A few weeks ago, Radiohead fans began to get excited when all of the band’s existing posts across the various social media platforms began to disappear. Something was happening. Could it be a new album?
Days later there was a new single and video, ‘Burn the Witch’. Within hours the video had thousands of comments offering interpretations of lyrics and imagery. Then, in that same week, came another single and video, ‘Daydreaming’, different in tone both musically and visually to ‘Burn the Witch’, inspiring further sleuth work from fans. Within a week there was a whole new album, A Moon Shaped Pool. And there I was, lying in bed at five in the morning with headphones on, listening to it as soon as I could.
Performers can provoke a broad range of feelings in their fans, from adoration or lust to admiration or inspiration, but a handful of acts develop a fan base who treat their work as if it contained a secret knowledge. Bob Dylan did it. So did The Beatles, for better or worse. It seems to be less common in modern music than in the heyday of psychedelia, but Radiohead inspire a similar fervour.
There were signs on previous albums but their first album of true profundity was 1997’s OK Computer, an album of aliens and androids trapped in an uncaringly efficient world. I remember thinking that OK Computer had perfectly expressed feelings I hadn’t even realised I had. Then in 2000 they somehow managed to simultaneously reinvent themselves and repeat the trick of their previous success with Kid A. Where its predecessor was cold, Kid A was bleak, and again it spoke for me in the era of No Logo and the anti-globalisation movement. 2007’s In Rainbows captured me again, this time with a warmer, more human feel that matched with the changes in my life. Three albums across a decade, each filled with alienation, despair, frustration and longing, but also intelligence and a dark sense of humour.
Listening to A Moon Shaped Pool, I was searching for clues for another missive about the state of the world. I had my own theories about the deeper meaning of the two singles and videos, and wanted to develop them further, or even to confirm them. Did the fate of the bureaucrat in the ‘Burn the Witch’ video mean that bureaucracy can’t be overcome? Was ‘Daydreaming’ really about how people who reject those around them find themselves living cold lives of solitude? I enjoyed the album and the game of interpreting it from the first listen.
After a few days of listening to the album many times and in different contexts, I was starting to feel a slight sense that I was missing something important. Nothing had yet clicked for me to make a working theory of the album’s meaning.
That’s when it hit me. The problem wasn’t the album, it was me. I had worked myself up so much to ‘solve’ the album that I had got in the way of myself really hearing it, so I stopped trying to hear my theories in it and just listened. What I heard was an album of great beauty and intrigue, though seemingly resigned to an unhappy fate. Most of its tracks tell stories of lost people, acted upon by the world around them. Only ‘Burn the Witch‘ and ‘The Numbers’ offer any resistance to the cruelty of power.
A Moon Shaped Pool wasn’t the first album to be impacted by my own enormous expectations for it, but that’s part of the fun. We get drawn in to the music we love and the aura of the artists who make it. Music can be so immediate that we sometimes get ahead of ourselves. I wouldn’t want it any other way.