After a five-year absence, hugely influential English art rock band Radiohead have returned with their ninth album, entitled A Moon Shaped Pool. I was at first worried that the album could never live up to the insane amounts of hype from the band’s obsessively devoted fanbase, and would be crushed under the weight of expectation. From the first listen, I was pleased to find that these worries were unfounded.
Although the album was perhaps one of the band’s most enjoyable on first listen for me, I had to hear it several times in the week since its release to fully appreciate the nuances of these songs. On every listen there is something new to discover, and I’m sure that this process is far from over. A Moon Shaped Pool isn’t an album of instant hooks or catchy choruses: in fact it is probably the band’s most subtle and restrained album yet. That’s not to say there aren’t rousing, explosive moments (the harsh orchestral stabs of “Burn the Witch”, the menacing breakdown of the krautrock-inspired “Ful Stop”, the sharp burst of synth and frenetic guitar solo of “Identikit” being prime examples), but they are few and far between compared to the band’s earlier works.
What Radiohead have created here is a magnificent work based around rich textures and densely layered soundscapes. While the band have been experts at this craft since their 1997 masterpiece OK Computer, this album takes it to a staggeringly impressive new level. Lead guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood’s recent film score work has clearly had great influence on this album: almost every song contains string arrangements that float perfectly between unusual and unexpected and beautifully melodic. A notable example is the song “Glass Eyes”, where violins and cellos weep over a warm rippling piano and Thom Yorke’s defeated, heartbreakingly sad vocals. The result is one of the most desolate and sad yet gorgeous songs I have ever heard. On the sweetly melodic yet groovy “Decks Dark”, a choir enters unexpectedly with a euphoric, transcendent harmony.
While the orchestral moments are what set this album apart from the rest of the band’s repertoire, plenty of their old tricks are also apparent: electronics and guitars are also thrown into the mix, alongside folk influences on tracks like “Desert Island Disk” and “The Numbers” (which manages to be a fantastic environmental protest song without seeming at all trite or overearnest). A Moon Shaped Pool manages to sound like a mix of all of the band’s previous eras (except, perhaps, their grungy debut Pablo Honey), yet completely unique.
I haven’t had the chance to delve into the lyrics too much, but Thom Yorke is on classic form here with references to alienation, technology, the environment, and society. This is an album about the state of the modern world, yet he has also written some of his most personal lyrics in years (“Glass Eyes” tells a simple story of a panic attack on a train with unflinching honesty and a lack of the cryptic metaphors that Yorke’s lyrics are so often associated with). Ending the album, to the sheer delight of Radiohead’s fanbase, is the beautifully sad ballad “True Love Waits”, which the band have played live for over twenty years but until now never released a recorded version of. Over simple piano, Yorke wears his heart on his sleeve with a devoted paean to the object of his obsession. “I’ll drown my beliefs to have your babies”, he sings as the cracks in his voice show his vulnerability. The album ends with the simple plea “don’t leave”. Radiohead have always had a knack for fantastic closers (one of my very favourite Radiohead songs being the stunning hymn “Motion Picture Soundtrack” which closes their classic 2000 album Kid A) and here is no exception.
Overall, I think that A Moon Shaped Pool ranks up there with Radiohead’s very best works, which is no small achievement. The arrangements have never been better, with instruments, sound effects, and spacey vocals ducking and weaving around the songs. No one instrument takes centre-stage for very long, instead they work in harmony with each other to create these beautiful soundscapes where every sound seems unpredictable yet perfectly chosen. Nigel Godrich’s production is on top form, with the sound crisp and otherworldly, and unexpected EQing tricks on a few of the songs.
Would I recommend A Moon Shaped Pool to everyone? I’m not sure I would, as Radiohead are certainly an acquired taste and this album is no exception. However, for fans of art rock and subtle soundscapes this album is everything you could ask for, and has been my favourite album of the year so far.