Album Review: Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool

There’s a moment on the new Radiohead album, A Moon Shaped Pool, the band’s ninth overall LP and first in five years—the moment comes on the fifth track, “Ful Stop.” The moment I’m talking about arrives a little over three minutes in, following a lengthy and tense build up, with heavily effected beats that are eventually replaced with Phil Selway’s drumming. It’s in that moment, when the actual percussion kicks in, along with the band’s trademark dueling guitar interplay, panned between the left and right channels—it’s in that moment that you realize the album is a successful culmination of everything that the band has been working towards up until this point.

Throughout the album’s eleven tracks, it takes elements from the band’s previous efforts and sounds, blending it all seamlessly and effortlessly with Jonny Greenwood’s growth as a composer and Thom Yorke’s glitchy, electronic based side projects and solo outings. The result is a dense, complex, thought provoking listen, and it’s arguably their most progressive record since Kid A.

It’s been a long time since Radiohead have sounded this urgent and this immediate; it’s something that was missing on the band’s last outing, The King of Limbs—but it’s something that is very apparent right out of the gate on A Moon Shaped Pool in the form of the energetic, visceral, string laden opening track and first single, “Burn The Witch,” as well as on the aforementioned “Ful Stop,” the shuffling “Identikit,” and the creeping “Numbers.”

It’s also been a long time since the band sounded this human—an emotion that Radiohead haven’t really dabbled in since The Bends. The band is known for its ambiguous lyrics and phrases—there’s a little bit of that here, too; but there are terribly fragile moments in both the album’s centerpiece and in its final moments:

On the somber “Glass Eyes,” Thom Yorke delivers the surprisingly personal lyrics—“Hey it’s me, I just got off the train. A frightening place, their faces are concrete grey. And I’m wondering should I turn around—buy another ticket? Panic is coming on strong, so cold from the inside out.”

Yorke’s lyrics have often been anxious, or about anxiety—but it’s never been this grounded and personally connected before, and it serves to create a very evocative picture.

Then there is perhaps the biggest surprise of the whole album—arriving 21 years after its first appearance, A Moon Shaped Pool closes with fan favorite “True Love Waits,” a song that in its earlier incarnations was Yorke, alone, performing the song on an acoustic guitar.

Here, however, it’s reworked and rearranged for the piano—the notes slowly falling down around you with additional key plunking sequences arriving within the song’s second verse.

It’s also interesting to hear how Yorke’s voice has changed over time in comparison to earlier versions I’ve heard of the song—like the poor quality bootleg of its live debut, or the version released on the 2001 live EP I Might Be Wrong—the song was a regular fixture on the Amnesiac tour as one of the encores. He’s aged into the song; his voice, is still incredible and one of contemporary popular music’s most unique, but it no longer needs to theatrically soar to the heights it used to. Here, it is reserved and measured as it tackles the devastating lines “Just don’t leave.”

While both “Burn The Witch” and the pensive, reflective “Daydreaming” were released in advance of the album, there’s no real easy access point on A Moon Shaped Pool. Sure, there are songs that are slightly more pop oriented in structure than others—but Radiohead haven’t exactly been a “singles” driven band for a number of years now, and this is not a singles driven record. Like OK Computer and Kid A before it, it’s meant to be digested as a whole.

It’s also paced to be digested as a whole—A Moon Shaped Pool is an incredibly methodical record, structured in an alarmingly cohesive way, which is a fascinating turn, given that the songs are organized in alphabetical order. It’s a strange move—a bit of a gamble, really, given how labored over the sequencing of previous Radiohead albums was. In doing this, it subconsciously takes away the importance of a particular song’s name, and instead, places the focus on the music itself—specifically the music as a whole; one self-contained song cycle that ebbs and flows.

There are no bad songs on the record—but I also stop short of calling it perfect, though it’s pretty close. There are moments that are more successful than others, and there are songs that stand out slightly more than others: specifically the triple shot of “Ful Stop,” “Glass Eye,” and “Identikit,” which may be the most impressive run of songs of the bunch.

A song like the dreamy, glimmering, slow burning “Decks Dark,” and its follow up, the acoustic guitar based “Desert Island Disk” are, on the other hands, pieces that are slightly less successful in comparison, simply because they are designed to bring the very deliberate pacing of the record to a slower gate before it is brought back up again—the same could be said for the strummy “Numbers” and the shimmying “Present Tense,” both of which arrive after the halfway mark.

Nearly 25 years after “Creep,” what does Radiohead’s ninth record mean for their career thus far, as well as the immediate future? For starters, it is precisely the rejuvenation the band has needed. They were never in danger of becoming irrelevant, but following The King of Limbs, many fans were left feeling unfulfilled and wondering what came next. A record like this, this late in the game for a band, shows that they still have a lot left to say. It’s a warm sounding and comforting record, at the same time, it’s unnerving and tense. It’s that juxtaposition that has gotten the band to where they are today, and it’s impressive that they still can, and still want to, strike that balance so thoughtfully.

It’s also reassuring to hear the group working together as a band again—one of my criticisms of The King of Limbs was that it practically played like a Thom Yorke solo album, leaving little, if anything at all for guitarist Ed O’Brien to do. Here, sure, there are beeps and boops, and electronic beats—but there are plenty of times when you can be certain you are listening to five people making music together.

A Moon Shaped Pool isn’t a revelatory record like OK Computer or Kid A—and in 2016, it doesn’t need to be. However, it is a refreshing, interesting record, proving that to a select few artists, the idea of a dense, complex, and challenging listening experience still matters, and Radiohead are willing to take a chance, to take their time, and put together an actual artistic statement, though they didn’t have to. They have nothing left to prove to anyone, and they didn’t have to make a new record. They wanted to, which speaks volumes of the contents found within.