A Moon Shaped Pool carries with it the sound of a band working together once more rather than the work of a few select individuals.
By 2016, Radiohead had become not only the originators of the surprise album drop, but also the reigning champion of enigmatic marketing, cryptic hints and genuine amazement—a rarity for the music industry in the 21st century. When their entire web presence went dark that spring, the online music community very nearly imploded. What could this possibly mean? There had been hints of a potential album, but why, in advance of what could well be a surprise release, would they act out a title from one of their songs? Would they disappear completely, never to be seen again? Or was this just another instance of Radiohead knowingly fucking with an overly obsessive, even rabid audience clamoring for any and all news pertaining to the band.
Somewhat tellingly, the only marketing tied directly to the subsequent release of A Moon Shaped Pool came in the form of leaflets mailed to fans in the UK. This return to a pre-internet form of self-promotion, coupled with the complete erasure of their web presence, ultimately proved to offer more hints as to the band’s direction than any web campaign could have offered. Where much of the ‘00s saw the band, post-Kid A, delving deeper and deeper in to electronic and abstract music and leaving their guitar-based sound of the mid-‘90s behind seemingly for good, this retreat from a 24/7 universal, electronic dialogue would seem counterintuitive to the band’s purported reliance and commentary on the modern age.
But instead of swirling electronics or minimalist, almost impressionistic song poems A Moon Shaped Pool somewhat jarringly starts off with an aggressively insistent string arrangement that never fully cedes control to the creeping electronics that provide “Burn the Witch”’s rhythmic propulsion. Sounding wholly organic for the first time in a number of albums, this stylistic shift found the band harkening back to an earlier period of rock stardom wherein an album release constituted an event rather than momentary blip on the daily radar of an overabundance of music to process. Along with this, Thom Yorke seemed to have once again found his voice and lyrics a relevant part of the band’s sound, forgoing his usual vocal abstractions in favor of clearly articulated words and phrases more indicative of The Bends and even OK Computer than nearly any of his post-Kid A work, solo or otherwise.
And what initially seemed like something of a fluke shows itself to be the driving force behind the music on A Moon Shaped Pool. While assorted electronics still prowl the perimeter, the heart of each song is rooted in the physical, an easily identifiable sound source that lends the album a warm, introspectively fragile tone. From the gentle piano and strings of the somnambulant “Daydreaming” on, A Moon Shaped Pool finds the band returning to a more humanistic approach to their songwriting. If OK Computer signaled the decline of human influence in the creation of music at the end of the 20th century, A Moon Shaped Pool may well serve as its forbearer’s refutation of an idea taken to its extreme.
Here, too, A Moon Shaped Pool carries with it the sound of a band working together once more rather than the work of a few select individuals. From Jonny Greenwood’s cinematic string arrangements to brother Colin’s rumbling bass and Ed O’Brien’s once again recognizable guitar, the album sounded more like the logical extension of the group that produced both The Bends and OK Computer than that which put out Amnesiac, King of Limbs and In Rainbows. Their comingling of the electronic and organic owe more to their landmark work on OK Computer than nearly anything else they’ve released in the intervening 20 years. And while there had been moments scattered throughout their ‘00s-‘10s catalog that hinted at this return to the organic (“The National Anthem” and “Little By Little” to name but two), their dependence on elements of electronic music would make a full album of this kind inconceivable.
And yet that’s just what A Moon Shaped Pool is. “Desert Island Disk” is a gorgeous ballad built around a vaguely Eastern-influenced acoustic guitar figure, while “Present Tense” offers a delicate balance between its finger-picked acoustic and mirroring electronic guitar figures. “Ful Stop” fully embraces the band’s Krautrock influences they skirted for much of the 21st century, unleashing a circular, motorik beat that builds to a frenetic, guitar-dominated conclusion. Finally, the best evidence for A Moon Shaped Pool being a backwards-looking release is the inclusion of long-time live staple “True Love Waits.”
Other than the acoustic version of the song on 2001’s I Might Be Wrong: The Live Recordings, the song had remained frustratingly elusive on a proper release. And yet the version of “True Love Waits,” haunting though it may be, feels more like a brief retreat into the abstract, the song’s structure built around little more than Yorke’s fragile voice and heavily reverbed piano. And yet this somehow proves to be an apt arrangement to serve as the closing statement for an album that proves itself to be one of the more fascinating releases of their career. Though not without precedent, A Moon Shaped Pool feels like the sum of the band’s collective parts over the last 15 years or so having come together into a more cohesive and organic, less abstract whole that owes more to their mid-‘90s alt rock persona than the kings of the abstract they would eventually become.