A Moon Shaped Pool
It’s nearly been to the detriment of the music that every Radiohead album for the last decade has been discussed as much for how it came to be – and how you found out about it – as much as there’s been any discussion of the music. Amazing, then, that the music transcends that, escapes it, survives it. But, write a sentence like that and you sound – instantly – like just another psycho-fan/sycophant. I come and go with Radiohead – usually between albums. I like everything they’ve done, they are a very good – and dependable – band. The unctuous-fandom gets worrying, the over-the-top/they-can-do-no-wrong attitude starts to irk. Then they release something startling and new – and via some new twist on the delivery model. So, around we go again.
A Moon Shaped Pool arrived after the drop of a couple of singles, the deleting of all social media presence (swiftly reinstated after the album arrived) and the promise of special editions down the track…the lovely packaging and care and attention brought to physical product carries a price and a wait and is – allegedly – worth its weight/wait but you can also find a brand new album by Radiohead as a set of files as soon as they make their announcement. That was earlier this week – and there was commentary on what to hope for and how to expect it even before the album arrived. Of course. The noise continues now with two angry mobs – those that won’t hear a bad word and those that refuse to hear a gorgeous melody. And never the twain…
A Moon Shaped Pool might as well have been composed entirely in D. Minor. For it is the saddest of all Radiohead albums. But where it mopes it never meanders. This is a focussed sadness, a taut version of hopelessness or hope dashed.
Radiohead seems to make an album for the time – by tapping into some of what has been used cleverly on the fringes and bringing it back to an audience that was there for Creep or Fake Plastic Trees or at least Karma Police. That’s how it has worked ever since Kid A. Then it was Super Collider and Aphex Twin and from there the rhythms became playfully herky-jerky and glitch-driven.
Now it is the new wave of minimalists and (dare I say it, neo-classical-esques) like Nils Frahm and Olafur Arnalds and Max Richter that, via Jonny Greenwood’s film-score career, appear to have informed the work of Radiohead. They’re still bringing it all back home to the crowd that wants to wave a lighter in the air and fawn over falsetto, but Moon Shaped spawns a shadow via downcast piano treatments and strings that shimmer in that very song-shadow, via mumble-murmur lyrics that aren’t ever as agitated about technology and alienation but still lament loss – as concept, as what we’re giving up and have given over to.
For a lot of the album Thom Yorke’s lyrics take on the hue of Michael Stipe’s in the early R.E.M., textural as much as anything, rubbing up against pastoral pianos and acoustic guitars.
And yes he still knows how to own a melody, how to create a gorgeous take, whether straight-singing a mercurial ballad (Desert Island Disk) or hiding deep in the drowning sound of the deep, stirring music (Daydreaming).
We open with lead single, Burn The Witch and where, before the album existed, that seemed like a trick, a ruse, cleverly planted to remind you of the sound before the band deviates off into weirdness, it is in fact the strangest and most urgent of the songs here.
Its Stravinsky strings hammer down and chip away at the sides of the song, it surges and then falls away into Daydreaming – the second single. The tunes are arranged alphabetically, which might suggest something clinical. Some of them have been around for a while too – that could suggest a laziness, a lack of tunes. There’s really nothing lazy about waiting 22 years to frame a live favourite. When we arrive at True Love Waits, this album’s final track and a song that has appeared, dressed in different clothes, on the stop-gap live album of a decade and a half ago (and was around for The Bends era and was played several times) it feels all at once brand new and wholly familiar. It feels like every care has been given to place the right Frahm-like piano inside and around the tune, to coat it without cloaking it, to coax it…
Every Radiohead album feels like a logical follow-up to the previous one, and Moon Shaped Pool feels like the correct successor to King of Limbs. Where that had standout moments but felt rather like the joining together of two disparate EPs, or like it was missing one or two songs to truly sell it as the power-album it wanted to be, Moon Shaped feels like the most complete Radiohead record since Kid A, In Rainbows might be more dazzling but it feels like so many colours were added, so many different things tried; here we have an album that has been crafted, not as concept, rather as statement. It might not have the same level of breakout passages but as a whole it is quietly stunning.
Ful Stop has some of In Rainbows’ jazziness in its rhythm, and hints, too, to Thom’s sideliner projects, but it’s the still waters that run deepest of course – Glass Eyes, The Numbers, Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man and the finale, True Love, might not have the explosions of other amazing Radiohead moments, but they are the songs here that provide something far greater than so many others are doing with music: there is genuine emotional depth. And the sadness that clings to these, stirred by the lovely swan-song string arrangements, resonates with the world we’re in. One of hopelessness and hopefulness both charging on. We destroy ourselves and all around us in some pursuit of happiness. And those contrary, contrasting, conflicting actions and emotions have found their soundtrack.
And mad as it might seem to say this, the constant slow-moving but ever-purposeful evolution of Radiohead has arrived – now – finally at a sound the band has always hinted at. The weight of the world-weariness that was always on their shoulders, even when belting out near-grunge/sorta-Britpop approximations has crystallised, been made perfect – all the care and all the attention has resulted in this: quite possibly the band’s best, most beautiful album. Stick with it, if at first you think it might be slightly underwhelming listen deeper, hear the sounds that are happening around and within these songs. They’ve summoned a purposeful, slow-burning, slow-building magic. Their creativity is to be admired and applauded. Their music is a tonic. Much needed. And here, by appearing to hold something back, by holding it in, they have in fact outdone themselves.
This feels, at least while you’re listening to it, like the only Radiohead album the band set out to create in exactly this way. Where previously it’s been about wilful experiments and playful energies this is what craft and focus and feeling inspires.