After the enamored guitars and driving, straightforward vocals that characterized their first trio of albums (Pablo Honey, The Bends, OK Computer), and the menace of digital angst that haunted the second three (Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief), Radiohead has brought their third (and, many speculate, their final) act to a close. Following up to the manic, disjointed and, at times, accusatory albums In Rainbows and King of Limbs, they give us Moon Shaped Pool—a complicated, ethereal offering that just might be the coda that unlocks it all.
At turns groaning, oblique, and painfully aware, Moon Shaped Pool leaves us with a legacy of what it has meant to be Radiohead. A band unearthed by their audience in message boards and discussed in chat rooms, whose music was downloaded on dial-up and burned onto treasured mix CDs before one day, in an industry shake-up, Radiohead gave In Rainbows to the public for whatever listeners felt like paying. With this act, one could argue that Radiohead transformed into something more than a “band,” becoming an artistic instrument of novel invention, forged in the fires of a technical revolution, echoing with brush percussion and a flourish of strings.
In the late 2010s tumult of personal branding and the headline economy, Radiohead has been steadfastly not that. Their “anti-media” campaign, during which they stealthily deleted all of their social media in anticipation of Moon Shaped Pool‘s’ release, reminded us that they are the last bastion of reluctantly successful rock stars, a team of destiny, the kind of talent that can’t help but loathe themselves a little bit.
Listening to one of the album’s standout tracks, “Daydreaming”, it almost feels like every glowing review and sold-out stadium has been a twist of the knife for York, et al. “Dreamers / they never learn / they never learn,” the song laments, as if accepting at last that the audience will always be an other—a bemused, entertained observer. The listener can never be the knowing, nodding sage in the political theater that is Radiohead’s existence. “This goes / beyond me, beyond you,” the words implore.
But it’s too late. Across the scope of our grating earnest youth, our disillusioned adolescence and now, our tired cynicism, Radiohead has been giving us fair warning of what lies ahead. Moon Shaped Pool is the abyss of Narcissus, the logical conclusion of our subterranean (homesick alien) lifestyles. The audience is fixated upon themselves, seeing in the performer only a reflection of self. Moon Shaped Pool is not a two-way mirror, but a reminder that you can drown in self-reflection.
How can a reflection of a thing, like an album copy, or any object for that matter, belong to everyone, and no one, all at once? It kind of …can’t. Walter Benjamin wrote about it in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”:
Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”
Benjamin goes on, “This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership.”
If there is one protest that runs through the Radiohead canon, it is a continual dismay at the state of modern unreality. The band’s music speaks to the suspension of the body’s organic functions in favor of a grinding, duty-bound consciousness facilitated by technology. “My Iron Lung,” “OK Computer,” “Fitter Happier,” and “There There” are just some of the most cut-and-dry examples. But Radiohead takes the concept to its final, most desperate destination in Pool’s “The Numbers.” In direct address to the sarcastic, side-eyed imagery he’s past invoked, Yorke emphatically reminds the listener that he was only kidding when he praised the life robotic, singing, “We are of the earth/ to her do we return/ the future is inside us/ it’s not somewhere else.”
These lyrics might as well be a direct nod to the core of Benjamin’s signature thesis. “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.” And in the span of Radiohead’s career, the “authenticity” of objects has taken on a novel conception. If the reality of a piece of art is connected intrinsically to the object’s tangible form, that means the story it tells is related heavily to the physical history of that object. But what about objects (and artists) that lose their physical history to a digital existence?
Most of my Radiohead collection lives in a server that I cannot locate, written in a language I cannot interpret, using technology I cannot operate. Though the music is tangible—through more venues of cloud-based technology that recreate the sounds of Radiohead recordings—the art is not something I can physically handle, or touch. I cannot inspect the condition in which it arrived in my possession. I cannot document the history or tradition in which it came from. Neither can I make my mark upon it; no matter how many times I listen to Moon Shaped Pool, it will be none the worse for wear. It will always sound the same. The same as everyone else’s copy of it.
If “the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity,” and even the original lives somewhere in a server, location immaterial, what is the source of all of our replicas, the parent of Moon Shaped Pool?
It is, of course, Thom Yorke himself.
He knows it, too. Moon Shaped Pool is the performer, at last, dissolved at our feet. A man who doesn’t want to live as a machine anymore. A man who must be on his way. In “Desert Island Disc,” the machinery is again cast aside in favor of a life reincarnate. “Waking up/ waking up from a shutdown / from a thousand years of sleep,” he sings—not as much an announcement as a plea for leniency. How painful it must be to exist only as bundle of sounds.
“In you/I’m lost/In you/I’m lost,” he tells us. We know—but we don’t want to let this—Thom’s voice, Radiohead, any of it—go. He has to make the audience us let go, by alienating them severely.
And he does. Using the weapons at his disposal, the disembodied songwriter turns the knife on the listener. In what would appear to be a parting gift for the Radiohead faithful, Moon Shaped Pool fades out with the a living, breathing, studio recording of “True Love Waits.”
Both mythic and inescapable, live recordings of “True Love Waits” have long existed in various iterations, with Thom’s voice sprawling over and caressing every word. The defiant, stunted vocal reach he clung to in later years vanishes in these live recordings, which led fans to conclude that Thom had a heart that beat for them after all. That he did want them watching. That he was happy to be the man, the myth, the disembodied voice of the digital landscape. He rejoiced to exist as Benjamin’s “artifact.”
But now, even this fantasy of Radiohead is destroyed. Moon Shaped Pool presents “True Love Waits”, dirge-ified. The newly recorded version is a dehydrated one; relying on a halted, mourning keyboard. “I’m not living/I’m just killing time.” Thom reverts to his digital self, his voice dehumanized and clouded by reverb. The chorus resonates as it always has, only this time we wonder if anyone meant it to begin with. “Just don’t leave/don’t leave.” It is a grinning challenge, one last wink. Don’t leave, he suggests, while reminding listeners that they can’t make him stay.
Radiohead knows that once the listener walks away, there is no more entrapment inside of their object. The abyss of Narcissus is left behind, both for the musician and the audience. No more self-reflection. No more digital prisons, and no more idioteque. The band’s time and place will cease to be, its meaningーlost on so many of us, all alongーgone for good. Replaced by copies of copies, echoes of echoes, dust upon dust. That’s the best that they can hope for, anymore.
Moon Shaped Pool asks us to look, one last time, and see ourselves before we go.