The last time Radiohead released a record it was February 2011 and the Wisconsin protests were taking form, the Arab spring was blossoming, and the undercurrents of the Spanish Indignados movement were flowing. Occupy was soon to follow. In that 2011’s King of Limbs used manic beat programming and digital effects to concoct feelings of a tortured personality broken up into rapidly released 140 character fragments, and as such, offered a parallel to the strong presence of social media in these movements against exploitation and domination, what parallel might exist between Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool and current movements?
A Moon Shaped Pool is best distinguished from other Radiohead records by its over use of non-cacophonic symphonic textures, accomplished through a large string section and choir. They border on cliché. Chord progressions are established as arpeggiated keyboard lines frequently. On a first listen one might think “Daydreaming” and “Decks Dark” are the same song for their use of similar arpegiated rhythms. “Decks Dark” turns out to be the better of the two pieces due to it breaking from said rhythm and overall greater exploration of texture. “Desert Island Disk” follows, and while Radiohead has in the past married folk aesthetics with rhythmic flourishes inspired by electronic music, “DID” is folk divorced of electronica, and is less compelling for it. “Ful Stop” sounds pretty damn similar to Kid A’s “the National Anthem”, but without the excitement. It’s a tune that also feels at points so similar to In Rainbow’s “Weird Fish” you wonder if they are directly quoting themselves. “Glass Eyes” is more arpeggiated piano chord progressions but with a soundtrack-corny string accompaniment. “Identikit” is another take on a tried and true Radiohead sound – Thom Yorke singing over a drum beat with only a hint of the chord progression from a subtly played guitar and Yorke accompanying himself. The spiderlike and spindly guitar solo at the end is probably the most exciting moment on the record, making “Identikit” one of the best songs on the album. Unfortunately, it’s followed by the just plain dull “The Numbers”. This song is where Radiohead are most guilty of covering the lack of substance in a song with a cliché string arrangement. “Present Tense” is a great song, likely the best on the album, with moving melodies and a compelling chord progression over a lively Afro-Cuban rhythm, expanding on an influence that has weaved in and out of their albums. “Tinker Tailor” is a fairly interesting song, but again, one that relies too much on its string arrangement to be moving. “True Love Waits” was first known to be a well-written song in it’s voice and guitar arrangement performed live, and it’s equally good here with (arpeggiated) piano as the accompaniment.
In sum, A Moon Shaped Pool is not a very impressive Radiohead album. When they left tortured and yet anthem-like guitar rock behind, Radiohead turned to fascinating rhythms and time signatures, rich tonal palates and timbres. They seem to have left these features behind but have nothing exciting to show in their place. A Moon Shaped Pool is pretty boring. It might be their worst record.
Where King of Limbs was an experience of oscillating compression and expansion, A Moon Shaped Pool is markedly an album of sullen echoes of the past. Where 2011 saw public workers of Wisconsin fight to keep a minimal provision of post-Depression unionism, collective bargaining, alive, 2016 sees the largest private-sector strikes in years take form as Verizon wireline workers fighting to not have their pensions cut or be sent away from their families for weeks at a time to build technology infrastructure in Boston. The Verizon workers quite reasonably think their incredibly profitable employer should hire new technicians for the Boston expansion, creating jobs and allowing them to maintain their family lives. The Verizon strikes are thus for the most part defensive, though there are challenges to the two-tier system that has made its way out of the auto industry.
Where 2011 saw occupations of public spaces around the world in protest of austerity and inequality, the most promising movement so far in 2016 is Nuit Debout, an occupation movement in response to the the El Khomri labor law reform bill, which would gut the French labor code, and being so particular to France, is a specter that is unlikely to spread. The bill is quite stunning in scope. It would effectively undo limits to working hours, reduce pay requirements for overtime, ease restrictions on layoffs and invert the labor law model, from labor law regulating individual companies’ employment contracts, to individual companies’ employment contracts being constitutive of the French labor code. French workers are thus organizing to merely keep their existing labor protections, and their chances look increasingly dim. Hollande pushed the labor bill through the house with executive powers, and the government survived the vote of censure that would have killed the bill, sending the bill to the Senate.
No doubt a sullen mood, and an aching sting accompaniment is warranted in France. But with the passage of the bill there is a chance for this movement to transcend the particularities of the French labor law and spur a broader workers movement not limited to France. With Syriza having recently passed the toughest austerity measures yet in Greece, that the French were the most sympathetic of the Eurogroup to Greece last summer opens up the possibility of a European workers movement that could spread to Spain and Ireland initially and then beyond. Maybe the next Radiohead record will be better too.