By Spencer. After a flurry of a week that started with mysterious leaflets mailed to fans with the message, “we know where you live,” followed a few days later by not one but two surprise music videos, we suddenly have a brand new Radiohead album. Its title, revealed only a few minutes before Sunday’s digital release through the band’s website, is A Moon Shaped Pool. And in the best surprise of this week-long rollout, it turns out that this is easily the best work of art Radiohead have achieved since Kid A. But in a twist no one could have predicted, the most groundbreaking thing about the album is how listenable it is. For a band whose style has so often flirted with the eccentric, whose entire identity is defined by their two decades as the standard-bearers for experimental music, A Moon Shaped Pool is a left turn of another kind: it’s just a collection of gorgeous sounds.
Radiohead has always included a song or two on each album (“Reckoner,” “Pyramid Song,” “Nude,” “Codex”) that captures a sort of stark beauty. This is the first time they’ve ever embraced that aesthetic for an entire album, though. Throughout their career they’ve been a schizophrenic band, and all of their post-Kid A records have felt a little chaotic as a result—like they’re trying to say a lot of different things in the same breath that can’t quite be reconciled. That sense of experimentalism is what makes their records so exciting for us. But starting on Hail To The Thief and culminating in The King Of Limbs, it felt increasingly like there was a gnawing pain behind their work, as if they constantly felt the need to prove something but couldn’t quite do it to their own satisfaction.
So A Moon Shaped Pool feels like a catharsis for the band. They needed to make this album. After a couple of decades spent struggling with the nagging impulse to harness the weird, they’ve let that all go. And it feels like … resolution. Assurance. Peace.
You might not have gotten that impression from the first single, “Burn The Witch,” whose Wicker Man-influenced video and nakedly political message (it’s reportedly a metaphor for the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe) don’t exactly come from a calm place.
But listen to the music. The strings that kick it off are brightly percussive, even as they’re tinged with a bit of foreboding, and after the chorus they radically shift into a chamber suite that sounds sweeter than anything we’ve heard on a Radiohead song since “Let Down.” But of course there’s that chorus to deal with: a haunting but epic-sounding refrain that wouldn’t be out of place in an action movie trailer. It all builds to a climax that you think is coming—but it doesn’t. Everything stops, and we shift into the plucking harps and revolving pianos of “Daydreaming,” a slow dose of sadness accompanied by a Paul Thomas Anderson-directed video and a vague mood of dread. It’s the most prototypical Radiohead track on the record; it really wouldn’t sound out of place on TKOL or Amnesiac or even Kid A.
But from there on, we realize slowly that this isn’t going to be the Radiohead album we’ve been conditioned to expect. Because all of their trademark strangeness, while it’s not gone and forgotten, keeps swimming beneath the surface rather than slapping you in the face. Time and again, whenever a song kicks off with a peculiar color, the band pulls its punches and introduces something—whether it’s the bobbing bass line of “Decks Dark” or the drum shuffle of “Present Tense” or the orchestras that take over so many tracks on this disc—that softens the edge. And far from diluting their art, this newfound restraint has actually amplified it.
Radiohead is a band with a particular talent for evoking textures, and the textures here feel lusher and more full of detail than ever. From the chirps and swells that dot “Daydreaming” to the playful piano tinkling that dances through “The Numbers” to the pulsing background echoes that wash over the acoustic track “Desert Island Disk” like a warm bath, these flourishes are what make Radiohead’s music sound so complex—especially in an era when younger bands are firmly rooted in an ethic of minimalism. But in the past, their bag of tricks has always relied mostly on electronic sounds. This is where their signature tone of alienation comes from; it makes the band feel intentionally remote, like (ahem) a computer. And true, this fits perfectly with Yorke’s lyrical themes and lends a certain Stanley Kubrick aura to their image. But the thing is, by TKOL, that had become a crutch.
Which is why the strings that pop up again and again and again on A Moon Shaped Pool feel like such a refreshing change. By re-engaging the organic, they’ve added a new energy to their arsenal that had been lacking for so long, we didn’t even realize we missed it. The soothing “Glass Eyes” is almost a pure cello-and-violin composition. The symphonic sweeps that create the closing of “The Numbers” are damn near cinematic. And with a film noir flair, the strings become a virtual wall of sound on “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief,” converting an otherwise electronic base into a strange marriage of the digital and the classical. This songwriting weapon is what will come to define A Moon Shaped Pool’s place within the Radiohead catalog, and it’s what gives it such impressive shape.
Radiohead – “The Numbers”
Of course, darkness still routinely intrudes on all this, like on “Ful Stop,” a driving track with bass that rumbles and drums that race—and yet even a track like this is graced with an inescapable beauty thanks to Thom Yorke’s trademark falsetto and a melody line that breathes desperation. “Identik” also stands out with groovy rhythm guitars that create a sense of impending doom. But the weird thing is, it’s also one of the most fun listens on the album, because it’s executed with a confident ease that keeps things lighter than the band’s past work.
It all closes with “True Love Waits”—a recording of a song that has been floating around the Radiohead rarities bin since way back in 1994, and whose inclusion here speaks to the patience underscoring this entire album. Most commonly heard during live shows as an acoustic piece, Yorke recasts it now as a piano ballad. And the message in that title could be about love, or the persistence necessary to keep plugging away at perfecting the same song for so long—or could it be a nod to the fans who have waited five long years for this album? The band was clearly thinking very carefully in that interim about how (or maybe whether) they could still find something new and noteworthy to say—and our wait has been well-rewarded.
A Moon Shaped Pool is a piece of music that harmonizes the best of Radiohead’s unconventionality with their oft-overlooked talent for creating songs that please the ear. Put another way, it satisfies both the intellect and the soul. And while I hesitate to presume that this is a permanent rewrite of the band’s identity—it wouldn’t surprise me at all if their next release goes right back to confusing the hell out of us—I do think this album forever changes their legacy. It shows that they’re capable of challenging us without just provoking us. Its artistic statement is built not on capturing the dissociative, but on establishing a space for genuine emotional connection. It humanizes them. Which at this stage of Radiohead’s career is maybe the most unconventional thing they could have done.