Radiohead isn’t a band that needs introduction at this point, at least usually. But during the lead up to their first album in five years, it seems as if they were trying to reintroduce themselves. In the days before A Moon Shaped Pool dropped, the band completely erased their internet presence, leaving nothing but a blank slate devoid of posts across their Twitter feeds and Facebook page. And when those gears DID start turning again, it was only to dribble out tiny clips of a child-like claymation video, which lacked any music, branding, or information of any kind. It signaled very clearly that something was about to happen, something that wasn’t beholden to their past, something cleaner and purer than before.
A Moon Shaped Pool is exactly that – it’s some of the cleanest, purest, and most human music the band has put to tape so far. Of course, this is Radiohead we’re talking about, so they’ll always bear some of that cold, insular, and electronic edge they’ve explored for so long. But what’s so surprising about this record is the much more emotional and naturalistic side they’ve chosen to explore within it. Acoustic guitars, string sections, and pianos take far more precedence over drum machines, sequencers and laptops, and more than ever Thom Yorke’s lyrics are focused on the pitfalls of the human condition instead of his trademark claustrophobic technophobia and paranoia. “Burn the Witch” is a perfect example of this: opening with a percussive gush of strings unlike anything in their discography, it drives forward with little need for guitars or drums, while focusing on the division of different peoples and the fear-mongering that causes it. But that song is actually a bit of a feint, as it doesn’t take long for the band to dip into more downcast, defeated territory: “Daydreaming” is one of the simplest songs in their catalog, but one of the thickest with emotion. Built upon a simple repeating piano motif, Yorke’s vocals barely rise above a murmur, and are cocooned with flourishes of violins and electronics that establish the song’s true movement and feeling. And “Decks Dark” is a slow burn of a track replete with chilly, rattling guitar lines and an introspective piano line that buoys some of Yorke’s most expressive vocals since In Rainbows – ones that equate encroaching dread and fear to visiting aliens blotting out the sky with their flying saucers.
But it’s after that three track run that the album starts revealing its truest colors. For example, “Desert Island Disk” is the closest thing to a folk song that the band has ever recorded. Calm and quiet, it’s led by an aerobic acoustic guitar line, gentle swirls of background electronics, and an oddly out-of-character set of lyrics that inspire uplift and hope instead of fear and paranoia. This track also finds a cousin on the album’s second half in “The Numbers”. It’s another gentle, folky song that this time finds its inspiration in ’60s protest music, as Yorke quietly rails against climate change and the powers that be, insisting that the people have the power to create change – which doesn’t solely have to function as an instruction against global warming. And while not nearly as folksy, “Present Tense” is a Spanish-sounding love-lost groove that’s almost danceable despite it’s lack of any sort of beat and heartbroken lyrics. Acoustic guitars aren’t the sole driving force of this album, however. “Ful Stop” throbs along with a repeating bass line courtesy of Colin Greenwood that establishes the core of the song, a song which chooses to fully explore that groove rather than searching out another, more obscure path. And on “Identikit”, the rest of the band allows Jonny Greenwood to take his electric guitar out of storage, resulting in a song with plenty of spiky dynamics and angular guitar lines to complement its grooving drums and expressive chorus.
But as always with Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool has a moodier side as well. As “Daydreaming” foreshadows, this isn’t an album without its darkness. “Glass Eyes” is a short yet powerful piano ballad punctuated with otherworldy strings, exploring the anxiety one finds themselves faced with when arriving in a new place, and its bare bones musicality only serves to emphasize its narrative (one which is formatted in the spirit of a voicemail left on someone’s phone). And conversely, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor…” finds itself straddling both that minimalist slant of “Glass Eyes” and a bigger, more sweeping cinematic feel. Its first half drifts around with little direction and a listless energy, until Jonny’s Bond-esque string score swoops in to take the song into an entirely different world. What at first seems like an almost disjointed track soon makes sense, as that swirl of strings leads into the crowning jewel, and closing track, of the album. “True Love Waits” is a storied song in Radiohead’s catalog, having been played live in one version or another dating back all the way to 1995. But it’s been a notoriously hard one for the band to try and capture, as it wasn’t until Yorke’s 23 year long relationship dissolved that they were finally able to find the inspiration to nail it. Once written with the hope and promise of a new love in mind, the song is now transformed into a fragile, twinkling, and bittersweet one of loss, barely held together as its gentle dual piano lines threaten to spiral away from each other. Despite being so gentle and low-key, Yorke manages to wring emotion out of every syllable and key, and the rasp that creeps into his voice during the chorus truly sells it.
A Moon Shaped Pool strikes a very fine balance as a whole piece of work. Despite featuring downcast, dreamy tracks like “Daydreaming” alongside folksy excursions such as “Desert Island Disk” and “The Numbers” and percussive orchestral numbers like “Burn the Witch”, and despite also pulling songs from many different points in the band’s career (“Ful Stop” and “Identikit” originated in 2012 on the King of Limbs tour, “Present Tense” in 2009 a a Yorke solo gig, “Burn the Witch” in the Hail to the Thief era, and “True Love Waits” in 1995), it feels like a body of work that was created concurrently. These songs have been massaged and finessed into the gentle, moody, yet very human forms they appear in here, and feel like puzzle pieces that were always meant to fit together. Even more so, despite their disparate eras, the fact that much of their lyrical content syncs with the huge loss Yorke has recently suffered makes these tracks feel even more fated to be together. Radiohead may have erased their own social media presence, and in doing so took a stab at erasing their own past. But the album they did it in service of inverts that by collecting little bits of ephemera from throughout their career, and uses them to form their most gentle and intimate sounding record ever, and one that’s the closest thing to a traditional heartbreak album the band has ever made. Where they once feared the world’s ever-increasing reliance on technology, here they’re fearing the breakdown of personal relationships and the loss of love. After looking outward for so long, it’s not so surprising that they’ve finally chosen to look inside and take stock of their own hearts. No longer are they paranoid androids suffering from future shock, but instead have opened their hearts up a little more to reveal the glassy-eyed daydreamers they truly are.
Key Tracks: Daydreaming, Decks Dark, Identikit, True Love Waits