Oh, K: Privy to intergalactic secrets aplenty but unable to forecast the tides of the American music industry. Orientation at MiB HQ includes a pass through the hall of gizmos—wonders of the universe ranging from a clunky, illicit translator device to a physics-defying Super Ball. Of the many highlights: a new music format—an even smaller CD! Within a year, this concept had thoroughly fallen apart, and The Beatles’ self-titled could be easily pirated—“Unlimited technology from the whole universe, and we cruise ’round in a Ford POS” almost functions as a thesis statement in retrospect. So then, is this tiny compact disc just another ex post facto, crowd-pleasing, postmodern rococo gem from the underrated Sonnenfeld funhouse? Or, a symptom of the rigidity of the human mind, intent on following a straight line and clutching to ritual? Your read.
Nineteen years and several sea changes later, we find ourselves here, still navigating the waters, mapping the space between physical objects and intangible digital guts. In certain instances, we actively work in-reverse. To wit: Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool was released (digitally) on May 8th; I didn’t submerge until June 18th (its physical birth). In the grand scheme, it’s not much—a momentary holding-pattern of mild restraint. Still, this window frames the gap between digital and physical, intangible and tactile, passivity and engagement. The disparity between these two dates was starker than usual and the sense was to commit to keeping it that way. As expectation and demand reaches a tipping-point, Pool measured the curve—eyeing the arc of late-capitalism reigning-in abundance piece-by-piece. How our brains will react as we move further away from unchecked quantity remains uncertain, but every so often we get a glimpse.
Radiohead are a rigorous and crotchety bunch. For notoriously omnivorous, restlessly creative Artists in search of new avenues, they are staunch about the how, why, what, and when of your listening habits. Their opinions about what music is and what it should/could be are firm (and affirming) and unyielding (in a sometimes-oddly-fluid, frequently-inclusive, clairvoyant way). They will do everything in their power (which is prodigious) to channel your experience patterns accordingly. There’s much to admire in this, and more than a little runoff frustration—but lo the bounty. Of course, this is their artistic statement, so controlling and curating the process of reception is a vital consideration. The fact that this has become less possible over time seems to be the foil they constantly wrestle with and frequently outmaneuver. They are more adept than most at navigating and cordoning the modern murk. Then again, what does ownership even mean anymore? It’s a question that keeps tearing itself open.
Pool’s release was straighter than the past two: pieces were made available, singles set the tone, videos codified the central aesthetic. The rollout was magnified, and ample room was left between the offerings to polarize instant gratification and resolution—forcing the choice between one or the other or both. In the act of not acting, I embraced the vacuum. The worldwide release events unleashed the messaging that was packaged in the initial offering, their more subtle and rectilinear intentions this time out: Radiohead lamenting the diminished role of communion. Still finding plenty to excoriate, now they’re building their community instead of inciting collapse. They want these documents to be an experience, and they want this experience to organically lead to another through interlocution—in bygone, dying, formerly-culturally-significant havens and hotbeds—rather than scrolling. That frustration is growing to be an essential component of their releases is the point—that twinge of delayed gratification, even if partially self-imposed, draws a stronger connection to the ceremony. Shrewd as that sounds, the flipside is a fierce devotion and willingness to follow threads and overgrown paths, reconceptualizing/reinstating ritual and reflecting on it.
Minding the gap required some concerted and continuous effort, assuaging the torrents of opinions in the ether. Naturally, after the initial spike, this got easier, as Pool’s ubiquity dissipated and the collective consciousness shifted its gaze to newer, shinier things—a wave of immediate reactions, followed by a second-wave of slower-churned think-pieces, followed by the inevitable next crest (now followed by a rising mid-year reevaluation tide). Avoidance of this ilk is a strange, singular phenomenon of this spoiler-rampant era, this age of curation. Depending on the level of domination, drowning out the chatter ricocheting through the echo chamber—clattering, scattered parts desperate for coherence—requires altering routines, putting up blinders, deviating from the conversation. It can either overwhelm or enhance the experience; finding an ideal balance is tricky, and inevitably there’s a process of restabilization to contend with, catching up with all that’s been said and the many mutations of the discourse. Extract yourself for too long and you get left behind for good. Nostalgia for inconvenience is an odd concept, no?
That’s not to say that in the intervening weeks were devoid of temptation—repeated scans of the band’s chief foe for copyright-skirting uploads, always a twinge of guilt in the back of my mind. To consume the bits and scraps or not? Is front-to-back experience purer? Does the vessel matter or, if it’s that big a deal, is building the environment around the source sufficient? If I find a transient stream, should I forgo it and embrace the five-year wait, or swiftly bring it to an end? What’s the benefit of salvaging bygone technology? For posterity? Misguided, early-onset nostalgia? Best to just give in. Still, I defied the ‘all there, all the time’ state of existence—Stanley Donwood and Dr. Tchock are best experienced in unpixelated 12” by 12”. Turns out, Dead Air Space is not just a placeholder moniker; it’s an ethos and a challenge. Experience is mutable relative to the vessel. And the vessel is relative to the environment. And the environment is relative to your particular relationship to, and investment in, the medium itself. It’s a strange, interminably-liminal time to be alive, indeed.
Spin the document on vinyl and it becomes it’s title—a solid circle given dimension, mixing and melting and made fluid as a metaphysical experience and as an optical illusion; the textures and craters the tangible source of the enveloping atmosphere. There are wonders to discover once you wade in—an Alien Lanes (“Ex-Supermodel”) sonic smear in “Daydreaming,” an uncanny, synapse-prodding transition before the lick kicks on “Decks Dark,” a sky-opening percussion sprint a la “Sit Down, Stand Up (Snakes & Ladders)” in “Ful Stop,” the Portishead-esque symphonic trip-hop with Massive floor-drop of “Burn the Witch,” some pastoral Presence-era Zeppelin vibes in “The Numbers,” Music Has the Right to Children organic extraterrestrial tonalities leavening “Daydreaming,” electro-acoustic In Rainbows echoes in “Glass Eyes” and “Present Tense,” the vaguely-eastern inflections of “Identikit,” probably spilled-over from Junun, a “Myxomatosis” tease in “Decks Dark,” the muffled, ominous hunched-in-a-discotheque-bathroom throb of “Ful Stop.”
The limbo and self-doubt of the May-to-June lunar cycle is suitable considering Radiohead elevate the corporeal concerns with Pool, body fighting mechanical implants (and impulses) and occasionally winning—finding a path forward Locutus-style. Its plane is more complicated—the battle no longer a duality. More than ever, the band is interested in transcending rather than being swallowed whole. Perhaps it’s more radical to adamantly reconsolidate the idea of an album rather than deconstruct its component parts in the post-piracy/iTunes/Spotify world. Pool is just that—a stew of references and a synthesis of the band’s trajectory and evolution written on a shifting molten canvas. Cognitive space is necessary to intuit and absorb the mid-tempo inverted piano signatures and swelling reverse-engineered strings galore. In the era of instant gratification, “True Love Waits,” after all.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.