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PETER MAcintosh





a Review of A Moon Shaped Pool’s Vinyl Release

through the lens of The Crying of Lot 49  and Pynchon’s Trystero   


For here were God knew how many citizens, deliberately choosing not to communicate by U. S. Mail. It was not an act of treason, nor possibly even of defiance. But it was a calculated withdrawal, from the life of the Republic, from its machinery. Whatever else was being denied them out of hate, indifference to the power of their vote, loopholes, simple ignorance,this withdrawal was their own, unpublicized, private.  Since they could not have withdrawn into a vacuum (could they?), there had to exist the separate, silent, unsuspected world. from Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49

With the progressive disappearance of W.A.S.T.EDEAD AIR SPACE, the erasure of tweets, posts, videos, photographs from the band’s social media accounts, including profile and cover pictures, Radiohead helped solidify the buildup surrounding their ninth studio album, suggesting that through A Moon Shaped Pools recording (a stop & go effort spanning two years of “working in limits,” repairing tired tracks through, as Jonny Greenwood cryptically put, the pairing of “very old and very new technology,”) they had found yet another way to shift shape, perhaps rescale the topography of music’s digitized circuitry. While their lesson stopped short of how to disappear completely, the performance piece certainly evoked the cleaning of a slate, adding gravity to the initial pun of New Dawn Chorus LLP–the record company created months before the digital version of the album’s May 8th release. More or less, Yorke and company were announcing that A.M.S.P would pour wax over the idea that, after 30 years of defying caricature and habituation, they had finally cooled off, run out of luck; exhausted all options, channels, mediums which might yield yet another metamorphosis. Especially with a modest portion of the album rumored to comprise recycled tracks that, even if based upon their most recent performances, wouldn’t stand alone, let alone surpass (and then only mirror) the level of invention and influence still hailing from their release of Kid A | AmnesiacIn Rainbows just to name a few. But clearly there had to be some substance behind the calculated gesture, which implied, even after A.M.S.P’s mp3 release, that something remained buried beneath the surface.  Like many W.A.S.T.E followers not immediately blown away with the digitized version, I pre-ordered the vinyl unable to refrain from the hope that–somewhere within the grooves of the dated medium–there was something like Maxwell’s Demon at play, still luring. That after the band’s many demurs, a pattern was beginning to emerge–something to do with the mail and how the sound would be delivered.


Before furrowing into the viability of anything singular lurking within the vinyl’s long-playing format, we should attend to W.A.S.T.E–Radiohead’s official website and online store. While admittingly insular, the shadowy acronym, We Await Silent Trystero’s Empire– was first coined by Thomas Pynchon with the publication of his first and only novella, The Crying of Lot 49. The puzzling cipher signifies the distorting counterforce of Try[i]stero–a postal medium that, not lacking clairvoyance, weighs upon the significance of how information is delivered. In this context, Pynchon foresees how the increasing digitization of communication corrodes context and ultimately will determine identity itself.


Like the many demurs leading to A.M.S.P’s vinyl shipment–the most glaring being Radiohead’s mailing of leaflets to fans who had previously preordered albums through W.A.S.T.E’s website–the original cipher keeps resurfacing through the text–on postage stamps, suburban sidewalks, bathroom stalls, a Victorian signet ring–to keep Oeidipa Maas ultimately lost as she turns through the circuitry of The Crying of Lot 49’s cybernetic moor. Seen in this light, Lot 49’s novel within a novel delivers a respectable framework for why Radiohead would bother with the trouble of engineering something as harrowing as an album within an album. Distributed through such an outdated and therefore decentralized medium, the band would be creating (yet once again) an unfounded experience. Most significant, disseminated specifically through this dated context, the release of the vinyl would generate a singular demand for a sense of texture that centralized, digital formats simply cannot afford.


Since the expiration of the band’s contract with EMI, Radiohead has continued to explore formats and methods of distribution to ultimately destabilize the centralized forces that dictate how music is disseminated. While this campaign has mainly focused upon generating exposure to various file-sharing platforms, encouraging other artists to distribute and therefore rightfully pocket digital sales, there is no reason why they would not shift their efforts to a far more decentralized format. What’s more, the band’s seeming departure from this previous standard (allowing A.M.S.P’s digitally to be purchased through i-tunes & amazon) only adds to the delusion[1] that something metaphysical would in fact manifest through the standard service of the mail.


The first excavating sounds of a shovel breaking ground could be heard as the Crosley Radio Director’s needle touched upon A Moon Shaped Pool’s lunar surface. Set to long-playing format, Yorke’s falsetto convincingly belonged to groove; however, everything else felt bogged down, reined in, out of orbit. All combined this mismatch felt like a crude compensation making up for what Pynchon’s Lot 49 put best as “the direct, epileptic Wor[l]d.” Of particular notice the puddled airs and pocketed percussion, which won the digital release many favorable reviews, now registered as mild, static, barren to the point that, collectively, they brought to mind the horse-drawn movement of batteries running out of breath. In other words, the sonic quality was more reminiscent of a phonograph recording composed of that dry, grating shellac compound. Nonetheless, I spent the first two tracks, like Oedipa ‘in the absence of some trigger,’ pacing my dropped-down living room, recalling Driblette’s white whale of warning that “You can put together clues, develop a thesis, or several […] You could waste [my emphasis] your life that way and never touch the truth” (Lot 49). Yet even within this context of doubt where one thinks of Don Quixote’s refusal to call a windmill a windmill, an inn an inn, I knew that with this latest discrepancy I was scratching at the edge of some demesne that soon enough would be triggered.


With a flip of a switch this would happen to occur a few seconds later. Specifically, after remembering that AMOK[2] had offered a more straightforward but similar frustration; the vinyls set not for the L.P’s standard 33 orbit, but an E.P’s tighter 45 rotation. Through this minor adjustment in speed, I was immediately set ajar, hit with a crane-like boom of another world’s intrusion. Most demonstrative was the relegation of Yorke’s voice–the falsetto, which didn’t feel so much replaced as it reflected the adaptation of vocal cords after many years in space. Vibrating at a Kanyesque [sic] bot-like rate of return, the cherubic transposition conveyed an impressive sense of virility that, far from distracting, expressed some cosmic helm or deep psychic level. Much like York’s falsetto, “human timbres and rhythms—not speech so much as music” (Against the Day), the frequency functioned more as an instrument–one which, eel-sharp, more easily plaited itself throughout A Moon Shaped Pools pocketed currency. Compared to the digital edition, Radiohead’s long-awaited album finally released to a phantasmatic point of bloom.


Within this spectral context, the vinyl’s agency–as sensitive or medium– then serves as a channel of communication, providing an interface for “the linking feature in the coincidence.” I’m thinking of Pynchon’s Try[i]stero, Maxwell’s Demon; Yorke’s bot-like frequency, the disembodied tenor filtering the ship’s loss of entropy into what sonically we gain through A Moon Shaped Pool’s rotation: “music made purely of Arctic loneliness and fright,” also the tremendous sound of entry into “worlds no other man had seen” (Lot 49). In terms of the album’s voyage, this metaphysical conversion (that of entropy’s loss into a singular gain of information) provides another vital function, sustaining the propulsion of A.M.S.P’s flight path–like N.A.S.A’s golden discs venturing further out into space’s furtive groove of years.


From this numinous point of negative capability or correspondence, side-a’s diptych can be interpreted as the launchpad from which the real album takes off, leaving behind the misanthropic malaise and disquiet that ultimately dated the releases of King of Limbs and Hail to the Thief. This is reinforced by the buckling thrust of “Decks Dark,” a track which swoons more than catapults through cloudy vaults of orchestral exhaust; billowing chambers which melt into siren-led choruses that, as dangerous as they are beautiful, ominously ebb in and out, suggesting shipwreck before finally heralding us into the zero-hour of orbit. If not objectively fitting as an exacting correlative, the first track of side-b certainly provides an excellent soundtrack for one’s entry into space.

“Desert Island Disc” follows much like a night-lit ship log. The previous rush of adrenaline brought by Decks Dark’s interregnal launch gives to a comforting chamber of repose; the ships on autopilot, the song safely sails as a sunflower past the deserted vale of Mars. Offering a refreshing change up, the progression is equally as charitable as it is lost, evocative of a meandering canoe ride in which George Harrison and Syd Barrett row merrily. And yet nothing gold will stay as “Ful Stop” verifies, beginning with a drum-kitted passage that noticeably removed if not flattened conjures the 2-D image of a world’s final stage: a platform on which Super Mario might be placed toggling against the flattened backdrop of a steel cage. While this initial onslaught–complete with highly-defined outbursts of solar flare–does register alarm for an event that has long been simulated but never truly rehearsed, it thankfully does not diminish the penetrating turn of “Ful Stop;” the unmistakable volta which–like the waking bolt[3] of a black hole suddenly dilating–violently opens into a relentless, Flea-led bass line of downed power chords, ushering one into a stelliferous current of shock that brings to mind a pinball negotiating the belt-like course of an asteroid field.


By the time we’ve reached side-c, which marks the first side of the second vinyl, the binary function of A Moon Shaped Pool is made clear. Despite the eleven tracks fitting alphabetically, one picks up on an unequivocal design beneath the generic, somewhat lazy makeup of order. Sonically, this generates a signifying chain of reciprocal induction, a function of 0s & 1s which allows A.M.S.P to be experienced in this spatio-temporal context. In other words the excitatory stimulus of “Decks Dark”, being immediately arrested by the inhabitory space of “Desert Island Disc,” is sharpened to a point of circumflex. Moreover, this binary pattern of giving to rise & triggering off only intensifies from here. We find the raucous bumper course of “Ful Stop” promptly reined in by “Glass Eye”’s wavering dose of euphoria–a harmonious track which–like a cosmic bottle moving up successive crests of arpeggio–imbibes you somewhere between the mellifluous buoys of Saturn and Jupiter with a new-founded sense of the sublime. Further, with A Moon Shaped Pool navigating beyond the inner planets, the album’s polarizing cycle of balance and return becomes more and more suggestive of the regiment that, no matter how much alien or part machine, one would keep to maintain the semblance of night and day or any working order.


And yet the pink elephant eventually punches through all the given rooms of the house; entropy becomes too outrageous to maintain; Try[i]stero no longer can filter such a bewildering reciprocal.  While according to the aforementioned rate of induction, we find that beyond the gas buoys of Jupiter and Saturn the album takes on a belated sense of emotion. The modish funk of “Identikit,” which rushes into a sweltering chorus (one which one might associate with an identity crisis) is promptly followed by the southern revival of “The Numbers.” This marks a return to very basic, almost primal concerns. Withdrawing further into the vacuum of space, Yorke’s lyrical impulse–while just as instrumentally there–becomes more human and therefore quite distinguishable, rising out of the marbled surface of chords in which it was previously layered. In terms of survival it’s as if after many years of suppression, these stored files of avoidance, regret, of anger now serve emotionally to stoke a growing need for fire.The penultimate tracks of “Present Tense” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor [etc]” only heighten this plaintive need to elegize. However, one registers with both a more Lethe-like desire to purge before merging into the new dawn of the Kuiper Belt where head-on collision is unavoidable. In other words, one takes away an underlying degree of calm overriding any arresting thought of finality, peering into the cold but heat-felt world of Pluto, its heart-shaped geoglyph offering a sense of serenity as the album presses into an icy indifference.


With the closing track of “True Love Waits” the staggering force of entropy overrides our tenor’s journey. The track offers a final postcard before its vehicle’s cuts out, carrying a sense of self-possession and warmth. Nodding back to Kid A | Amnesiac, the reanimated ode uses its legacy status to announce that similar to these recordings–after decades of rotation, many needles dulled to the point of needing replacement–A Moon Shaped Pool (this album within an album) will continue to rotate long after its signal is lost.





[1] The following movements of this Cartesian meditation, while declarative, bold (perhaps even backed by some substance) should be read like any epistemic recipe, i.e. Gettier problem, which fails to truly arrive at knowledge yet still provides enough for what Lacan writes of reality as “the strange grimace of the real.”       


[2] The debut album by Atoms for Peace, released on February 25, 2013 by XL Recordings. The album features Radiohead singer Thom Yorke (vocals, guitar, keyboards and programming), Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea (bass), Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich (production and programming), Joey Waronker of Beck and R.E.M. (drums), and Mauro Refosco (percussion) of Forro in the Dark.


[3] Pupil

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