There are many times in our little enclave of Heavy Blog staff and contributors where we have great private discussions and back-and-forths on a variety of topics that never see the light of day. Sometimes these chats and conversations eventually turn into fully-formed articles and essays, but more often than not they simply languish and remain a pile of unused potential. The sad fact is that most of us simply don’t have the time to write all the posts, thinkpieces, and more that we want to, especially not in any sort of timely way when it’s about a current news topic.
So in an attempt to bring more of these kinds of discussions to light in a more open-ended and casual format, we’ll occasionally be bringing you these group chats featuring different members of the Heavy Blog staff. If you’ve read any of our Jazz Club columns you’ll already be familiar with this format on this site. We don’t expect these to happen with any sort of scheduled regularity, but anytime there’s something interesting going on – news, new releases, some dumb internet bullshit – we think might be interesting to open up to discussion for you all, we’ll try to make it happen.
We’re starting this feature on a somewhat unconventional footing given that it’s decidedly not metal or heavy. The fact is though that Radiohead remains one of the few bands who can still utterly dominate the music news cycle across almost all platforms. In many ways they represent the dying remnants of a bygone era of superstar bands. And regardless of your personal feelings towards them – yes, of course they’re overhyped/overrated; you can’t be given the “best band in the world” moniker without being so – the fact remains that they’re still relevant and making music that deserves attention. And with the surprise release of their 9th LP, A Moon Shaped Pool, they once became the dominant topic of discussion across the musicsphere, so what better way to launch this feature than with one of the biggest music events of the year.
The following discussion features yours truly, contributors Kit Brown, David Aleksov, and Colin Kauffman, as well as fellow editor Scott Murphy towards the end. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Nick Cusworth: So, let’s just start off with some hot takes here. Initial impressions? Was this anything like anyone expected? I’ve only had the chance to listen through 3 times so far, and I’m personally of two minds about it, but I’d really like to hear what everyone else thinks first.
Kit Brown: It was what I was kind of hoping it would be. It feels much more band-oriented than [The King of Limbs] and feels like a logical progression from In Rainbows
Colin Kauffman: Initially I didn’t really like it as it sounded, on the surface, like Thom Yorke solo material, but the more I listened the more I enjoyed it. I still don’t like every song, but most of them are at least good, and “Burn the Witch,” “Decks Dark” and “Ful Stop” are great. I do miss having audible guitars that sound like, well, guitars, but I get that they’re not really doing that a lot anymore on this later material
David Aleksov: I agree with Kit that it feels a lot more organic than TKoL and generally like more of a group effort. Most of the songs are slow burners which isn’t even the side of Radiohead I normally prefer, but it feels like they’ve really perfected that archetype here.
Colin Kauffman: Yeah, it’s definitely an album that’s more substance over immediate style. It’s a grower.
Kit Brown: I also think the inclusion of “True Love Waits” at the end was great and clearly shows that the band was looking to make more of a crowd pleaser this time around
Colin Kauffman: Yeah, the rendition they put together of that for this album is fantastic
Nick Cusworth: Yeah, I pretty much agree with all of that. I think it’s fair to say that the band have been essentially running away from their own shadows ever since OK Computer and have been doing everything they can to not repeat that album while still making something that sounds exactly like Radiohead. Some have been way more successful than others in my mind, of course. And I really love that they finally went all-in on Jonny Greenwood’s prowess as a soundtrack composer/arranger here.
Colin Kauffman: Oh man, yeah, his influence is very noticeable and very welcome
Kit Brown: I think the cinematic approach to songwriting was really prevalent in “Daydreaming” especially. The end drones of that song paired with the video are haunting as hell and really made me think of someone freezing to death
David Aleksov: Definitely! I think that’s what makes the album stands out more than anything. They’ve had orchestral parts before but they take them to the next level here.
Colin Kauffman: It feels more cohesive than previous attempts at this sort of thing
Nick Cusworth: Yeah, we really haven’t heard them go all-out in that regard since probably Kid A/Amnesiac with “How To Disappear Completely” and “Pyramid Song.” In many ways this feels like a much more subdued, mournful companion to those two albums, which maybe shouldn’t be surprising given that there are a number of tracks on here that they’ve been sitting on since at least the early 2000s.
Colin Kauffman: I like how subdued it is without sacrificing songwriting and arrangement depth
Nick Cusworth: Yeah, tracks like “Glass Eyes” are just so understated and yet so lush in a way we haven’t really seen them attempt before.
Kit Brown: Slight complaint: even though this feels more like a group effort, I kind of think the album needed more percussion. I get their approach to this album but they’ve always had a good groove as a band.
Nick Cusworth: Well, you do definitely have those moments in “Decks Dark,” “Identikit,” and “The Numbers.” Those tracks have a steady grooviness to them that they started trying more on In Rainbows – thinking “Separator” and “House of Cards” specifically – that I’m glad they’ve stuck with.
David Aleksov: Emotionally I’d agree it pairs up with Kid A nicely, but where that album conveyed its melancholy in a more distanced way, A Moon Shaped Pool feels very vulnerable. Not saying one is better than the other, but it’s interesting to me how these two albums are similar yet also contrasting.
Colin Kauffman: There’s a lot of depth here and I think I actually prefer it to good portions of their previous two albums
David Aleksov: Oh I think there’s no question it’s a generally better album than TKoL. Can’t say I prefer it to In Rainbows as that’s my favorite album of theirs in general, but it’s closer to that one than TKoL.
Nick Cusworth: I think my biggest hangup with this album, and the one thing I really wanted to talk with you all about, is this: are Radiohead done being a rock band? Because between this and TKOL it really kind of feels like In Rainbows will be their last real “guitar rock” album.
Colin Kauffman: All signs point to them having left that behind, at least for now, I think
Nick Cusworth: Like, I love the subdued and beautiful aspects of it all, but I’d be lying if listening to it I didn’t want them to just fucking let loose once in a while and go all-out in a “Bodysnatchers” or “There There” type of track.
Kit Brown: I honestly wasn’t ever expecting them to release as guitar driven of an album in 07 as In Rainbows, so I wouldn’t count them out just yet. They’re just too unpredictable of a band
David Aleksov: In a way they might be “done” with rock as their main focus point, but I think it will always show up as a big influence. “Identikit” is a huge confirmation of that imo, with the Floyd-esque solo and all.
Colin Kauffman: Yeah I agree Nick, I do miss the rock aspects of the band and I don’t think they’ve completely run out of ways to make that work yet
Nick Cusworth: There are multiple points throughout the album where I feel like they were trying a bit too hard to be “restrained” almost in spite of themselves. There really aren’t any big moments of cathartic emotional release here. There’s a lot of build to those kinds of moments, especially on “Identikit” that just dissipate before hitting climax.
Kit Brown: Totally agreed. I wish some songs had the dynamic shift of, say, “Exit Music” or something like that
David Aleksov: I’d actually disagree with that. While there is a feeling of restraint that runs through most of the album, I think they just found different ways to reach emotional crescendos. It happens on “Daydreaming” and again on “Ful Stop”. The latter is even reminiscent of “Bodysnatchers” in the intense energy it has, just minus the guitars.
Nick Cusworth: I agree with you on “Daydreaming” for sure. I think that track is basically perfection and a master class in creating tension through restraint and little splashes of color. I don’t quite know what to make of “Ful Stop” to be honest. I really like it as a track on its own, but it sounds nothing like anything else on the album and in some ways feels like a better version of some of the stuff they tried to do on TKOL with the funky production and more electronic-driven grooviness.
Colin Kauffman: Yeah it doesn’t completely fit on the album but I’m glad it’s there and I’d like to hear more like it
David Aleksov: Yeah I get that. Personally I love it exactly because of how different it is. The fact that upbeat tracks like “Ful Stop” are so sparse on the album makes them that much more effective.
Nick Cusworth: That kind of uplift was definitely needed. My problem with albums that try to do this kind of slow-burning emotional heaviness throughout is what gets lost in listening to it as a whole. It can become a chore when it should be, if not fun, then not actively difficult to get through.
David Aleksov: True, I can see this being a relatively heavy album to endure through down the road, though the initial excitement over it is keeping me glued for now.
Colin Kauffman: It’s very dour and melancholic and while I like that because so am I it’s not something suited to every mood or situation
Nick Cusworth: This is absolutely just a heavy fucking album emotionally though. Radiohead has never exactly been a “light” and frivolous band, but everything here just feels emotionally drenched.
David Aleksov: I think that’s what put me off when I was initially getting into the band, too.
Nick Cusworth: There’s been a lot of talk in the past week about how “Daydreaming” is at least in part about the dissolution of Thom’s 23-year relationship with a woman.
Colin Kauffman: That makes sense
Nick Cusworth: And in general Thom just sounds very raw and almost ragged, especially on “True Love Waits”
Colin Kauffman: Yeah his voice is a lot more…human, I guess. He sounds very unfiltered and emotional
Nick Cusworth: Some of that I suspect might be natural wear and tear on his vocal chords after all these years, but it seems like they made the conscious decision to lean into that.
David Aleksov: If “Ful Stop” and “True Love Waits” hadn’t already been around for a while, I’d argue those also touch on the same topic.
Nick Cusworth: Yeah, though the decision to finally put them on a studio album certainly could’ve been influenced by that.
David Aleksov: Oh, for sure. Actually, on that note I think it’s pretty admirable that they took a song which was some 20 years old and were still okay with it enough to release it. Especially with the lyrics, I think it speaks a lot about Thom Yorke’s talents that stuff he wrote that long ago is still mature enough to be acceptable for him as he is now.
Nick Cusworth: It’s funny because I had never heard the song before the studio version, and last night I finally listened to the live version from the I Might Be Wrong EP, and, man, the mood on it is just SO different. And I think what they did on this version really is a testament to both the versatility and the skills of the group.
Nick Cusworth: Scott, feel free to chime in here.
Scott Murphy: There isn’t much more I can add, to be honest. I’ve listened to it three full times thus far, twice through speakers and last time with headphones. The album hit me exponentially harder the first two times, as much of the album feels lush, spacious and meant to set an atmosphere rather than direct listening. Focusing in on the tracks, it’s clear that there’s so much going on simultaneously, but these elements have intrinsic, detailed depth that synchronize for the track as whole. I don’t think approaching any of the tracks (except “Burn the Witch”) as a song to enjoy on the surface does what’s going on here any justice. On that note, I feel like “Burn the Witch” is obviously an outlier, but also an odd choice for album opener (though I’m not sure where it should go). I went into the album expecting something completely different, but then had “Daydreaming” slam me in the face (in a good way, it’s fantastic and probably my favorite song). I didn’t pay attention to track names (I never do, tbh), but there were only a few other moments that were upbeat enough to break up the mood of the album. I do enjoy the albums mood, but it feels more like commanding background music than having any residence in the foreground.
Overall, I need more time with this. “Burn the Witch” stands out in its own way, and the few ballads on the album (ESPECIALLY “Daydreaming”) are nothing short of fantastic. This is, without question, an all caps ALBUM. I can’t imagine listening to any of these tracks except for Burn the Witch outside of the context of the album.
Nick Cusworth: It’s funny. I felt similarly about “Burn the Witch” after “Daydreaming” was released (in that I had no idea how they could be from the same album and how they would be sequenced), but once I heard them together and then followed by “Decks Dark” it somehow just made sense to me.
David Aleksov: To go back to Scott’s comment on “Burn the Witch”, it does really feel like a deceptive opening track in terms of giving off the wrong idea of what will come next. Maybe that was their intention? You never know with these guys.
Colin Kauffman: “We will always trick you” – Radiohead
Nick Cusworth: Actually, that kinda leads into another thing I wanted to talk about. How’d you all feel about the lead-up and release of this thing? I believe this is the third time now that they’ve released an album within a week or so of either dropping the first single or announcing it.
Colin Kauffman: I kind of ignored the social media disappearance stuff as being their usual eccentricities but I liked the singles and was also confused as to what exactly they had planned
Nick Cusworth: I definitely kinda rolled my eyes at the whole “disappearing act” they did on social media, but I can’t help but admit that I was super excited to have that feeling of pure excitement and anticipation over an album release. Radiohead are really one of the only bands left in which they can release something and it’s a genuine “event,” with everyone hearing it for the first time within a similar window of time.
Colin Kauffman: Agreed
Scott Murphy: I’m wicked impatient when it comes to new music, so I appreciated the terse release hype for the album. Branching off a bit from my earlier point, I think releasing the two lead singles they did led me to believe there’d be a lot more variety on the album, which obviously didn’t really happen; at least not to the extent I anticipated. Also agreed, Nick.
David Aleksov: I think they obviously want to distance themselves from the way PR campaigns work nowadays, or at least find different ways to go about it. But at the end of the day, yeah, they’re one of the few bands left that can do that because, hey, people will always lose their shit over new Radiohead regardless of how it’s advertised.
Nick Cusworth: At least they’re not forcing fans to dial a number to listen to a single.
Scott Murphy: Also, I feel like it helped with the divisiveness of the pre-release hype. Radiohead is a very polarizing band, so it was nice to see the album come out quickly so people could actually digest it an critique the album itself, and not just the band. Instead of fans frothing and haters shitting on a prospective album, any and all discussion could more quickly fo us on the music snd not on pre conceived notions of Radiohead, their music, Thom Yorke, etc.
David Aleksov: Fully agreed.
Nick Cusworth: Alright, I think I need to wrap this up, so let’s end on two (I’m cheating so more like 3) questions. 1) Favorite tracks or moments, and 2) Where do you see this album fitting into the general population’s thoughts about the band’s catalog? Do you all see this album keeping its shine and hype come end of the year or will it totally fade within a few weeks or months?
Colin Kauffman: Favorite tracks are “Daydreaming,” “Ful Stop,” “Decks Dark” and “Burn the Witch,” and I think it’s different enough from the rest of their material while still sounding like them to stand the test of time
Scott Murphy: I honestly don’t see how fans could be truly let down this album. At the very least, I think fans would feel lukewarm about the album, though I think most fans will feel a lot stronger. Essentially, it’s clearly a “good” album, in my opinion, and I think it’ll be seen as a highlight in their 2010s discography (though I don’t think that’ll be hard to do, and I doubt they’ll drop another record this decade).
David Aleksov: For now, my favorites are “Ful Stop” and “Tinker Tailor…” but a handful of other tracks are up there too, so that could change at any time. I think the even drearier nature of it and the dialed-to-11 orchestral elements make it stand out, and will continue to do so in the long run. Can easily see this as a top 5 album in Radiohead’s discography for any fan of theirs, maybe even top 3.
Scott Murphy: “Burn the Witch” and “Daydreaming” are my favorites so far, followed up by “Present Tense” and “True Love Waits.” Though similar to what I said above, I don’t think there’s a truly bad song on the record.
Nick Cusworth: I think for me right now it’s “Daydreaming,” “Ful Stop,” “Glass Eyes,” and “The Numbers.” But surprisingly, I’m with you guys. I don’t feel like there’s a track I don’t like at least quite a bit on here. I think this will definitely reverse the narrative of malaise and decline that formed after TKOL (though I feel that was really exaggerated in general), and for me personally, I can see this fitting somewhere in the 10-20 range of top albums of the year, but definitely not breaking top 10.
Kit Brown: My favorites are “Daydreaming,” “True Love Waits” and “Glass Eyes” for right now, which all seem to be some of the most melancholy tracks on the record. I think in a lot of ways, Radiohead fans were in a way wanting the band to revert back to their old style which I think they do, although obviously not completely. It’s a good way to reference the late 90s while still making the album feel completely relevant and contemporary, and for that reason alone, it’s one of the better albums in 2016 right now to me. I don’t see this album sticking as a bonafide classic, but they’ll be playing tons of these songs live for years and I’m sure they’ll get great reactions from fans.
Nick Cusworth: And with that, we out! Thanks, guys!