Album Review: Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

10/10

Album Review: Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool

This review is a continuation of the first impression review published earlier this week on the site. The intent is to dig deep into the latest Radiohead release and savor the goodness that lies within. Consider it a curated guide to some of the highlights of “A Moon Shaped Pool”.

Like every recording that Radiohead has ever released, and yes that includes the much maligned “Pablo Honey”, it takes a number of listens and a good set of headphones to absorb all that is on offer musically and lyrically. “A Moon Shaped Pool” is no different and may possibly be the most intense and gripping album they have ever released. Hyperbole I know, but there it is. On this recording peeling back the musical layers alone is a herculean task, the recording is so textured and nuanced that many a listener finds themselves boggled with how exactly the band created those sounds. Additionally the lyrics can often be interpreted a number of ways, which is intentional on Radiohead’s part.

“A Moon Shaped Pool” is Radiohead’s ninth studio album and was produced with longtime collaborator Nigel Godrich. It was recorded at La Fabrique Studios in St. Remy De Provence, France. It was an intermittent process rather than the usual approach utilized by most bands of a set period of time and then a scheduled release. The Jonny Greenwood affiliated London Contemporary Orchestra provided that extra something with strings and vocals, along with tour drummer Clive Deamer aiding on the song “Ful Stop”. Once again Stanley Donwood designed the surreal album cover and singles imagery. He described the art work this time around as “Made by the strong warm winds of Southern France.”

In the years prior to its release there has been significant speculation about what direction “A Moon Shaped Pool” would take. Many tried to gather clues from the numerous side projects the members had been involved with, and that is not a completely false scent. It would be unwise to say that those extracurricular exercises do not materialize on the album. A lion’s share of the impact outside the band seems to have originated from of Jonny’s Greenwood’s various endeavors. Additionally some speculated the album would display a techno digital feel, due to Thom Yorke’s concentration of that genre in his side projects. However other than the studio tools utilized to contort organic sound “A Moon shaped Pool” is certainly not Kid A version 2.0. or a continuation of a Yorke side project. The band aptly compartmentalized the side projects; choosing what to utilize and what to store away. The album is completely Radiohead, it is nothing we truly expected and everything we admire about their artistry. It is like a gestalt moment when we say “but of course, this was the obvious outcome”. With repeated listens the album morphs as recognition of bits of other Radiohead songs provide a gateway to a current track. There are flashes of all their albums somewhere in the mix and half the fun is trying to find them.

Some detractors would say “A Moon Shaped Pool” is the same thing over and over, melancholy and introspection writ large. Those same people would continuing by asking why the band makes such demanding music, can they not write a top 10 pop song? My answer would be why would they want to? Have you seen the state of popular music today? It reminds me of the faceless corporate rock of the 70’s. The majority of popular songs are miles wide on catchiness and a centimeter deep in either lasting power or meaning and usually both. For those who don’t get Radiohead or their fans, I am going to tell you a secret. The fans love the fact that years after they think they know a Radiohead song inside and out they can be surprised by another possible meaning. There is good value for the money when an album 15 years old can still shape shift and affect your thought processes. All great timeless music does that, and that is what Radiohead’s music does, and “A Moon Shaped Pool” is a master class in how to do it.

But I digress. Upon the release of “A Moon Shaped Pool” one of the biggest shocks for fans was the number of familiar song titles contained in the alphabetical track list. There are five song titles that long time fans recognized immediately. Two songs had been heard in an embryonic stage via Thom Yorke’s appearance at The Pathway to Paris Environmental Awareness Conference in Dec 2015 and finally the four new compositions. Some immediately feared the band had messed around for over four years and were delivering reheats. But never fear, what was on the menu was another spectacular journey through the quicksilver minds of each of the members of the band; delivering a cohesive collection of aching beautiful, gorgeously heartbreaking, and utterly mesmerizing songs. It is safe to say it is their least rock oriented release, but contains three truly rocking songs. It is a walk through the subconscious yet many times seems to be a confessional conversation between Yorke and the listener with very little filter or edit. Yorke has often said he likes to sing what every comes out of his mouth, and this release at points has that feeling. It is so magnificent yet so grim. The songs lend themselves to endless metamorphosis however are not obscure. In total “A Moon Shaped Pool” is everything Radiohead has ever reached for and again accomplished brilliantly.

The political allegory “Burn the Witch” starts off with strident strings and maintains a simmering growling menace throughout. It is that abrupt bang introduction the band is famous for, think “Airbag, 2+2=5, and 15 Step”. In the lyrics Yorke points out that we are blind to our own witch hunts due to group-think and the echo chamber. We rationalize the oppressive techniques our society uses to commit crimes against humanity. We condemn all others while justifying ourselves. This song is one of the two most overtly political songs on the album. We also get our first inking of the musical direct of the release with the stellar use of strings that are at their most arresting when creating the fire effect at the end of the song.

The goose bump inducing ”Daydreaming” is certainly a candidate for entry into the pantheon of top Radiohead songs. The groggy tape distortion in the beginning is followed by the lovely ethereal chimes; creates a mood of gauzy semi consciousness that is perfectly captured by the lyric, “a white room by a window with the sun coming through.” The shimmering piano holds the narrative and punctuated the drama of this song. Although there are many interpretations to the meaning of the lyric available, it is almost impossible to ignore Yorke’s emotionally fragile state. He is mourning a paradise lost and the fact it is our fault collectively and individually. He is seeking that which is just out of reach and possibly lost forever. For a person renowned for not wearing his heart on his sleeve he reveals a man who is heartbroken and it isn’t just about external worries. He is a cracked vase in need of catharsis. I think this song hits the listener so visceral because it captures the all too few moments of beauty and the all encompassing tragedy of life. The song sums up the question of the eternal “Why”, fears of middle age and the implosion of a long existing love. The use of the backward looping vocal could possibly be due to Yorke simply being unable to utter the lyrics expressed in so blatantly a forward manner. The starkness of those statements could only be bared if obscured. They convey someone edging toward emotional breakdown and physical shock.

“Decks Dark” breaks the introspective revelry serving as a palette cleanser after the emotionality of “Daydreaming”. What is of note is the conversational tone of Yorke’s vocals. There is a feeling of sitting in a bar having a conversation face to face. In the song Yorke seems to be discussing things we don’t want to face and that won’t go away as we regret that we are powerless to do much about any of it. He also notes the conundrum of human nature; that which we should, we do not, that that which we should not, we do. The most gripping lyrics for me are at the end, ”have you had enough of me, sweet darling?”, I don’t think this was aimed at the fan base but instead an underlying theme of regret that I have become convinced speaks to the break down of his personal relationship. Musically the track starts with a piano undulating over a drum loop, later in the song the organic drum is used as punctuation and a great grinding guitar kicks in, with a fantastic driving bass line. The song blends a wonky off kilter feel with a lush string. This is a song that grows with each listen revealing new depths.

“Desert Island Disk” starts with an acoustic folk inflected Flamingo guitar. It is a stream of consciousness poem of sorts. The power of the lyric comes from repetition of certain phrases through out the song. It is loaded with beautify imagery, ‘wind rushing round my open heart, an open ravine”. The lyrics suggest a theoretical deserted island where you only have yourself as company which leads to unavoidable self realization. That realization is likened to capturing your reflection in the mirror and for a brief moment seeing your complete self. Phil Selway does a spectacular job on the drums with this song and I think it will be amazing live. It is a gentle and moving track with a captivating jazz ending.

“Ful Stop” is a song that has been percolating on the back burner for the band since The King Of Limbs era. Thom Yorke performed it during his Atoms For Peace tour but it became something completely different when the band re approached it for this record. It begins with a cacophony of sound, a grinding menace with a Lo Fi treatment. Blaring horns jump in and summons forth the song. It begins with the lyric, “You’ve really messed up everything.” which opens the interpretation of the lyric to numerous meanings. One interpretation is karmic payback or using up your last chance and not being allowed another, being caught in your own trap and having to taking your medicine, “…foul tasting medicine, to be trapped in your ful stop, …all the good times…take me back again.” Musically there are finger prints of Atoms For Peace’s song “Default” all over this version of the track. The song builds and builds with amazing bass and drum over a threatening deep chord and great chiming guitar, then explodes at the half way mark into an even more epic sonic atmosphere. It is a monster of a song with a spectacular treatment, worth the wait and changes up the momentum of the album just when it was needed.

The sorrowful “Glass Eyes” is the shortest song on the release but packs a heck of a wallop. The piano ballad is somber, quiet and heart rendering. It again has that feel of “Decks Deep” with the conversational broken fourth wall. It begins with an eavesdropped phone conversation. Yorke describes the grey facelessness of people and places and the anxiety that this is all there is in life. The song moves on to an overwhelming desire to run away, “the path trails off and heads down the mountain…I don’t know where it leads… I don’t really care.” The track is loaded with despair and abandonment describing someone at the end of their rope needing to escape; punctuated with lush strings that mirror the emotion. Taking a step back the track lyrics seem to draw the parallels to the end of a relationship and the aftermath once the unimaginable occurs. It is Yorke’s gooey center on displace with no protective covering. It can’t be anything but gripping; arresting the listener with soul bearing confessions.

“Identikit” has been a bit of a white whale for me since I heard it in concert on the The King Of Limbs tour. I love this song. Every member of the band is just knocking it out of the park. It is Radiohead doing that think they do best and so damn captivatingly. In some ways this song structurally echoes “Paranoid Android” and “Idioteque” with its distinctive sections all bound together. The song itself speaks to our inane popular culture and the people we set up as icons of absolutely no merit. They are idols with feet of clay, blown up pink balloon pigs filled with hot media air, “sweet faced ones with nothing left inside that we all could love.” Also to not be missed is the effective use of echoing the lyrics to send a message, “when I see you messing me around I don’t want to know, I don’t want to know.” That lyric can be taken as ignorance is bliss and we don’t want the curtain lifted, or simply don’t bother me with this silly stuff. The Identikit is likened to the items society demands every rag doll/individual should have in order to gain acceptance allowing no exceptions. There is a heavy dose of venom in the lyric but taken in its entirety it’s a respite from the heavy heart of the rest of the release. Musically the most exciting thing about “Identikit” is forsooth a guitar solo, wow and that bass line again, kudos Colin Greenwood! “Identikit” is a stunner of a song and I didn’t think it possible, but it is even better than the live version.

“The Numbers” was originally titled “Silent Spring”. The beginning cacophony of human voices parallels the beginning of “National Anthem”. It starts off with piano and then morphs into a very folk vibe where I thought Neil Young might break forth at any time. This is a song that will really take off live. In Yorke’s solo rendition of Dec of 2015 it was an arresting song; fully fleshed out by the band it is even more splendid. The track is one of the more obvious political songs on the release and has a healthy dose of anger. The lyrics look to take a strip off of the powers that be, politicians, the media and society. Strong statements are made.” We are of the earth, how do we atone, the future is inside us it is not somewhere else.” The song goes on to further state, “We call upon the people, the people have this power… the numbers are on our side to take back what is ours.” The drama of the track is held by the soaring strings and the Beatlesque crescendo at the end.

Out of the songs that had existed in Radiohead’s prior catalog the most transformed is “The Present Tense”. This reinterpretation is glorious, with a seductive come hither Samba feel. I suspect guitarist Ed O Brien had a hand in this guitar composition. Again Phil Selway does a fantastic job delivering on the drums. The lyrics themselves look at distance and staying in the current moment as coping mechanisms to fend off panic and anxiety, “This dance is like a weapon of self defense against the present tense.” Yorke is attempting to convey what it takes to stay mentally afloat as the world around spins into havoc and you struggle to get past the moment.” I am doing no harm as my world comes crashing down. I’ll be dancing freaking out deaf, dumb and blind.” At the end Yorke again ponders the investment of love, “has all this love had been in vein?” and leaves no definitive answer. It has been a wait for this song to finally be captured in the studio but again there is an extraordinary pay off.

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief”, takes its title from an Olde English nursery rhyme. This song has a slightly sinister feel as it seems to sit somewhere in the surreal subconscious. The plodding beat telegraphs that something wicked this way comes. There is also a great amount of glichy goodness in the beginning. The song takes awhile to get going but the entrance of Selway’s jazz fusion drumming shapeshifts the track into a sensuous swirling composition. The strings again dictate the ebb and flow of the drama. The end is also a cataclysm of sound with another backward looped vocal.

Fans have waited a very long time for an official studio version of “True Love Waits”. The song made its first appearance in concert during the Bends era. Here it initially receives a stripped back piano treatment. The familiar is transformed and becomes transcendent with this version. The tables musically and lyrically have turned. The pianos begin to pile up producing evocative emotion as they become more off kilter. The song is as beautiful as it has ever been, and the break of Yorke’s vocal on the “tiny hands” phrase is moving. It has been commonly believed by many that this song spoke to a discussion and situation in Yorke’s personal life; keeping that in mind a current reading of the song can be reinterpreted as leaving the door open in a splintered relationship. The song comes to an abrupt end leaving the feeling of unfinished business, or as in a cliff hanger with the end card reading “to be continued…” It is a brilliant end to a masterwork. Holding all the yearning it has always held and conveying what makes it so beloved.

“A Moon Shaped Pool” is a masterwork, there I said it. In the music world today there is no other band capable of making you feeling this good about feeling sad. Yes “A Moon Shaped Pool” is sad, dramatic, and emotionally unsettling, but that is what makes it so magnificent. Once you begin it next to impossible to not listen to the release from beginning to end. It hangs together and demands your attention, never letting go of your emotions. Albums by their nature are a reflection of a certain period in a band or performer’s life. In many ways the period between “The King of Limbs” and “A Moon Shaped Pool” was a trying and challenging time for the members of the band. There was a lot of change occurring in many of their worlds both good and bad and that is reflected on the album. Radiohead requires a lot from the listener, because they deliver so much. Every note is there for a purpose, every line parsed. It is an album that will linger long after we are gone. “A Moon Shaped Pool” places itself among the top entrants in Radiohead’s illustrious discography. I have gone back and forth on the grade, but in the end it is deserves a rating as perfect as it is 10/10.

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