Review | Radiohead cast magic once more on A Moon Shaped Pool

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A Moon Shaped Pool

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After a somewhat tepid response to 2011’s awkward, bleepy The King of Limbs, it seemed as though Radiohead might consider reinvention for album number nine. After deleting all presence on social media and sending out creepy postcards to fans – a move that was never not going to be creepy – ‘Burn the Witch’ and its video were unveiled. The song, with its percussive, col legno strings and Thom Yorke’s warnings about shooting messengers and abandoning reason, was more organic than anything they’ve done in a long time. The promo (where The Wicker Man meets Chigley) felt quintessentially English, and for about four days it seemed as though Radiohead were setting themselves up as a sort of post-modern take on The Kinks.

‘Daydreaming’, accompanied by a Paul Thomas Anderson-helmed video in which Yorke appears rather worn-out, proved to be more representative of the album as a whole. A muted piano ballad, ‘Daydreaming’ comes across as at first as too obtuse, overtly ponderous and almost barrenly cold. By sheer coincidence, the Irish Film Institute had a special screening of The Master on the day A Moon Shaped Pool dropped. Upon first viewing you could say that The Master is a cold, confusing film, until you come to realise that it operates entirely on its own terms, at which point its brilliance becomes apparent. Similarly, after a few listens, A Moon Shaped Pool reveals itself to be a stunning piece of work.

What differentiates A Moon Shaped Pool from Radiohead’s previous releases is that almost every song features an extended use of a string section. Initially the band’s beating heart; the humans inside the machine, feel overwhelmed by these movements, but upon repeat listens it becomes obvious that the strings are anything but a crutch. Having spent years composing for film, Jonny Greenwood has an innate understanding of how a string section can complement, and this is used to virtuoso effect throughout. The strings and choir almost always add to the melody that Yorke carries – the choral ending of ‘Identikit’, the flourishes in ‘Decks Dark’ and the chiming pattern at the end of ‘Glass Eyes’, and this gives the album a cinematic flavour. A Moon Shaped Pool is easily the most widescreen album that Radiohead have released to date, and it deserves to be listened to on a set of seriously good headphones.

At times the strings, simultaneously subtle and urgent, seem like an update on what Nick Drake was doing in the 1970s, only slightly more menacing and glitchy-Pink Moon for the digital age. Drake’s influence seems apparent on ‘Desert Island Disk’ and ‘Present Tense’, in the beautifully finger-picked guitar melodies. The folk great might seem like an odd choice of influence for a band so stepped in the future, but in tweaking the same tools that he used ever so slightly, Radiohead manage to tap into the same energy that gives the music a timeless quality. Even with the ornate strings, they still manage to cut lose from time to time.

‘Ful Stop’, meanwhile, is a complex monster of a song that explodes headlong into controlled chaos halfway through, seemingly combing every genre that Radiohead have encountered in their career, and ‘Identikit’, a slinky, wiggly number (recorded, appropriately, in Jack White’s studio and full of vintage synth sounds) is probably going to go down as a live classic. While this is very much Yorke and Greenwood’s album, Ed O’Brien manages to showcase some gorgeous guitar sounds. Honestly, it took me a while to pick up on them, but the skittish, jumpy threads on ‘Present Tense’ and ‘Identikit’ and the effects deployed on ‘The Numbers’ come across as downright gorgeous. Furthermore, they balance the strings from veering into pretension.

Whilst Greenwood’s strings are the most obvious addition to Radiohead’s repertoire, A Moon Shaped Pool is ultimately Thom Yorke’s journey. Nigel Goodrich’s production has rarely placed his vocals quite this central. Three tracks in particular; ‘Glass Eyes’, ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief’, and ‘True Love Waits’ register more as Yorke solo efforts. The first of these is especially good, with one of the orchestral highlights of the album lilting against Yorke’s voice. On the other hand, ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief’ is the only song here that I ultimately lost patience with. Ultimately, it emerges as a middle of the road piano ballad, which is a shame considering it’ll probably be the biggest song this year to borrow a title from John Le Carré.

While it’s never wise to read too much into an artist’s personal life, it seems as though Yorke’s recent marriage woes have heavily influenced his work on A Moon Shaped Pool, both in terms of lyrics and delivery. Again, in this regard, ‘Burn the Witch’ isn’t really reflective of the album as a whole. For most songs, Yorke sounds completely lost, and even when his vocals are at their most soaring there’s a hint of weariness. Lyrically, Yorke has always excelled by making Kafka/Ballard-like observations about everyday life, finding the worst aspects of the human condition embodied in the banal.

A Moon Shaped Pool is no different. ‘Glass Eyes’ sees him croon about concrete faces and sinister train stations as love turns cold, where ‘Decks Dark’ places humanity as being “helpless to resist” a satellite that blocks out the sun. ‘Present Tense’, the most unreservedly pretty vocal melody on the album almost charts a break down, with Yorke singing about being completely lost and “dancing, freaking out, deaf dumb and blind” as the world comes crashing down.

It all culminates, in many ways, with ‘True Love Waits’. A genuine gambit on the band’s behalf, ‘True Love Waits’ made its debut 21 years ago (for context’s sake, it’s as old as I am), and has been teased via bootlegs, the only official live Radiohead album and by enterprising YouTuber dmn555 who envisioned how it would sound were it to appear on The Bends. The version we get here, all soft piano chords and lightly oscillating strings, effectively positions Yorke’s vocal as the main part. In light of his marital woes, the lyrics take on an impossibly poignant quality (yes, even the “lollipops and crisps” line), and as he lets the final, birdlike “don’t leave” you can almost feel his soul collapse.

Depending on your take on The Bends, A Moon Shaped Pool should go down as Radiohead’s fourth/fifth masterpiece. An arresting experience.

NINE / TEN

For more on A Moon Shaped Pool, listen to the latest episode of the NO ENCORE podcast.

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