Striking in its intimacy and introspection.
At this point the hype and fervor that surrounds Radiohead’s every move threatens to overtake the band’s music. This wasn’t always the case even when it was the Most Important Rock Band in the world, but something changed after the release of the lackluster The King of Limbs in 2011. That album–a short, slight collection of tunes that prioritized rhythm over atmosphere and melody–was arguably the first time that Radiohead failed to live up to its lofty reputation, and each successive action taken by the band’s members (Phil Selway’s awful singer-songwriter albums, Jonny Greenwood’s preference to work with Paul Thomas Anderson over his own bandmates, Thom Yorke starting a side project with Flea) seemed to send the same message: lower your expectations. Radiohead was awkwardly moving into its elder statesman phase, and seemed to know that another OK Computer or Kid A was beyond it. Yet once A Moon Shaped Pool was announced, the fervor and anticipation kicked into high gear again. This time Radiohead plays to its strengths by subtly tweaking its recognizable sound rather than completely reinventing it.
It seemed as if Radiohead had exhausted all of its musical weapons on its previous two albums, which saw the band return to heart-on-sleeve, organic rock and moody, stuttering electronica, respectively. On A Moon Shaped Pool, its turns to a new secret weapon: Greenwood’s orchestral compositions, performed here by the London Contemporary Orchestra. Radiohead has incorporated strings into its music before, but A Moon Shaped Pool is built almost entirely around these arrangements. The orchestra fills “Burn the Witch” with tension, taking an already paranoid song and driving it to the brink of insanity, while it adds a sinister drive to “The Numbers.” The LCO adds new colors and textures throughout a set of songs that sound distinctly workmanlike in contrast to the rest of Radiohead’s songbook.
That sort of grounded approach to songwriting has been a long time coming for the band since their political anxieties came to a head on Hail to the Thief in 2003. That anxiety still creeps in on “Witch,” but A Moon Shaped Pool generally concerns itself with the general anxieties of life. Moreover, it does so with a weary, sullen demeanor. Radiohead isn’t a world-beater anymore, and songs like the folk-tinged “Desert Island Disk” and the smoothly ambient “Glass Eyes” seek to find beauty in resignation. On the latter, Yorke sings as one end of a conversation, telling an unnamed speaker about his commute only to become cruelly aware of the stale dreariness and barely-concealed misery that surrounds him. “Identikit” speaks of “sweet-faced ones with nothing left inside” over twitchy post-punk guitar, while the Krautrock-inspired “Ful Stop” alternates between accusing a subject (“You really messed up this time”) and seeking their approval (“Take me back again”). While the palpable anxiety that one associates with Radiohead is still here, the new album reveals a band far more concerned with the personal than with the political.
A Moon Shaped Pool is filled with surprisingly personal touches, and it’s a bit jarring to hear a band like Radiohead sound so intimate. Then again, it’s not hard to imagine why Yorke would be concerned with the personal right now. Yorke being Yorke and Radiohead being Radiohead, these emotions are accentuated through music rather than directly expressed, but it all comes to a head on “True Love Waits.” A fan favorite that was long considered the best song that Radiohead never recorded for an album, “True Love Waits” appears here as something far different than the yearning acoustic ballad familiar to those who’ve seen the band play it live. Aside from intermittent piano, the song consists almost entirely of Yorke’s voice, the desperate pleading replaced with the despondency that comes when one knows that a situation is beyond repair. That makes Yorke’s plea in the chorus (“Just don’t leave/ Don’t leave”) all the more tragic; he knows that even begging can’t stop the inevitable from happening.
It’s hard to say whether A Moon Shaped Pool lives up to the hype. Some fans will inevitably be dissatisfied that the album that isn’t full of strident rockers, and others unhappy that it doesn’t push enough boundaries. But innovation is a tricky thing, more often stumbled upon than sought out. Instead, Radiohead shook up things more subtly with an intimate set of songs that distill the band to its essence before turning inward. A Moon Shaped Pool is not the best Radiohead album, but it is still striking in its intimacy and introspection. It’s a step forward and further evidence of just how thoroughly the band has mastered their craft.