In Brief: More surprising than its sudden release is the overall down-tempo, relaxed nature of the music throughout most of this record. At times the moods and sentiments are vintage Radiohead, but the heavy emphasis on acoustic instruments and string arrangements are definitely more understated territory than the band unusually inhabits. The King of Limbs may have had a more exciting sound, but this feels much more like a complete, fully thought-through album.
Radiohead fans have learned over the years to expect the unexpected. Sudden album releases with little to no warning. Startling genre shifts from one album to the next – or even one song to the next. Lyrics that make you feel one thing while the music makes you feel something entirely different. Recurring themes and hidden messages that might turn out to mean something or might just be the band toying with our expectations of it meaning something. All of this, ironically, led me to be not so terribly surprised back in May when in the space of about a week, Radiohead deleted their entire social media presence, released the spectacular single “Burn the Witch” and its brilliantly creepy accompanying video, and then dropped A Moon Shaped Pool on Mother’s Day. Not their most startling surprise, but a welcome one nonetheless.
It’s hard to believe that the out-of-nowhere release of In Rainbows was nearly a decade ago, and we’re only two albums out from that one. Radiohead has become known for taking their time, but on A Moon Shaped Pool, a lot of the music is surprisingly relaxed and unhurried, perhaps making a case for the time it took to carefully piece it all together. As Radiohead albums go, this may be the polar opposite of The King of Limbs – an album which seemed like it was born from drum loops and jam sessions, and deliberately left as a snapshot of several creative ideas spontaneously being born. I was incredibly frustrated with the brevity of that album even though I enjoyed its overall sound. On A Moon Shaped Pool, they’ve done almost a complete 180, downplaying the rhythm section on several tracks and relying a lot more on acoustic instrumentation and Jonny Greenwood‘s skills in the string arrangement department. If bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway were the MVPs of Limbs, then Jonny’s definitely the MVP here, which isn’t to say that he overshadows lead singer/songwriter Thom Yorke, per se. But this is definitely an album that lets Jonny explore the more pensive and sometimes foreboding side of his musical personality within the context of the band. Drum loops and electric guitar do show up here and there, generally in sharp contrast to the rest of the album when they do, but overall, this is the most “chill” music I’ve heard from Radiohead in a very long time.
Of course you know Thom Yorke well enough by now to realize that just because the music is mellower, that doesn’t mean the music is going to be all sunshine and butterflies. (I would have said “rainbows”, but well, you know.) The dissolution of a very long-term relationship during this album’s gestation undoubtedly had an impact on his songwriting, and the result is some of his most vulnerable and heartbreaking work yet. That’s not to say he’s writing straightforward love songs or breakup songs (well, save for one he wrote ages ago that finally found its way on to an album), but every now and then, from the uneasy murkiness of the ten different ways you could interpret his mumble-singing, a surprisingly clear sentiment will stick out like a sore thumb, like a mantra he’s trying to remind himself about while he’s otherwise unable to organize his thoughts. In a way, that makes A Moon Shaped Pool the equivalent of Björk‘s Vulnicura – I could actually see a fair amount of overlap between the fanbases for those two records, now that I think about it.
It’s also significant – or at least I figure it must be – that the song titles on this album are all arranged in alphabetical order. It’s almost like an OCD response to everything else in one’s life being chaotic and unpredictable. What the songs are about might be messy, but gosh darn it, we’re gonna put them in alphabetical order and make them sound good that way! Aside from the intensity level peaking on the first track and never quite getting back up there again, I do have to say that the record flows remarkably well, with the songs all working as individual pieces of music but with subtle transitions between several of them making it seem like there was more rhyme and reason behind it than the purposefully jarring track orders of Hail to the Thief or Amnesiac. I really like that about this album. Unfortunately, there are several tracks that I feel don’t reach their full potential, instrumentally speaking, never really building much on the spare groove or vaguely interesting melodic bits they started out with. So it’s hard for me to sum up where I’d rank this album among their others. I want to say it’s better than The King of Limbs even though I like Limbs better song-for-song. Limbs never pulls together for me in a way that makes it about more than just the album a few of my Radiohead favorites happen to be on, while Pool just feels more complete despite my not really caring for a few of the songs. I don’t find myself wishing they’d cut any tracks here or replaced them with better B-sides. (I’m not aware of any good B-sides just yet, though there must be some.) If I had to tweak anything, I’d ramp up the intensity of a few tracks just to make it a little more of an emotional roller coaster, but wanting to tweak a track slightly is way better than wishing it wasn’t there, and I think the last Radiohead album without a single track that I wished wasn’t there was OK Computer. Make of that what you will.
1. Burn the Witch
It’s extremely rare for me to like a Radiohead track right off the bat as much as I liked this one – they’re typically a band where my favorites have to grow on me over time. The tense, staccato strings and the driving rhythm just hooked me right away. Thom’s lyrics are full of paranoid musings: “Avoid all eye contact/Do not react/Shoot the messengers/This a low-flying panic attack.” These nervous sentiments immediately conjure up the mood of some of my favorite classic Radiohead tunes while not sounding like it retreads any of them in particular. Considering that this song had been floating around since the days of Hail to the Thief, it could well have been classic Radiohead if they’d recorded it during that era. But it needed to wait for the final piece to fall into place, which is the unnerving string arrangement. That’s what really puts the icing on the cake, since the song might feel disappointingly short without them – just two verses and two choruses and a short finale. It’s the way that the strings quickly veer into dissonant insanity that really makes my hair stand on end as the song concludes. It’s so much like the end of an episode of LOST that I almost expect to hear the now-iconic “thunk” sound from that show’s soundtrack after the smash cut to black. (All this and I haven’t even delved into the video, which is unsettling but well worth watching. I’ll just offer a single word, “Trumpton”, and let your curiosity do the rest.)
Even though I say this album flows a lot better than their last few, I’d be lying if I said the juxtaposition of this ethereal piano ballad with “Burn the Witch” wasn’t a bit jarring. In a weird way, I almost expect this sort of thing from Radiohead, so the first time I heard it, there was a strange, warm familiarity to it. (It helps that the piano and the placement of the song remind me of “Pyramid Song”, one of my all-time favorites.) Thom’s voice hits just the right balance between sentiment and cynicism here, complaining at the very beginning of the song, “Daydreamers, they never learn”, but it seems implicit within the mood of the song that he still considers himself one despite thinking he ought to know better. The devil’s really in the details here – what could be a very dull and repetitive song (especially due to it being one of the longest they’ve ever recorded at six and a half minutes) if just left alone with the simple, looping piano chords becomes one of Radiohead’s most interestingly textured tracks, due to the little vocal and keyboard snippets that seem to break off and float back up again at odd times, which is a move reminiscent of the Kid A era. They lay on the keyboards really thick in this one, too, surrounding the listener like a cloud of… I don’t know, butterflies or something. And when the strings come in… once again, I get chills. Just due to the way the melody swoops and dives, they match the tension between bliss and fear perfectly. This doesn’t quite result in as big of a climax as my brain seems to expect it to, and I’m not too keen on how the song ends – it feels like nearly a minute of Thom’s slow, creepy, backmasked vocals saying something unintelligible (online sources tell me it’s “Half of my life”). It just doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the song, and it’s a trick they’ve used more effectively earlier in their career.
3. Decks Dark
This track is an unfortunate case of several interesting elements getting overshadows by a few uninteresting ones, making for a song that has a hard time holding my interest overall. Some of the good stuff is immediately apparent at the beginning, like the mystique of the piano melody and Thom’s lyrics about the skies growing dark with some sort of an alien invasion and how we react in our “darkest hour” (which I’m willing to bet was the original song title until they settled on the idea of alphabetizing the track list). It’s not too far in before I find myself incredibly distracted by Phil Selway’s annoyingly pedestrian drum beat, though. It overshadows the interesting instrumental bits, and it doesn’t help that Thom only sounds half-interested in what he’s singing about. Even when the song shifts into more of an ominous “vamp” mode at the end, I don’t feel like it musters up much of anything engaging, and that’s frustrating because I can hear the potential in this one, if only they hadn’t underplayed their hand on it. I can’t help but think that the lack of drums altogether in “Daydreaming” made it a better song. Phil Selway is a talented drummer, but I’d rather hear him either doing something amazing or nothing at all. When he’s in between, it just feels like the drums and/or programming are there out of a sense of them being mandatory, and Radiohead’s proven time and time again that not every member has to participate in every song for it to sound its best, so I don’t know what the deal was here.
4. Desert Island Disk
Radiohead’s in “coffeehouse mode” here. I don’t mind that at all. They worked wonders with merely an acoustic guitar and some looped vocals on “Give Up the Ghost”, and while this song has a completely different character, I’m charmed by its gentle fingerpicking and its unusual time signature – elements I’ve heard in separate Radiohead songs over the years, but not at the same time as far as I can recall. Yorke sounds lonely, but mildly hopeful here, rediscovering life in some sort of a “spirit light” that guides him through a period of solitude in his life that sounds like it may well have been soul-crushing without it. He comes to a zen-like realization at the end of it: “Different types of love are possible”. It’s hard for Radiohead to pull off a line like that without it seeming totally cheesy, but compare this with Coldplay‘s latest and consider how schmaltzy a lot of Chris Martin‘s working through his divorce in the studio came across. Radiohead sidesteps anything resembling big, grandiose platitudes simply by giving this song the oddball yet intimate feel that they did, and while it’s not something where the melody of it is really going to stick in my head later on, I really appreciate the ambiance they’ve created here. I should note that the drums are back here, and they’re subtle in an engaging way this time, accenting the rhythm in a way that helps less musically astute listeners to find their place – sort of like me the first few times I puzzled over (yes, I’m going to mention this again) “Pyramid Song”.
5. Ful Stop
Being one of the few up-tempo numbers deeper in the album, this track carries a lot of weight. It definitely shifts the mood as its synthesized bass line very slowly creeps in, giving me the willies in the best possible way as it seems to warn of something menacing lurking just around the corner. “You really messed up everything”, Thom sings dejectedly, and I have to wonder if this is his own internal voice, criticizing himself over the ending of a relationship that may or may not have been his fault in reality. Building a song as something of a free-form jam around a bass line will remind most listeners of “The National Anthem”, though that one was unrelenting with its sense of dread, finally falling apart in the most horrifying way possible, while this one actually seems less scary once the full band comes in – at that point the interplay between the guitars and drums reminds me a great deal of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”, another one of my all-time favorites. So the song’s in good company. it doesn’t come to as massive of a climax as I’d like, but Thom’s falsetto as it fades out is sublime. It’s definitely one of the most attention-grabbing things on the record, especially if you’ve previously turned the volume up to catch the subtleties hidden within the last few tracks.
6. Glass Eyes
It’s awfully weird to go from a mellow acoustic guitar song, to an up-tempo Krautrock sort of number, back down to a tranquil piano ballad, but this short little track, almost feeling like an interlude, is one of the most starkly beautiful things I’ve ever heard from Radiohead. As with “Daydreaming”, they’ve thrown just the right of electronic manipulation into the song to make it feel otherworldly without compromising its organic nature, and for the most part it’s the duet of piano and strings that really sells this one. Thom’s lyrics start off casually enough, as if he’s leaving someone a voicemail and telling them about his day, but he seems to gradually realize midway through that he feels so far from this person and they now seem cold and distant, so the song has quite a sobering effect when all is said and done.
I almost feel like I’m misleading you by telling you this is the last “upbeat” thing on the album. It sort of fills the role that “Optimistic” did on Kid A, in the sense that it’s the closest thing to traditional Radiohead that fans of their old days can latch on to – there’s like, an actual guitar solo near the end of it! While it’s fun to hear Jonny Greenwood in that mode again, I know that’s not really where he lives nowadays and I’m OK with that. I’m not 100% certain whether I like the mechanical rhythm of this one or whether it’s a bit tedious – I guess the song has enough of a sense of build and release to it that I can’t fault them for starting out subtle this time around. At first, when I could hear Thom just barely mumbling “A moon shaped pool” over and over in the background, I was worried this track was going to go nowhere fast, but there are actual vocals in the foreground here, and they carry some of the most devastating sentiments on the entire album: “When I see you messing me around, I don’t want to know.” Every time I hear that, I think, “Isn’t it too late to not know, because you just saw it happen?” But that’s the tragic beauty of it. Thom wants to un-learn something about his ex that he can now never forget. I’m still not 100% sure what to make of the refrain “Broken hearts make it rain” that carries the song so well into its climax, especially when the backing vocals pick it up and the keyboards get all glisten-y and then we get dropped into the aforementioned guitar solo. Just like “Different types of love”, it seems rather broad and almost clichéd by Radiohead standards, and yet the ironic context in which its presented suggests a multitude of possible meanings, some comforting and some dismaying.
8. The Numbers
I’ll probably get into some arguments with Radiohead fans over this one, but this song bores me. I keep trying to get into it, but I find its repeating acoustic riff and its lackadaisical drum beat about as exciting as watching paint dry. (See? I can’t even come up with original analogies for how boring it is. This isn’t good.) I know there’s some incredibly subversive political stuff in here that may or may not be about climate change. But nothing about this song really grabs me until the string section comes in, and it seems like the song’s almost over at that point. At this point there’s actually a real sense of drama to the song, and honestly, I think it should have started out that way, just focusing on the strings and relegating the repetitive stuff to the background.
9. Present Tense
Another acoustic number is up next – this one’s pretty low key but it has a bit of a Brazilian feel to it, which makes its rhythm a bit more engaging than the tracks around it. Thom makes reference to that “freaking out” dance we’ve all seen him doing at times (though I can’t imagine him doing it to this song), asserting that it’s his own way method of “self-defense against the present tense”. In that sense it reminds me of the escapist sentiment heard in “How to Disappear Completely”, when he repeatedly sang “I’m not here, this isn’t happening.” Honestly, I think this song might have been a nicer surprise if it was positioned as the comedown after something more intense. Being sandwiched between the two dullest songs on the record does it no favors.
10. Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief
Jeez, that’s a mouthful of a title for yet another rather uninteresting song. The crackle of static and the ominous keyboard tones at the beginning of it suggest a slow build-up to yet another climax that never really comes. At this point I’m too weary to really dig into the potential political implications or whatever Thom is moaning about here. I know that’s unfair, but if you’re going to spend this much of your album in slow to mid-tempo mode, you need more dynamic contrast between the high and low points of your songs. All I can really remember about this one when all is said and done is that the strings do a halfway decent crescendo near the end, there are some bubbling/skipping electronic songs as it fades out that remind me of both “Like Spinning Plates” and “Give Up the Ghost” (not coincidentally the penultimate tracks on their respective albums), and then it bleeds into ONE OF THE GREATEST RADIOHEAD SONGS OF ALL TIME.
11. True Love Waits
To tell you the truth, even though there was a great deal of lore surrounding this song, I wasn’t terribly familiar with it until this album came out. I suppose that’s what separates the diehard Radiohead fans from the people merely interested in listening to their new albums when they come out. I guess I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to non-album tracks unless I’m really obsessed with a band. Anyway, this one’s been floating around since the mid-90s in their live sets, mostly in an acoustic format (as heard on the 2001 live album I Might Be Wrong), and going back to that version, it’s lyrically arresting and has a fittingly sad chord progression to it, but something seemed rather ho-hum about Thom Yorke just strumming an acoustic guitar. The band really struggled to find the right approach for it on an album, which is why it had to wait until 2016 for them to finally figure it out. The answer was to replace the guitar with piano. Now there’s both an instant appeal to its sad melody, and a subtlety that gives it depth and texture. There are probably multiple piano takes dubbed in here, once again giving the song a feeling like it’s echoing the ghost of itself, and overall I think the transformation is superb. This song represents the “bargaining” phase of grief when a relationship ends, finding Thom willing to do just about anything – abandon his own beliefs, let the woman pick out ridiculous, emasculating outfits for him to wear, etc., as long as she sticks around. That simple chorus of “Don’t leave” is absolutely devastating as the final thought on the album, knowing that all of this ill-conceived effort was in vain and she left anyway, hopefully not leaving the shell of a man who gave up his own identity behind that is described in this song, but still leaving a feeling of hollowness either way. It was tragic for Thom, but this one probably brings a hell of a lot of closure to hordes of longtime fans. Broken hearts make it rain, indeed.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Burn the Witch $2
Decks Dark $.50
Desert Island Disk $1
Ful Stop $1.50
Glass Eyes $1.25
The Numbers $.50
Present Tense $.75
Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief $.25
True Love Waits $1.75
Thom Yorke: Lead vocals, guitar, piano
Jonny Greenwood: Guitar, keyboards, piano, string arrangements
Ed O’Brien: Guitar, background vocals
Colin Greenwood: Bass
Phil Selway: Drums, percussion
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: