Album Review: Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Editor's Review
  • Album Review: Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool - 9/10
    9/10

Summary

Folded together like an elegant swan of orchestral alt-rock origami, A Moon Shaped Pool is a beautiful, living and breathing giant: a mellow and majestic reminder of exactly what Radiohead are capable of, and a realisation of something that their previous album, The King Of Limbs, was lacking. Inspired by the last burning embers of Thom Yorke’s breakup last year, this album is his most solemn and lyrically forthright. If A Moon Shaped Pool proves to be Radiohead’s last ever album, as some have suggested (although I am not personally convinced), then we’ve been left one hell of a parting gift.

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It’s no secret that Radiohead have spent their career writing music that is both drenched in misery and sharply political. As songs like ‘Idioteque’ and ‘Fake Plastic trees’ tackled the green-fingered issues of global warming, and their fierce 2003 album Hail To The Thief was a direct response to the war on terror, Radiohead’s own personal shade of grey has been used to paint a very sour picture of the world for the better part of 30 years. With their new, more personal record, the highly anticipated A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead have produced a composition of grand alt-rock and mellow space jams that amounts to a commanding and unconventional excavation of sadness. 

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the LP’s opener, the aggressive ‘Burn The Witch’, was a homage to Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida’ during its choppy opening bars. Carried by a dominating orchestral presence — courtesy of Johnny Greenwood’s arrangement — Radiohead continue to divorce themselves from the post-grunge guitar anthem by which they were watermarked in the 1990s, with albums like The Bends and Ok Computer. ‘Burn The Witch’ was quickly followed up by the ghostly ‘Daydreaming’, a six-minute plod of ambling piano, trickling effects and Thom Yorke’s distinct, breathy falsetto. In the track’s video, Yorke walks in and out of various scenarios like a lost little boy. His vocals sound lost and gorgeously hazy, as he scorns “dreamers / they never learn”. The two releases contradict one another; while the first is a grandiose pantomime of violins and aggressive lyrics, the second is a psychedelic piano ditty.

” Leaving no rock unturned, and no nook and cranny unexplored, Radiohead have created a mesmerising and disarmingly beautiful record”

But that’s exactly what you’d expect from Radiohead: a record that is anything but linear. A Moon Shaped Pool’s most prominent feature is the paradox on which it is built: its cinematic mellowness. Glued together by adventurous bass lines and classical compositions, the record reflects some of the band’s greatest work to date. For example, tracks like ‘Decks Dark’ and ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief’ meddle with a soiree of sweeping strings contrasted with moody drums.‘Tinker Tailor…’, in particular, rumbles along like a sci-fi movie score, as Yorke sings “And a spacecraft blocking out the sky / and there’s nowhere to hide”  alongside choppy guitars and eerie choir hymns.

Beneath the rich crop of effects that hover over the album lies a stream of true emotion. It’s hard to ignore Yorke’s heartbreak in songs like ‘Identikit’ (“Broken hearts make it rain”), or the anxiety in ‘Glass Eyes’ (“And I’m wondering, should I turn around? / Buy another ticket / Panic is coming on strong”). Lyrically, it’s Yorke at his most vulnerable. Luckily, his seemingly endless stint of misery during the band’s reign has more often than not translated into musical gold. His vocals sound purposeful on some songs, but totally devastated on others. Again, ‘Identikit’ — one of the album’s more candid tracks — sees Yorke freely splash out his emotions, as the Johnny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien do battle with their agitated guitars at the song’s dramatic close. Within such an otherwise mellow album, ‘Identikit’ paints a squirming and restless portrait of the band’s creativity, and opens up a torrent of different sounds.

For a song about the apocalypse, ‘The Numbers’ is a calm and groovy pallet of baleful synths, tightly propelled by Greenwood’s intricate guitar arrangements. The noir and krautrock-esque ‘Ful Stop’ feels warmly similar to 2007’s In Rainbows, as does the bluesy ‘Desert Island Disc’, with its crisp guitar and perennial harmonies. These musical references to their earlier work are not mistaken nostalgia or a lack of imagination, however. Each track sounds fresh, thought out, and the product of the band’s niggling perfectionism.

A Moon Shaped Pool’s strongest moment comes at its climax, with the achingly beautiful ‘True Love Waits’. The song has been teased and tested since appearing on Radiohead’s 2001 live album, I Might Be Wrong, but had until now escaped studio recording. Creeping back towards the emotional continuity of ‘Daydreaming’ and ‘Identikit’, the track is despairing and devastating, arching back to the particular brand of melancholy that Radiohead have practiced for more than three decades. Dripping with raw emotion, the song twinkles and plods on like a drunken love shanty, and is filled with typical Thom Yorke abstractness (“And true love waits / In haunted attics / And true love lives / On lollipops and crisps”). Completely drowned in delay and gentle effects, ‘True Love Waits’ crawls to a quiet conclusion as the record’s thoughtful finisher.

Over their astonishing career, Radiohead have solidified themselves as true astronauts of alternative rock. That trend continues with their new record. Leaving no rock unturned, and no nook and cranny unexplored, Radiohead have created a mesmerising and disarmingly beautiful record. It doesn’t just dig deeper than their previous records: its orchestral blueprint allows the band’s already monolithic, alt-rock sound reach further than it ever has done before.

Folded together like an elegant swan of orchestral alt-rock origami, A Moon Shaped Pool is a beautiful, living and breathing giant: a mellow and majestic reminder of exactly what Radiohead are capable of, and a realisation of something that their previous album, The King Of Limbs, was lacking. Inspired by the last burning embers of Thom Yorke’s breakup last year, this album is his most solemn and lyrically forthright. If A Moon Shaped Pool proves to be Radiohead’s last ever album, as some have suggested (although I am not personally convinced), then we’ve been left one hell of a parting gift.

‘Burn The Witch’.

‘Daydreaming’.

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