Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool


August Napolitano, A&E Editor

RATING: 8/10

HIGHLIGHTS: Burn the Witch, Daydreaming, Ful Stop, Identikit
2016, if anything, will be remembered as the year of the unconventional album release. Beyoncé showed up in the middle of the night with Lemonade, and Kanye West spent months changing the title and release date of the album that later became The Life of Pablo. Radiohead is no stranger to the unconventional drop – they basically pioneered the practice in 2007, when they came out with In Rainbows, an album made available on its own website where listeners could decide for themselves how much they paid. Maybe nine years later that’s not very impressive, so for their long-awaited ninth album, they had to out-do themselves. Instead of using the advancements of the internet to promote it, they did the exact opposite. Radiohead disappeared.

There was nothing. All tweets were erased from their Twitter, Facebook posts were gone, and their website was a plain white page. This nothing-ness, however, made headlines. People everywhere were wondering what the band behind both “Creep” and some of the most unsettling electronica of the 2000s was up to this time. The speculation continued through the release of the album’s first single, “Burn the Witch.” Its chugging string section, politically charged stop-motion video, and Thom Yorke’s crooning falsetto all made it a classic Radiohead song. “Burn the Witch” was followed a few days later by the piano-driven ballad, “Daydreaming.” It’s one of the saddest Radiohead songs yet – yes, that’s saying quite a bit for a band once banned from BBC Radio 1 for being “too depressing.” When you hear Yorke sigh the first lines of “Dreamers / they never learn,” you’ll understand this sentiment. The song is believed by some to be about Yorke ending his 23-year-long partnership with Rachel Owen, a relationship that produced his two children and often inspired him and his music. In fact, some claim that the reversed vocals at the end of the track feature Yorke, now 47, lamenting “half of my life.” Even the non-back masked lyrics to this song seem to point towards a sort of separation. “The damage is done,” and “this goes beyond me / beyond you,” for example.

Then came A Moon Shaped Pool. It popped up on a Sunday afternoon, available in full on select streaming services. Even with the release, the public was left confused – why was the track listing in alphabetical order? What in the world could the title even refer to? Ultimately, the questions don’t matter – there’s always going to be questions inherent in Radiohead’s method. What matters is that the music is here, both new songs, and long-awaited songs such as “Identikit” and the fan-favorite “True Love Waits,” which had been on live setlists since at least 1995. “Decks Dark” and “Desert Island Disk” are both slow-burners still destined to stick in your head for some time. The former is a song seemingly about a sort of alien encounter, an anxiety-inducing moment with spacecrafts eclipsing the sun and deafening sounds from above. The latter is sparse, with Yorke singing barely above a whisper over an acoustic guitar and a minimal beat about how “different types of love / are possible.”

“Ful Stop” (yes, it’s spelled like that) is one of the many Radiohead songs that gets Thom Yorke dancing ridiculously on stage once the bass-heavy rhythm kicks in. The synths coupled with the aforementioned bass of the skillful Colin Greenwood creates an atmosphere very reminiscent of late-era Radiohead such as their previous album, The King of Limbs. Once again, the vocals are almost overpowered by the music – definitely harkening back to Radiohead’s Kid A-era theory that Yorke’s voice was just to be used as another instrument; a texture, if you will. It’s impressive, though – “Ful Stop” is not an incredibly loud song, but it’s a pretty powerful one. Truth is presented as “a foul-tasting medicine.” An unnamed second person is told that they “really messed up everything.” “Glass Eyes” is another quiet track heavy on keys and strings, telling a story of getting off the train and watching everyone around you walking around with their “faces … concrete grey” and contemplating just turning back around to leave. It both literally and metaphorically recreates the “panic attack” present earlier in “Burn the Witch.”

Much like “Ful Stop,” “Identikit” is an outstanding track, definitely made for live performance. Despite the tinge of electronic music and haunting, echoing vocals, it is one of Radiohead’s best “rock” songs since “In Rainbows.” It even ends with a guitar solo, something that the band has not seen in quite a while. The album also reaches one of its most climactic moments here, when Yorke finally turns up the volume on his voice, howling “broken hearts / make it rain” over and over again. “Identikit” is an exciting song, especially after the minimalistic ballads preceding it.

None of the songs on A Moon Shaped Pool are particularly unworthy of their place on the record. Sure, some songs, like “The Numbers” seem to drag, taking quite a while to get going, but when it kicks in with tons of orchestral instrumentation and a choir-like effect of Yorke’s voice, it is chill-inducing. Like parts of 2001’s Amnesiac and even In Rainbows, this album appears heavily inspired by classical music, a huge juxtaposition with how quickly the band embraced the sounds of the 21st century, introducing the world of rock music to electronica before many other bands had seen the potential in merging both sounds. “Present Tense” is similar in its execution, a large sounding, well, love song? It appears to be one. “In you, I’m lost” is one of the few coherent phrases found in the choppy lyrics of this piece, appearing alongside “it’s no one’s business but mine.” The longwinded “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief,” on the other hand, seems overstay its welcome much like its title.

The inclusion of “True Love Waits” is, again, a huge fan pleaser. Given the context of Yorke’s personal life as of late, it almost seems as if A Moon Shaped Pool was really the best time for the song to finally make its mark on the Radiohead discography. When the song first appeared, Radiohead was only two albums into their career. Now, it just makes sense that they would sing the words “I’m not living / I’m just killing time” and wrap up an album with the plea “just don’t leave.”

Radiohead has never been a happy band. If they sing an upbeat song, there’s either a punchline or an inherent irony from the start. With A Moon Shaped Pool, however, some of the most dreary and intimately quiet work the band has ever made is on display. Even if it is not enough to blow a first-time listener away like OK Computer or Kid A did, it still showcases what Radiohead has always done best – change. This band, formed over three decades ago, has aged with its members, and in the end, isn’t that the best thing that could’ve happened?