Love them or hate them, Radiohead’s influence on rock, alternative rock, electronica and experimental music cannot be denied. I’ve long argued that their critics over the years have stemmed from two places: those hating the progress of their music, and those hating the sheer idea of Radiohead. For those that loved The Bends or OK Computer, their progression towards synthetic landscapes, the Protools era of recording, and wildly erratic percussion patterns has long been raged against by early adopters of the band who have felt slighted by the bands less-guitar driven evolution (which is also one of the reasons their 2007 release In Rainbows was beloved by fans of all eras of their music.) I understand, on some level, hating the evolution of an artist’s music; change is hard to accept for any person, particularly when the band in question has such a varied and colorful discography. For those who love The Bends, I can’t imagine “Lotus Flower” being an easy song to comprehend. The pioneering sonic elements on Kid A, or the array of Avant-garde jazz moments on Amsaniac, were likely polarizing enough to kill off many die hard fans who appreciated the band’s 90’s output. Nonetheless, that doesn’t account for those that hate simply the idea of Radiohead. For a band that has so many songs, over so many different kinds of genres, over so many different years, there’s generally something to appreciate about the band SOMEWHERE over their multi-decade output; not unlike a certain other British rock band named the Beatles, the catalog is so deep with variety it come off as ludicrous that someone wouldn’t even enjoy a sample or a cover of the beloved quintet. All you have to do is let yourself appreciate the music.
But then again, I’m a fan of Radiohead. I was there when In Rainbows dropped and I loved every minute of it. I remember where I was when I heard “Let Down” for the first time, a life-changing moment that would soundtrack my life for years to come. And I remember hearing King of Limbs in all its defeating glory. I’ve seen them once and will be seeing them at least once more. I love Radiohead. And that’s what’s fascinating about writing this review: I feel the need to defend my credentials. Chris DeVille eloquently described this phenomenon in his precursor of the album just last week on Stereogum, and it’s a feeling that’s not lost on many Radiohead fans. In a post-King of Limbs world, suddenly the indestructible Radiohead were vulnerable, and how else were fans supposed to act other than to defend a band that’s delivered some of the most powerful, inspiring and influential work over the past twenty years? For the first time in decades, arguing for Radiohead meant not just attempting to justify the band itself, but justify the existence another album at all.
As DeVille says, the stakes were high. After all, not many bands have as flawless a track record as Radiohead while simultaneously being held to such a high standard this late in their careers. In the internet era, their sheer existence and output are under constant scrutiny, be it lists putting Pablo Honey above Hail To The Thief, the endless discussions of EP’s and B-Sides and rankings that claim “Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2)” is the greatest 90′s Radiohead track, or people saying the band hasn’t been good since The Bends, everyone who enjoys music and actively reckons with it on the internet has something to say. King of Limbs, highly flawed as it may be, has a number of great songs on it. More than that, it had non-album songs from the same sessions that rank among the best in the band’s career (“Daily Mail” in particular) and it was, generally speaking, a good album that simply failed to live up to the high standard the band had reached over the previous seven full-length releases. Now that Radiohead have released the followup to King of Limbs, and it isn’t just GREAT but it is also being instantly received as a classic, fans and non-fans are going to be on the offensive or defensive depending on their opinions. The fervor towards an album like this hasn’t existed with this kind of magnitude in some time and truthfully, this review is futile. After all, it’s just one of several thousand opinions being voiced in the 48-hour aftermath of a band releasing something. Who knows how we’ll feel in six months.
I’ll go out and say that I think A Moon Shaped Pool is excellent. In spite of the desperation or hostility fans might have had toward the album pre-release, I think most would argue it’s immediately more enjoyable, and more than likely better, than King of Limbs. That’s the main thing Radiohead fans wanted, after all. A Moon Shaped Pool is a reaffirmation that Radiohead still have it, all these years later. Their ability to craft delicately and meticulously layered songs remains unprecedented, arguably more than ever with thanks to Jonny Greenwood’s impeccable orchestration on the LP (a skill he’s crafted over the past several years scoring films with famed director Paul Thomas Anderson.)
Greenwood’s presence on the album starts instantly with “Burn The Witch”’s staccato string arrangement, an immediate rush of energy that sets a sonic tone for the album. With Thom Yorke’s rallying cry of “This is a low flying panic attack,” combined with the tight drumming Phil Selway has developed over these many years, it’s a defining single and a great kickoff to the album. This is Greenwood’s album, Jonny not Colin, and the orchestrations here envelope the feel and tone of the entire project. “The Numbers”, in particular, develops as a mammoth The Bends-era slow burner, but substitutes Britpop power chords with lush string arrangements. It’s one of the best songs the band has ever written and only gets better over time, but to say that of this track in particular is to do a disservice of Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool, and Greenwood’s work entirely: This is an album that acts as a heartbreaking soundtrack to a movie that’s never been made, and it only grows more heartbreaking over time.
Much of this has to do with curation, and much of this has to do with arrangement and song structure; Remember, many of these songs have existed for years through many different variations of Radiohead’s musical journey. “True Love Waits” has existed as early as 1995, and has even been captured on their live album I Might Be Wrong, one of the most staggering and raw moments in Thom Yorke’s career. While I would be quick to defend that many of these tracks are (as far as we know) early in their developmental progress by Radiohead standards (“Identikit” and “Ful Stop” only made their debuts during the 2012 King of Limbs tour, and songs like “Desert Island Disk” and “The Numbers” have only existed since 2015) and thus manicured for this specific album, much of A Moon Shaped Pool feels like a long curation for heartbreak. Whether it’s linked to Yorke’s divorce of his wife last year in August or not, we won’t know, but Radiohead are undoubtedly capturing a lyrical depiction of heartbreak more directly than they have in past records, and the album is consumed by a romantic longing that is encapsulated by the band’s decision to, after 21 years, use “True Love Waits” to end it all.
For those anti-post OK Computer fans, there will undoubtedly be moments for you, but this is a lush album that continues to evolve from the musical ideas presented on the back half of King of Limbs but bigger and riskier. While Kid A and Hail to the Thief (an album that bares lots of comparisons to this one) work themselves into frenzies, A Moon Shaped Pool is relatively tame and controlled in its emotional outbursts, and musically speaking it’s reserved in that aggression. Songs like “Ful Stop” and “The Numbers” become instant highlights, both on the album and in the band’s discography, because they’re triumphantly bold and musically willing to expose some of that pent up aggression, something the album is hesitant to strive towards. “Desert Island Disk”, with its Bossa Nova guitar stylings and Nick Drake sensitivity, and “Present Tense”, with its spacey folk vocals and intentionally shrouded guitar progressions, represent the subtle but cutting side of A Moon Shaped Pool. Album highlight “Identikit” has layered vocals and infectious drum patterns, yet very little else for much of the opening of the song, and still manages to deliver the in-the-moment devastating chorus of “Broken hearts make it rain.” The first time you hear the song, it’s as though Radiohead have never delivered anything quite like it.
Truthfully, Radiohead really never HAVE delivered an LP quite like this. With as many choirs, string arrangements, distinct musical movements and vocal performances as A Moon Shaped Pool has, not to mention the fascinating mixing and wonderful splashes of acoustic guitar, it’s staggering that, regardless of whether or not you like the album or not, the band still has new musical directions to explore. While they might exist in a continuum all unto themselves with albums that are only directly comparable to one another, Radiohead have proved that there is still another sound they have yet to explore.
A Moon Shaped Pool is a dense musical landscape, filled with defining moments but also airtight songs. While King of Limbs was an interesting album, but perhaps not a good one, A Moon Shaped Pool is both interesting AND good. It takes multiple listens to appreciate how Yorke’s vocals interact with the strings on “Glass Eyes”, or how the numbing effect of “Daydreaming” acts as a catalyst for the rest of the album to really cut you to its core. And by the end, the reworking of “True Love Waits”, a song I’ll admit I was incredibly trepidatious about when I saw it on the track listing because of how much I love the live cut, is perhaps the closest the band has reached thus far in capturing true, devastating loneliness in all its biting seclusion and solitary alienation. For a band that’s released such tracks as “Videotape”, “Down is the New Up”, “Pyramid Song”, and even “Daydreaming” earlier on the album, that’s the highest compliment I can give.
Radiohead, Nigel Godrich, and the London Contemporary Orchestra, have created a masterpiece. As I listened to it with fresh ears on my walk to work this morning, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” (which is sillily titled like a Hail to the Thief B-side) came on. It was the song I was instantly the least into upon my several dozen listens yesterday. It took a long time to build into anything, with a sluggish piano being engulfed by a static beat and Yorke’s echo-y vocals lingering in the air with a sort of helplessness. By the time an almost Edge-like guitar chord comes in, we’re a minute and 40 seconds into the track and then finally the song start to move. Yesterday it annoyed me, but at least it didn’t alienate me. Yet this morning I loved it. I listened to it on repeat for the first hour of work. That opening was sublime in the bigger picture, allowing one of the few moments on the record for us to really digest the very few things that are happening. It was comforting.
The haters who hate the idea of Radiohead will never experience that moment of rediscovery, or even initial discovery, and A Moon Shaped Pool is up there as one of the best in their catalog with regards to delivering moments to discover. It’s a cold and often devastating listen, and I’m not fully confident I’ve heard it enough times to justifiably write a review. But then again, that’s the magic of Radiohead: No matter how many times you hear their albums, there’s always going to be something to hear that will take you by surprise. A Moon Shaped Pool is a staggering sonic force that establishes (or reestablishes) Radiohead as the best band of the past several decades. Grade: A