Radiohead have been at the top of the musical tree for so long now that it’s easy to forget what an irreducibly strange band they are. Last Thursday, during the first of their three hugely anticipated gigs at the Roundhouse, they uncharacteristically played three popular favourites on the run — in their defence, it was the encore — causing someone in the audience to call out for another one. ‘No,’ replied Thom Yorke with a smile, ‘this is all getting too much fun.’ And with that, he launched into the melancholy bossa nova shuffle of ‘Present Tense’ from the new album A Moon Shaped Pool — as if to make it clear that giving people what they want (or misguidedly think they do) would be a betrayal of everything that Radiohead stand for.
The really strange bit, though, isn’t that he’s right, but that the audience wouldn’t have it any other way. ‘Present Tense’ was greeted not with a groan of disappointment, but with an all’s-right-with-the-world murmur of appreciation. In other words, it seems, the unspoken deal with Radiohead is for us to want them not to give us what we want (or misguidedly think we do).
This deal made its presence felt immediately, when the band began with the first five tracks from A Moon Shaped Pool, which combines ambient electronica, sweeping string arrangements and splashes of rock to undeniably beautiful effect — even if it doesn’t always avoid the thin line between impressive coherence and a certain samey-ness. Luckily, the band were in fine form: the non-Yorke members duly eschewing all rock-star heroics in favour of unfussy virtuosity; Yorke himself giving every impression of being lost in the music as he combined that celebrated otherworldly falsetto with some serious Stevie Wonder headshaking and bursts of his famous jerky dancing.