Radiohead needs no introduction as enigmatic experimentalists, evolving with each album while maintaining an unmistakable sonic thumbprint. What’s more, each release is felt through the music world as a landmark cultural event, which is why 2011’s opaque The King of Limbs came as a bit of a shock after 2007’s beautifully user-friendly In Rainbows.
After years of waiting and numerous esoteric side-projects, the Oxfordshire five piece has returned with long-time producer Nigel Godrich and visual artist Stanley Donwood to deliver the band’s latest soul-stirring masterpiece: A Moon Shaped Pool.
While TKoL was an impressionist maze of organic polyrhythms and abstract nature imagery, AMSP shifts its emotional focus to a far more human experience of the world, using lush orchestrations and bleak soundscapes to decorate some of the band’s most beautiful songs to date. While the majority of the tracks breach the five-minute mark, the band are as restrained as ever, with taut arrangements, sweeping dynamics and the careful textures that have characterized their whole discography.
The difference here is that, finally, the band sounds relaxed, at peace with themselves, having nothing left to prove. Of course, it’s Radiohead so they reinvent their own wheel, allowing Johnny Greenwood’s cinematic orchestral arrangements to fill the elegantly simple songs.
Lead single “Burn The Witch” opens the album with intense, percussive string figures that provide a perfect backdrop for Yorke’s menacingly paranoid lyrics (“Burn the witch/We know where you live”), accompanied by a fat synthetic bass and warm, electronic drums. While the band has always incorporated strings, they’ve either acted as epic flourishes or sea-sick washes rather than the backbone of the songs as is featured here.
Culled from the same sessions that sparked 2003’s politically charged Hail to the Thief, the song shares the same angst and carefree groove while adopting a smirking maturity that was lacking from the fantastic yet scattered Thief. This same attitude is felt on the confidently sultry “Decks Dark,” which builds with tinkling pianos, dry drums and crunchy guitars. A choir descends in extraterrestrial bliss before a funky bass groove reminds us just how cool Radiohead can be.
While the statements made on Hail to the Thief and Kid A are angry and anxious, A Moon Shaped Pool dips into folk structures to create cryptic, environmental rallying cries through soft acoustic guitars on tracks like “Desert Island Disk” and “The Numbers,” both of which Yorke premiered at the Pathway to Paris concerts last year, which raised awareness for climate change solutions. These same themes are heard throughout the album, being blurred with images isolation, lost love and ways to cope in an insane world.
“Glass Eyes” takes a panicked, dramatic stab at these while “Present Tense” uses a mournful Bossa Nova to escape the severity of the situation, saying “As my world comes crashing down/I’ll be dancing/Freaking out.” While global warming has been a consistent cloud over the band’s head, Thom Yorke’s recent split with his longtime partner has likely added an urgent, forlorn feeling to the presentation. While the band has always been melancholic, their contemplative sadness has never been this graceful, honest or palpable.
This is felt most strongly on “Daydreaming,” with its loping piano and delicate, desolate soundscapes which build a bridge between an observer’s pained fate and heartbreak.
“It’s too late/The damage is done” Yorke grieves as warped echoes of himself flicker around him as the band creeps in, developing into an impressive, experimental climax, surpassing the catharsis felt on In Rainbow’s emotive “Nude” without ever boiling past a whisper.
These same dynamic builds are felt throughout the record, with simple grooves that grow, bubble and breath, leaving plenty of room in the songs without ever overstaying their welcome, with the penultimate “Tinker Tailor…” acting as a gorgeously bleak example. One of the most frustratingly impressive aspects of A Moon Shaped Pool is that each song ends just before it should, leaving the listener hungry for more while the next track seeps in around them.
While it’s certainly a mellow record, it’s not without it’s driving moments, with “Ful Stop” recalling the persistent, fuzzed out bass of Kid A’s “The National Anthem” which, along with the filtered krautrock drum groove, provide a perfect foundation for the sea of plucky guitars.
Yorke’s pained wails. “Identikit,” which was debuted on their last tour is by far the albums heaviest moment, with pounding rhythms and what are arguably the band’s funkiest guitars to date, twisting around each other until Colin Greenwood’s bass lifts everything up just in time for an epic synth break that arrives right as you think the song is going to end. When it does, it’s not before one of the most demented Jonny Greenwood guitar solos we’ve received in years.
“True Love Waits,” a song the band have been tinkering with since 1995’s The Bends closes out the album in stunning Radiohead fashion.
What was once an acoustic ballad has been transformed into a minimal, atmospheric masterpiece. Simple piano figures swim in a warm wash of reverb, dancing around Yorke’s earnest delivery as the soft clicks of a muted typewriter provide faint percussive textures while a gloomy ambiance builds in the background.
The band makes their presence known with a deep, round synths and chiming piano polyrhythms that flutter about frantic, possessed and childlike. As the tension swells to a skittish crescendo, the band end what is by far their most beautiful record to date.
A Moon Shaped Pool is warm, inviting and human, drawing on every sound in the band’s extensive discography and shaping it into something fresh, reflective and alluring.
It’s a painstaking, cohesive piece of work that, despite its numerous experiments, never loses its footing or loosens its hold on one’s emotional core. While it, like all Radiohead records benefits from repeat plays, A Moon Shaped Pool is a true pleasure the first time through, drawing you in deeper with each listen.