Let the fanfare blare, the day has finally arrived, Radiohead has released their much anticipated ninth album “A Moon Shaped Po0l”, the follow up to 2012’s “The King Of Limbs”. It has been a long wait for the next installment in the journey that is Radiohead’s music. Sure there have been plenty of solo, side and novelty projects, but fans have been waiting a long time for the big one.
As ever the band has indulged in building a mystery. An entire article could be written about the false starts and dead end clues that have wound the windless of fan anticipation to the breaking point. The response to their limited run of festival dates and concert appearances has telegraphed to the band and management that the fandom is frantic for just about anything the band would officially release. The recent mysterious mailer along with their twitter accounts and site going white were indicators that something was finally on its way. If it was another false alarm many feared anarchy might break forth in the ranks. Thankfully all potential havoc was finally averted with the two single releases along with brilliant videos and then the album.
With the release of “A Moon Shaped Pool” we can finally fill in the blanks and each have our own gestalt moment about what certain cryptic Twitter messages meant; then move on to deciphering the recording. Surely ever more information will be forthcoming in the following days as those Oxford Oracles of Delphi finally give voice. Because of how monumental this album is in the music universe this article is a first quick take. It will be followed up with a more in-depth essay in the coming days. I will probably end up recanting much of this review at that later date. Thankfully we now have “A Moon Shaped Pool” and time and eternity to examine the minutiae.
“A Moon Shaped Pool” is just as ambitious a reach as any Radiohead album that proceeded. It is everything that has come before and like nothing they have ever presented. That statement in itself is a paradox considering five tracks are known entities in the world of Radiohead fandom, yet each of those tracks has been given a different mind opening treatment. If there was an unofficial motto for Radiohead it is this, they are ever moving forward, opening as it were the next door into another room of creativity.
My thoughts could change on whether “A Moon Shaped Pool” is a concept album; at first glance it doesn't come off that way. However there are common threads woven throughout the album. A sadness and regret exists and rears its head numerous times on the tracks. “Daydreaming” alone could be used as a test of your humanity. If you are not moved by its inherent sadness you may lack human emotions. The re-creation of the beloved frequent concert closer “True Love Waits” bleeds even more regret and yearning. Especially when compared to the ways it has been preformed in the past. There have been some sad events since the last album with the passing away of loved ones and staff and the break up of a long term relationship.
These events seem to inform and haunt the album. But to counter those who would simply response by saying that Radiohead has always manufactured brooding melancholy and there is nothing new on “A Moon Shaped Pool”. Let me point out that melancholy isn’t the only string played on the release; “Ful Stop” and “Identikit” are pretty impressive guitar laden songs that might possibly win a nod from “The Bends” era fans. “Identikit” is an unshakable earworm; “The Numbers and “Burn The Witch” provide spicy insightful political commentary. The samba influenced reinterpretation of “The Present Tense” and the frantic “Decks Dark” are testaments to the twists and turns contained on the release. All these songs together provide the latest temperature taking report on the status of mankind. It is Radiohead’s real calling.
Very quickly upon listening to the release, it jumps out that Thom Yorke’s vocals are at the forefront, not obscured noise as in “Kid A”. He is fully engaged and swoops and trills between emotional broken moments to falsetto and back again. Also of note is the vulnerability that Yorke shows in the vocals and lyrics. In some ways it is like we are witnessing his worst nightmare having taken place. The other shoe has dropped and he is attempting a catharsis to process what has occurred. It is no wonder “A Moon Shaped Pool” hits the listener viscerally. Everyone has the urge to help a shocked accident victim: pulling for a full recovery and a happy ending. This urge replays itself frequently right up until the last note of “True Love Waits”.
Another revelation on the disc is just how much Jonny Greenwood brings to this release. This go round he certainly puts on display his overflowing bag of new experiences gained from numerous side projects. He has always shown mad ability but now there is an assured maturity that shines forth. Also to be treasured are the contributions of his London Contemporary Orchestra colleagues. Those contributions are achingly beautiful and unforgettable. That doesn’t mean it is all classical strings, there are moments of guitar virtuosity that Jonny and his band mates provide, and “Identikit and Ful Stop” display why Jonny is considered a guitar genius. Lest he be forgotten Colin Greenwood has some really strong bass features, his work on “Decks Dark” is phenomenal. Phil Selway is performing the nuanced but perfect drumming that is his signature and that impressive drumming sets the foundation for the jazz fusion track, “Tinker, Tailor…”. I also believe that Ed O’Brien’s fingerprints are all over the guitar composition on “The Present Tense”.
The alphabetic track list shape-shifts from the aggressive opener “Burn the Witch”, through the jazz/acoustic amalgam “Desert Island Disk”, to dub inspired “Identikit” and the Neil Young homage of “The Numbers” which as late as February was titled “Silent Spring”. Where there seems to be no overarching concept there is intricate cohesion. On the first play the cohesion is not apparent but creeps up on you with repeated listens.
“A Moon Shaped Pool” is a gripping and unrelenting album. There is a tremendous amount to absorb and the album demands attention throughout. “A Moon Shaped Pool” is in keeping with the tradition of all Radiohead albums, in that it requires numerous listens and will morph in its meaning as time and life occurs. It also requires you come at it from different angles to gain a full perspective, which can take if the past is any guide years in some cases to acquire. What “A Moon Shaped Pool” isn’t is a catchy top 10 radio friendly album, but at this point that is not what Radiohead is about. They have made this album as much to please themselves as for their fans. “A Moon Shaped Pool” does what it was intended to do, show exactly where the band’s mind-space was in this most current time period. It displays all that has been learned prior and the stretches beyond the reach of each of its members. It is certainly a worthy entry into Radiohead’s magnificent discography.
Favorite Tracks: Daydreaming, Identikit, Glass Eyes, Ful Stop, and Deck Dark.