It’s been a little over two weeks since Radiohead, following a much discussed 48-hour online disappearing act, finally released their ninth studio album, A Moon Shaped Pool. The intervening fortnight or so has (predictably enough) seen a barrage of online traffic – from first impression reviews, to threads attempting to decode their cryptic new music videos, to think pieces trying to tease out broader comments or secret messages buried in the record – as all the gears in the album hype engine initially continued to run at full tilt, leaving barely a moment to allow the dust to settle.
Settle is certainly not what the various band members have been doing during the five-year interim between this new LP and their last, 2011’s The King of Limbs: Thom Yorke released and toured an album with super-group Atoms for Peace, as well as releasing a sophomore solo album (2014’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes); Jonny Greenwood has continued making headway with his already-distinguished compositional career, scoring several films to critical acclaim and taking on some commissioned work for the Australian Chamber Orchestra; Phil Selway released his second individual album (he’s clearly chuffed about the songwriter recognition!); and the band came together to supply music for the Inherent Vice official soundtrack as well as for the latest Bond film. Looming spectre-like (sorry) in the background during a good deal of this – and dominating the majority of critical responses to the album – is the still quite raw news of Thom Yorke’s split from 23-year partner Rachel Owen, announced last year.
Owing to this last detail, you might assume that A Moon Shaped Pool would take shape as something of a Radiohead break-up album? Well, not exactly.
At the very least, the first single released from the album – which was presaged by a short series of virtual and physical messages sent to fans, around the time of the band’s online erasure – doesn’t follow this line of argument. Burn the Witch has pretty rightly been described as ‘Radiohead by numbers’ by fans and critics alike. Its claymation music video co-opts Trumpton and The Wicker Man for its own short political parable, while the song itself is a compressed swell of Thom Yorke’s discomforting falsetto, a low whirring bassline, and Jonny Greenwood’s dramatic string arrangement, all charting an ominous, impending breakdown of order and reason. Its Orwellian comments on surveillance, the hive mind and scapegoating are as pertinent as ever – more so, even, than they would’ve been around the release time of OK Computer, Kid A et al, with the advent of social media and the recent resurgence of the far Right – but really these lyrics are restating a case that the band has made a number of times, rather than saying something genuinely new or bringing fresh light to bear on these concerns.
Daydreaming, the second single release (and, as Burn the Witch was the opener, number two on the tracklist), begins to quietly work away from the more traditional Radiohead fare that fans have come to expect from the band (even though that piano line at first recalls snatches of older classics like Codex and Pyramid Song), on an album that isn’t so grand a departure in sound or isn’t as much an aesthetic statement as some previous showings have proven. Thematically, anyway, Daydreaming is where A Moon Shaped Pool really begins. It’s the first signpost for how the album operates as a kind of reverie, a partial meditation on previous ground the band has covered (in terms of sound and song content) in relation to where they are now. And this consideration informs the bookending motion of a fan-favourite closing song, that’s been knocking around for 21 years now, to round off an LP which is both backward- and forward-looking, as Radiohead start to enter conversation with their own back catalogue while at the same time distancing themselves from it. The Paul Thomas Anderson music video for Daydreaming also appears to underpin this idea as it sees a world-weary Thom Yorke (well, even more so than usual) wander through a series of apparently unrelated scenes (though many seeming to reference previous Radiohead album art and music videos), before reaching an opening in a snow-capped mountainside as the garbled, pitch-shifted words “Half of my life” are played backwards and mixed into a disquieting kind of snore imitation.
In as far as being indicative of where the band will go next (presuming they are going to record another LP), it’s as ever probably not worth gazing too far into the depths of A Moon Shaped Pool for any faithful portents, as it would be just like the Oxford five-piece to throw up a red herring and change tack completely if and when they do record together next. Looking back, then, this album probably has more in common with 2007’s In Rainbows than it does with the band’s last album, The King of Limbs – fidgety electronica, genre-splicing and experimentation with time signature are on the whole forsaken for more melodic numbers, where guitar lines are less scarce and a more full-bodied sound results. A bonus of this approach is that (so far) there doesn’t appear to be many real weak tracks which are likely to leave you cold on the album. But, on the other hand, there are less standout set pieces here – nothing quite as singular or ecstatic as, say, Lotus Flower – which can often be the dividends reaped from projects pursued with a more single-minded approach.
For one thing, though – and this, too, is something that can be traced more or less from In Rainbows up to the present album – Radiohead are getting funkier and noticeably more mellow as they age. The rhythmic guitar, bass and percussion in Ful Stop and Identikit, while slightly more toned down than on some of the songs’ previewed live versions, are a welcome relief from the quite emotionally heavy-going subject matter on these songs, before both numbers transition into something almost krautrocky as vocal loops and synthesizer accompaniments come in to drive things forward a bit. Jonny Greenwood’s string arrangements on this album, finally, are masterful – from the pizzicato beginnings of Burn the Witch, to those spine-tingling bursts in Daydreaming, and the cradling of the low-pass filtered piano at the end of Glass Eyes, Greenwood’s inventive contributions (which extend to a homemade instrument that patters away in the background of the album closer) are the real triumphs of this record.
The ghost of personal loss undeniably haunts this album, however, despite the LP’s overall sound being deceptively subdued and melodic. “And in your life there comes a darkness”, Thom Yorke croons on Decks Dark, a song whose imagery of “spacecraft[s] blocking out the sky” and “dark cloud’s people” is redolent of much of the frontman’s song-writing on OK Computer, and whose lyrics retain an intimate, figurative quality without straying into the opaque and inaccessible. For a band who have been accused at times of intellectual pretensions, or of preachy pontification, there’s scant evidence of the former here on their disarmingly personal ninth studio album. Some may find the mood of existential dread that permeates certain stretches of the record a bit tedious, or the environmental overtones in The Numbers somewhat heavy-handed, but these details tend to recede into the background and give way to a sucker-punching emotional potency, as the refrain on True Love Waits hammers home: “Just don’t leave/ Don’t leave”.
Clocking in as Radiohead’s sixth number one in the UK album charts, A Moon Shaped Pool already seems to have overcome one of the most difficult hurdles Thom Yorke & co. face with every release: that of winning over – or, rather, sustaining – the critical and public devotion the band have so successfully juggled over the course of a career spent straddling the perceived gulf between artistic integrity and broad appeal. They’ve proven they can do it in imaginative ways time and again, and this LP is as rich a demonstration of the feat as some of their most celebrated works.
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