Cult Classics Album Breakdown 25

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)

Radiohead, as a concept, is a tectonic plate – constantly shifting, constantly tense, constantly threatening to explode. They are so far out on the edge, still, after all these years, that they’re gripping our reality by a thread. I’ve learned to love that about them.

every time they bring out a new record you literally have no idea what to expect. You’ve got AC/DC, who write the same song over and over again (brilliantly, I might add), and at the other end of the spectrum there’s Radiohead, who you wouldn’t waste a single pound on by making a prediction. They almost intuitively reject their last project in the next one – distance themselves, you could say, like an ex-lover. i’ll never forget the first time I slipped A Moon Shaped Pool into the CD player and heard Burn The Witch. My God. In fact, I think that’s pretty much all I could come up with. It was weeks later, after multiple listens, that I realised how weighty and epochal and downright bloody great it was.

The once slightly weird and maybe even unhinged 90’s indie band aren’t young men anymore. And I’d encourage you to ignore that rather laborious description I’ve just presented of this band since they are so much more than that, and then some. They are the Pink Floyd of their own generation, in fact. Massive statement, I know. I’m not making direct comparisons – just analysing the gravitas of this music and their body of work. Thom Yorke is the paranoid android come to fill our alternative ears with joy. And on this record, Radiohead’s ninth studio outing, he, along with other founder members Colin Greenwood, Jonny greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Phil Segway, certainly do that.

Good luck trying to decode the likes of Decks Dark and Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief, but if you’ve got a decent pair of headphones, the swell of ambience pouring into the ears is majestic regardless. I love Desert Island Disk; a moody, art-rock masterpiece that hides much more than it dares to show. Ful Stop is surely a snippet of futurism – neurotic and slippery – it’s almost incomprehensible when wondering how you’d write something like that. Dazzling, and almost pretty, which would possibly make a Radiohead purist puke. Sorry.

Of course, a Radiohead record wouldn’t be complete without some sort of monstrous foreboding or suffocating gloom – and neither would we want it to be. Identikit is an unsettling lyric that employs the influence of classical chamber music. It leaves you wondering if Thom is a closet bubbly bloke or as melancholy as some of his music is. Most. In a good way. This is a band still travelling without moving, and long may they feel the itch if they keep making records like this.

The Numbers is shit-hot, groovy, borrowing-from-early-70’s dimly lit cult Funk and Soul curvature. I’ve read that back, but I’m not changing it. Listen to bass and tell me you’re not enchanted. And so we have a record here that is Art-Rock at its finest. Some mistake Art-Rock for pretentiousness, but I prefer to consider it imagination. This is a band that seem to be as imaginative as ever thirty years into their career, so don’t expect hit singles any time soon.

The charts, are you listening? MEOW.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

Top track trio:

Burn The Witch

Desert Island Disk

The Numbers


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 13

The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

Lou Reed has never quite settled well with me. I’ve got to be blatantly honest. When he was alive I just didn’t get him. Yes, ok, Walk On The Wild Side is a great track, as is Perfect Day. I was certainly roused by Coney Island Baby. However, I found the man incredibly pretentious and unnecessarily volatile. At times it was like he was out to rile his own fans, even. His gross unpredictability during his life, in my eyes, was all too often mistaken as interesting.

I mean, I guess I’m just going the long way round – the guy was a bit of a twat.

The one record, however, that Lou Reed was instrumental on that really gripped me was The Velvet Underground & Nico. It was the first record Reed was involved making, along with John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, and Nico. And it has become a staple cult classic album – especially since this art-house, experimental trip through drug abuse, prostitution, sadomasochism and sexual deviancy was so heavily associated with artist, Andy Warhol. Hence the album cover.

It’s very strange, of course, how the music industry pulls its punches. It’s not strange that the major critics are usually failed musicians themselves. Upon release, this album was a flop. A commercial and financial failure that was largely ignored. Controversies surrounding the thematic content of the record led to the record being banned from record stores and radio airplay alike. But there’s no such publicity like bad publicity, is there?

Over forty years later The Velvet Underground & Nico is one of the most revered and critically acclaimed records on the planet, reaching #13 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’. It was also added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2006 to commemorate its cultural impact. In other words, the fortune of this unique masterpiece turned on its head tenfold. In fact, it’s considered so profoundly influential that, without it, Punk Rock, Glam Rock, and Kraut Rock may never have happened.

The Velvet’s blurring of Pop music sensibilities with avant-garde, edgy, often disturbing subject matter and eerie instrumentation inspired the likes of David Bowie, Roxy Music, Nirvana, REM and The Stooges, to name but a few. Would there have been Ziggy without the Velvets, for example? Bowie would have been a brave man.

Heroin, one of the most remarkably manic cuts of avant-garde experimental bluster you’re ever likely to hear, is a definite highlight on an unpredictable record. The 60’s inspired There She Goes steals from Dylan’s jagged sincerity, but also nods to the classic R&B sound of The Yardbirds and The Troggs. I’ll Be Your Mirror, sang by the strikingly idiosyncratic Nico, echoes something distinctly Mama’s and Papa’s – just a little darker. The Black Angel’s Death Song is a rather deranged, frenetic experiment akin to something on Floyd’s Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and European Son a funky groove that takes the album spiralling off somewhere else entirely. There’s just enough maudlin, just enough experiment in equal measure.

Sunday Morning is an airy, spacious pop ballad, yet still with those semi-sinister undertones that epitomise the record. I’m Waiting For The Man, a garage-rock satire on prostitution, is delivered with typical (somewhat tuneless) Lou Reed detachment. And yet, it works! I try hard not to like him, but on this record it’s just impossible.

Femme Fatale is a sparse opiate; a recording depicting a tragic story. Nico’s mysterious accent underpins the song with subtle power, before the seriously hot-blooded Venus In Furs scuffles through its mournful, lachrymose lament. Run Run Run is bluesy – a nod to The Doors in their Roadhouse-era glory, and All Tomorrow’s Parties a feverish rumbling anchored by a repetitive piano hook. A very unique listening experience.

It’s all rather bewitching to say the least, and evidence that these guys either had fabulous imaginations or a penchant for severe over-indulgence. Either way, it’s a highly original album. Producer and musician extraordinaire, Brian Eno, famously said that despite very few people buying The Velvet Underground & Nico upon its release in 1967, those that did went on to form famous bands of their own. It really was that influential.

Andy Warhol, who was credited with producing the album, and paid for the studio time to record the album, was clearly influential. That whole ‘Factory’ scene, and Warhols futuristic approach to life and art, permeated The Velvet Underground & Nico. It was a scene so unique – so one-off – that this fascinating musical project will be forever shrouded in mystique and legend. 

The Velvet Underground & Nico is a piece of art in itself, not just a record. A remarkable, revolutionary piece of work.

★★★★★★★★☆☆

8/10

© Cornell University – Division of Rare Manuscript Collections

Top track trio:

I’m Waiting For The Man

Heroin

The Black Angel’s Death Song