconvene from time to time as long as their shared history and intersecting curiosities continue to produce great work.
Until the release of their previous album, it seemed barely conceivable that their instincts would sell them short. But King Of Limbs was a bewildering miscalculation: four songs — Lotus Flower, Codex, Give Up The Ghost, Little By Little — that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best that any other Radiohead album had to offer, alongside four songs that sometimes left you wondering if the balance of power within Radiohead had tipped too far towards Thom Yorke’s increasing love for introspective electronic mood pieces. Everything that was wrong with The King Of Limbs seemed to reach its apogee with Feral, a song which sounded less like Radiohead than a Chris Morris pastiche of “difficult” Radiohead. It was hard not to listen with a straight face and feel like someone somewhere was laughing at you.
We might never know why Radiohead’s hitherto sure step abandoned them for that record, but last year, on Christmas Day, they offered us a reminder that, their facility for divining a breathtaking melody, was still very much intact. It turned out that they had been approached to provide a theme song for the most recent James Bond movie Spectre. Here it was, free to download — an aquarian fever dream, blown into the blue by a string arrangement which nodded to past Bond themes whilst at the same time taking the scenic route around anything that might be termed pastiche. The unspoken punchline to the joke, of course, was that someone chose Sam Smith over this. Never mind. Here you go. Merry Christmas.
If that led you to imagine there are plenty more where that came from, you’ll have wasted no time in downloading A Moon Shaped Pool. Even before the melodies start to burst open in your mind like popping corn in a pan, the first thing you notice is the degree to which Thom Yorke has reintegrated into the band. Perhaps the creative offload afforded by recent solo album Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is a factor here. You have to wonder, also, if Jonny Greenwood’s snowballing reputation in the film scoring fraternity is now really starting to flex some muscle in the group. Perhaps the most immediate case in point is The Numbers, a soft-focus, slo-mo collision of gauzy ensemble playing suddenly brought into sharp relief by a string and piano arrangement which recalls those on Movements — the magnificent 1970 instrumental album by Scottish composer Johnny Harris. Elsewhere, other cinematic echoes abound, a bit of Bernard Herrman here, a garnish of Michael Nyman there. Over the sound of Thom singing, “This is a low flying panic attack”, Burn The Witch eschews anything you would recognise as guitar or keyboard, instead favouring a string section whose brittle mechanical motions are just as suited to a Hammer House of Horror version of Titanic in which the band’s playing is somehow what’s making the boat sink, as they are to the song’s accompanying ‘Camberwicker Man’ animation.
It is, you’ll be unsurprised to learn, not an album for moments of shared joy and and carefree abandon. Unless you didn’t get around to sleeping last night, there are other albums you will probably prefer to play in the daytime. Like much of In Rainbows before it, it’s a record that seems better suited to the soft unknowable recesses of the human brain than a computer hard drive — indeed, on the rare occasions when Radiohead’s music hasn’t worked, it’s because it never quite seems to leave the latter. Burn The Witch notwithstanding, this entire album — co-produced once again by Nigel Godrich — feels like it’s fashioned from living tissue. On the drumless Daydreaming, the piano is slightly distorted so it sounds fuzzy around the edges, occasionally breaking into more intricate detail, before returning into the sparse simplicity of the opening verse. Thom’s default is a subdued somnambulant sigh, barged into touch by the occasional stab of strings. Similarly bereft of percussion, Glass Eyes sees him navigate a melody of unearthly beauty, supported by more strings and a glassy electric piano. Desert Island Disk is no less exquisite — a sparse (mostly) acoustic rumination which seems to take its cues from the neon-bathed small hours intimacies of One World-era John Martyn. But it’s for Present Tense that he reserves a performance of unparalleled prettiness, spinning out a 4am fever dream over what may well be the most anxious samba you’ll ever hear.
It’s on Identikit, Ful Stop [sic] and Decks Dark that — by virtue of playing together in a studio, seemingly at the same time — Radiohead come closest to sounding like “the old Radiohead”. And yet, perhaps the best thing about all three songs is that they’re not interested in relying on old tricks. Sonic catharsis among musicians of a certain age can be an undignified business. But that’s not what’s happening here. When Radiohead are on this sort of form, they exhort you to reappraise everything you think you know about what happens when white middle-aged, middle-class British men with wives and children make music together. At times, they call to mind the egoless virtuosity of revered sessioneers such as Keith Mansfield, Mike Vickers and Brian Bennett at their mid-70s peak, helping each other out on KPM library albums to imaginary espionage thrillers and, never less than fully aware of how improbable they look on the rare occasions they step out to play live.
Measured out by Colin Greenwood’s bright bustling bassline and a celestial burst of vocals (celestial backing vocals are all over this record, by the way) Identikit benefits from stabs of analogue synths and a scratchy hair-shirt guitar display from Ed O’Brien or Jonny Greenwood (I guess we’ll know which one if they play it live). Of all the songs, perhaps Decks Dark is the most emblematic of the album title, and the least complicated moment on the record: a lunar lullaby which sounds like it was improvised amid the low-lit pastel colours of a windowless space. As such, it couldn’t be more different to the Ful Stop — the one song that will surely get even the most reluctant of pulses racing. Not for the first time on a Radiohead record, you can hear the amount of turntable miles notched up in the company of Neu! and early Kraftwerk. It’s such a hard thing to do well, this. After all, a metronomic groove still has to groove. What remains truly exciting when men try to play like machines is imminent release implied by restraint; the chaos that discipline strives to keep at bay. And, at around 3:17, when Thom’s vocal gradually fades up and the guitar enters the picture, surrender has rarely sounded so sublime.
Unlike every Radiohead album that has preceded it, there have been no tales suggesting that these songs had a difficult gestation. And that feels oddly consistent with the way A Moon Shaped Pool plays out here. It’s as though they’ve allowed themselves to cast aside the superstitious self-doubts that threatened to derail them at so many previous junctures and just do the work, knowing that if they do, the results will be anything but workmanlike. And in this spirit of new-found detente with their doubting interior voices, the most unlikely things have fallen into place, not least a suitable arrangement for True Love Waits — a song they first played 21 years ago, when touring The Bends. Indeed, to apprehend the distance they’ve travelled, this is precisely where we need to go. Any band at the beginning of their journey, wondering how the hell they can survive long enough to create a comparable body of work, should listen to the earliest version they can find, all the better to hear the new one and see the hopes and fears of young love framed in the amber of human experience. This is how you do it.