After the longest absence between studio albums in their career, Radiohead returns with yet another studio triumph.
It would have been difficult to envision back in 1992 when a young British band from Oxfordshire named after an obscure Talking Heads song released their breakthrough single “Creep” and its accompanying album Pablo Honey that Radiohead would someday become far and away the most important band of their generation. Sure, there were flashes of brilliance on that album, like the unhinged eruption of self-loathing in “Creep” or the slow-boiling tension of “Lurgee”, but Radiohead had every appearance of being one of those countless ‘90s alternative rock bands that would make a quick splash and then just as quickly disappear into the ether.
Fast-forward 23 years, and Radiohead remains the world’s preeminent rock band. There is nobody else in rock -- with the possible exception of U2 -- that can generate such a massive frenzy of excitement and speculation with the prospect of a new release as Radiohead. Their second album, 1995’s critically hailed The Bends, was an artistic progression of leaps and bounds over their debut. At that point it became abundantly clear that Radiohead was not an ordinary rock band. Their stature has only grown over the years, as they’ve compiled the most groundbreaking and utterly essential body of work in the modern era of rock: their masterpiece of isolation and disillusionment, 1997’s OK Computer, the fearless experimentalism of Kid A (2000), and four spectacular albums spanning a decade -- Amnesiac (2001), Hail to the Thief (2003), In Rainbows (2007) and the gorgeously esoteric The King of Limbs (2011) -- are all groundbreaking works that eschew the old familiar conventions of rock and ascend to new heights of creativity and innovation.
Never content to repeat themselves or fall into a conventional lane that defines what they are supposed to be, Radiohead is constantly pushing forward with new sounds and ideas that challenge the notion of rock and roll’s limits. Turns out there are none, at least in the hands of Radiohead. The band’s ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, follows the logical progression of The King of Limbs. It moves even further away from their electric guitar-based indie-rock roots and into more inscrutable and uncharted musical territory. Although it’s recognizably Radiohead, the album is quite different from anything they’ve ever done. It’s also breathtaking from start to finish, a triumphant return after the longest gap between studio albums in the band’s career.
Many of the songs on A Moon Shaped Pool have been percolating for years, waiting for the band to figure out exactly how to translate them successfully. The opener “Burn the Witch”, for instance, was demoed as far back as Kid A, and then again for several subsequent albums, but they were never quite able to get under its skin. They finally do, and it’s glorious. “Burn the Witch” begins the album with a bracing barrage of terse and thrilling strings (an effect created by the players striking their strings with a stick rather than a bow), reminiscent of guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s hair-raising orchestral work for Paul Thomas Anderson’s brutally dark cinematic masterpiece There Will Be Blood.
Amidst the almost unbearable unbearable tension, Thom Yorke’s voice sails above like a bird wafting on the sweltering gusts from a raging forest fire, trees exploding in flame below and bursting upward. As the album’s first single, “Burn the Witch” features a chilling stop-motion animation video directed by Chris Hopewell that pays homage to the classic horror film The Wicker Man. Listen to those feverish strings at the very end as the song builds to a stunning conclusion -- turn it up, and marvel. It’s a strident climax that’s redolent of a moment in a film in which something unspeakable takes place and you want to avert your eyes but you’re too shocked to look away. There is much left to the imagination on A Moon Shaped Pool; almost anything could happen in the richly swirling strings and keyboards that swath the album in dense banks of barely penetrable fog.
In a world roiled by fear and paranoia and irrational hatred, “Burn the Witch” speaks to many of the anxieties ripping through society with ever-increasing severity. Consider this stanza in context of the many threads of carefully stoked angst and superstition that has gripped large portions of our population: “Red crosses on wooden doors / and if you float, you burn / loose talk around tables / abandon all reason / avoid all contact / do not react / shoot the messengers." “Burn the Witch”, even though its genesis spans a number of years, could not be any more prescient.
Anderson himself directs the video for the second track, “Daydreaming”, a long and ambient piece built on eerie keyboards and deeply pulsing bass with a slow, stretched vocal by Yorke that gently twists and curves through disorienting effects and backmasking. It’s an aural hallucination, a riveting sonic feast of cinematic grandeur. As the song nears its dramatic conclusion, a dark whirl of strings whip sharply around the keyboards like a swooping vampire, fangs dripping dark blood from its latest feeding, diving for hapless prey crawling through the mist. “Dreamers… they never learn / they never learn," Yorke sings with a sense of despondent hopelessness. “Daydreaming” is haunting, unsettling, yet achingly beautiful. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the alien beauty of “Pyramid Song”, 14 years earlier.
“Decks Dark” is another slow, cinematic piece with swooning choral vocals and strings over a sly, wolfish beat. Yorke’s vocals, down in the mix, possess some of the manic intensity of songs like “A Wolf at the Door” or “Myxomatosis”. Lyrically “Decks Dark” seems to be about the shattering of illusions, or perhaps the dissolution of a relationship. “It was just a lie / just a lie / just a lie / just a lie / even at this angle / so we crumble," Yorke almost spits with venomous rage during the chorus. As is typical with Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool is a bleak album, heavy with deep thoughts and light on uplifting ones, and “Decks Dark” is one of the starkest moments of naked emotional anguish on the album.
“Desert Island Disk” is a song that York premiered solo at several events late last year, and the version here isn’t too far removed from those performances. It’s built on acoustic guitar with surreal effects swirling around Yorke’s almost mumbled lower-register vocals before Phil Selway’s drums finally kick in about 2/3 of the way into the track. “Desert Island Disk” is lush and dreamy, sometimes lapsing into an almost jazzy vibe, with an ending that finds Yorke repeating hopefully, “Different types of love… / are possible." Indeed they are.
“Ful Stop” and “Identikit” were both frequently played on the band’s 2011 tour in support of their last album, King of Limbs. “Ful Stop” is a hypnotic piece that begins with a long, effects-laden fade-in until spectral keyboards and an insistent rhythm emerge with a strong sense of dread. The lyrics become an enigmatic mantra, “This is foul tasting medicine / foul tasting medicine/ still trapped in your full stop / two fools stop / two fools stop / two fools stop / two fools…”, etc. “Ful Stop” ends up as one of the edgier, harder-rocking tracks on the album.
“Identikit” is a heavily rhythmic track with a taut electric guitar part that sounds like it would be right at home on Amnesiac. It seems one of the more straightforward songs on the album to understand, as it shows all the signs of being an exploration of a broken relationship. Like “Ful Stop”, “Identikit” is one of the more edgy rock pieces on the album, although like everything else on A Moon Shaped Pool the arrangement is complex and ornate. “Identikit” will eventually burrow into your bloodstream -- just give it a little time and put it on repeat and suddenly you won’t be able to stop jabbing it into your veins.
“Glass Eyes” is a solemn piece with Yorke singing over a treated piano and sublime whooshes of strings. Yorke’s somber vocal seems to be about the anxiety of change, the uncertainty of trying new things, new places, or maybe a new personal reality. It’s a tense but lush interlude, beautiful but riven with doubt.
Originally called “Silent Spring”, “The Numbers” is another track that Yorke premiered in stripped-down acoustic fashion back in December 2015. It’s one of the more guitar-oriented tracks on an album where not much guitar is to be found. The piano bubbles along with the acoustic guitar on this mid-tempo number that seems to be about climate change and the lack of political will to do anything to stop it, although Radiohead songs are rarely that straightforward. Still, it’s hard to interpret “The Numbers” as about anything else: “We are of the earth / to her we do return / the future is inside us / it’s not somewhere else… / we call upon the people / people have this power / the numbers don’t decide / your system is a lie.” Just listen to that chill-inducing crescendo starting at about the 5:04 mark… simply spellbinding.
“Present Tense” is a song Thom Yorke debuted solo in 2009 and played as part of the tour in support of his side-project Atoms for Peace. The recording here is built on a brisk shuffle rhythm, taut threads of acoustic guitar, and layered vocals that build a slowly escalating sense of drama. Musically, “Present Tense” is a bit of a throwback to the guitar-heavy warmth of In Rainbows. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” borrows its title from an old English nursery rhyme and counting game. The track is built on a looping keyboard part that is soon joined by a piano countermelody and spiky percussion, with blooms of strings and effects stringing together Yorke’s otherworldly vocals.
A Moon Shaped Pool ends with what has been one of the fondest wishes by Radiohead aficionados for many years. Finally we have a proper studio version of a song that’s gained an almost mythic quality among die-hard Radiohead fans over the years: the heart-rending “True Love Waits”. It’s been performed live numerous times -- usually with Yorke singing it solo on acoustic guitar -- going back over 20 years ago prior to the release of OK Computer. One performance on YouTube recorded in Brussels dates from May 1995, only two months after the release of the The Bends. Yorke introduces it as a “brand new song that nobody’s heard before”. Since then it’s become particularly beloved by fans, but its only official release was one of those stripped-down acoustic performances on the band’s I Might Be Wrong live EP. After a mere 21 years, “True Love Waits” finally takes its rightful slot on a Radiohead studio album.
On the studio version, Yorke sings the haunting track over a vaguely trippy keyboard accompaniment comprising jazzy piano that flails within the confines of a warm pulsing organ. There is no percussion, nothing to tie down Yorke’s voice as it floats above the gossamer musical backdrop like a long-forgotten phantom, pleading “don’t leave… don’t leave…”. “I’m not living / i’m just killing time,” he sings, an aching line that with stark clarity provides a human anchor to the song. The inclusion of “True Love Waits” after all these years is certainly unexpected. Maybe they finally figured out how to record a song that’s given them notorious problems over the years, and maybe it's meant as a gift, as the band knows the song is revered by their fan base. Perhaps it’s a combination of the two. Whatever the reason for its inclusion, it’s a perfect ending, solemn and mystifying, shrouded in doubt and uncertainty.
As with any Radiohead album, it will take time, focus, numerous listens and an open mind to truly let all of the nuances and secrets wrapped within A Moon Shaped Pool to fully unfold. One thing is certain: it’s an album worthy of Radiohead’s peerless catalog, a rich addition to what is the most vital and important string of rock albums of the last 30 years. If you’re a fan of Radiohead’s harder-edge rock of albums like The Bends, OK Computer or Hail to the Thief, you’re going to be disappointed. A Moon Shaped Pool is mostly built on keyboards, strings, and tense percussion. Any guitar that is present -- usually acoustic -- generally plays a supporting role. Thom Yorke’s vocals are rich and evocative as always, beautiful and expressive.
Radiohead operates in an entirely different dimension than anybody else in music. They don’t bother with arbitrary boundaries or definitions about what rock and roll should be. They are this generation’s version of a whole host of bands that other eras enjoyed and marveled over, and whose music continues to make a lasting impact -- Pink Floyd, for instance. For those of us too young to remember Animals being released, being able to go to the store and buy it, unwrap it, gently lower it to the platter, place the needle and play it for the first time, it is difficult to imagine the wonder. That is how people will feel decades from now about A Moon Shaped Pool, among other Radiohead albums. When we’re all gone, or getting there, young people emerging from the friendly cocoon of whatever is popular at the time will slowly discover Radiohead’s discography, read about it in some music book about must-have classic albums, and discover a musical universes that will blow them away, just like millions before them.
We are fortunate to see and hear it unfold before us, now. For only the ninth time in history, we have the opportunity to explore a new Radiohead album, and it’s worth the long five year wait. A Moon Shaped Pool is gorgeously produced by the band’s usual collaborator, Nigel Godrich, and is as deep and thoroughly moving as one would expect from any Radiohead album. The long wait is over, folks. There are dark currents ahead so dive in with your mind open and don’t be afraid to release yourself to the sonic waves and evocative images, wherever they may end up carrying you.