Nothing Radiohead does is ever short of unconventional. From music, promotion, to the way albums are released, Radiohead always seem to march to the beat of their own drum. It has been a little over five years since their previous album, King Of Limbs, and a few things have changed in the music industry. Surprise albums and short term release date announcements are now becoming an industry standard. So it was to no one’s surprise when Radiohead, who popularized this form of album releases with their past two albums, would once again follow a similar path. The teasing started when leaflets were sent (through snail mail) to fans who had previously ordered from the website with the phrase Burn The Witch. A week before the new album was announced, the band cleared their presence of their social media pages, deleting all information and replacing all icons, avatars and pictures with blank images. Once the viral promotion started, fans knew the new album was only a short while away. Shortly after a new Instagram video was released with a video of a bird tweeting, which were the first few seconds of their brand new video and single, the aforementioned, Burn The Witch. This single was followed a day later with the video for Daydreaming, created by film director Paul Thomas Anderson; the video was also shown in limited theaters in 35mm prints. This was also the day they publicly announced their 9th album, A Moon Shaped Pool, would be released two days later.
Truth be told, fans never know what to expect from Radiohead. Their sound has evolved through out the years and none of their albums follow a formula. They’ve experimented with more electronic sounds and effects in all their releases after The Bends, so one of the more safe assumptions would be they would continue down this path. A Moon Shaped Pool is a bit distant from the particular semi-electronic sound that Radiohead slowly cultivated through out the past 19 years. The band chose to put together a record filled with piano driven tracks and grand string arrangements. The end result is one of the probably the saddest, most beautiful, dreamlike album that Radiohead has ever put out. The sound is almost cinematic in it’s nature and a lot of it is because of multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood. Greenwood brings in a sound shaped by the film scores he’s worked on in the past few years (There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice, etc) and it shows in the melodic progression of the album. One of my favorite things about A Moon Shaped Pool is a song’s ability to change instrumentally by progressively adding layers upon layers until almost every song reaches a musical climax; may it be with the symphonic arrangement in The Numbers, or the bass in Decks Dark.
A Moon Shaped Pool‘s first two singles show a good contrast between the sounds in the album. The appropriately titled lynch mob song, Burn The Witch, has rich strings provided by the London Contemporary Orchestra that grow darker as the song progresses. By the song’s conclusion it’s paranoid strings would fit right at home on any thriller or horror film score. This is one of two songs, the other being a call for revolution in The Numbers, in which the albums focal point in it’s lyrics is briefly deviated from. The second single, Daydreaming, is a soft spoken ballad, with a sentimental piano loop as it’s main instrument. Thom Yorke’s vocals are reinforced by a some layering and effects, including the outro where “Half of my life” is reversed and repeated over and over. This album is without a doubt Yorke’s outlet after ending his marriage of 23 years, hence the “half of my life” phrase. The lyrics in this song are more closely related to the topics in the majority of the album, heartbreak and the feeling of loss. The songs Desert Island Disk, Glass Eyes, and Present Tense reflect back on this topic with some of the most dismal lyrics that Yorke has penned.
A lot of tracks share sounds similar to the post-break up feelings. Ful Stop is the most aggressive sounding track on the album. Led by a dark pulsating bass line, Yorke has his most angriest moment in the album by repeating “You really messed up everything” and “Truth will mess you up, all the good times”. This song has some of the best and most haunting vocal layering on the album. Yorke continues his emotional trip with Glass Eyes, in which he reflects getting off a train and being surrounded by strangers, and uses that imaging as metaphors for feelings of abandonment and alienation. The bare bones sentimental piano and strings accompanied by the lyrics “The path trails off and beds down a mountain, throughout the dry bush, I don’t know where it leads, I don’t really care, I feel this love turn cold” will drive a dagger through your heart. Identkit, a song that’s been performed on live shows since 2012 along with Ful Stop, really instill feelings of disappointment, denial and leftover anger after heartbreak.
The album’s final track is one that fan’s have been waiting for since the mid 90s, a studio version of True Love Waits. This song was first performed in 1995 and has only appeared in the live album I Might Be Wrong from 2001. So after 21 years of performances, True Love Waits finally arrives to fans and in my opinion doesn’t disappoint. The sound is vastly different from the original acoustic live version, which some fans still prefer, but it’s never a bad thing to have two great, yet independent versions of the same song.
There’s no way in hell that I’m calling this the BEST Radiohead album, that title will change among the fan base, usually going to one of their holy trinity of classic albums (In Rainbows, OK Computer or Kid A). I wouldn’t even recommend this album to someone who has never heard Radiohead, or been a fan of their previous work. But as a fan, one that has appreciated the changes that they’ve gone through sonically in each of their albums, this album is fucking enchanting. After listening to it all week, the more I listen to it, and the more attention I paid to all it’s arrangements and production, the more I love it. Do you have to be in a particular mood to enjoy it more? Sure, I’d imagine if you’re going through some relationship woes this album could be one hell of an anthem for your rough times. A Moon Shaped Pool is definitely a great album, even if it’s one that might not break their top 3, but that’s less of a statement regarding the quality of this project and more of a testament to Radiohead’s musical legacy.