High expectations can sabotage your enjoyment of a perfectly good album. Radiohead’s 2011 album The King of Limbs (TKOL) was probably the worst victim of this phenomenon in the band’s history. TKOL was so soft and ethereal that it almost made me wish for the return of an alt. rock Bends-era Radiohead with its big distorted guitar leads. It wasn’t a bad album. TKOL just wasn’t the triumphant return that many fans expected. But why shouldn’t we have high expectations for a band that manages to reinvent itself with every new release? The Bends (1995) is through and through an in-your-face rock album whereas Kid A (2000) flirts with everything from cryptic electronic vocal sampling, to straightforward acoustic ballads. Though the band has managed to keep up this reputation of unexpectedness, A Moon Shaped Pool (AMSP), with no drastic stylistic shift, is the exception to the norm. With tracks written as early as the late 90s, and as late as this year, AMSP shows the Radiohead we all know and love, but nonetheless one whose open sorrow and grace is as emotionally devastating as it is satisfying.
If there is any substantive evolution in sound occurring on this album, it is the occasional emphasis on orchestral strings, courtesy of guitarist-turned-composer Johnny Greenwood. These arrangements take centre stage behind Thom Yorke’s ghostly falsetto in the album’s opener ‘Burn The Witch’. Though we get a taste of singer Thom Yorke’s typical (and enjoyable) semi-cryptic semi-political lyricisms, and though this intense opening is appealing on its own, this track is disconnected from what follows. Whereas ‘Burn the Witch’ gives us a tight upbeat rhythm, the rest of AMSP feels like Radiohead’s most open-ended and organic album to date. Though Yorke’s political antics recur on tracks like ‘The Numbers’, most of AMSP shows us Thom Yorke at his most honest and heartbroken.
The second track is the true opener of this album. ‘Daydreaming’ has an almost cinematic quality: its slow piano arpeggios and creeping strings underline Yorke’s chopped and reversed background vocals (à la ‘Everything in its Right Place’). Greenwood’s compositional chops are seen in full force when acoustic elements are seamlessly combined with electronic and ambient sounds that make this track sonically dense meriting multiple listens. Though ‘Daydreaming’ isn’t the most explicit in its lyrical content, the sorrow in Yorke’s vocal presence is haunting. Of note however, is a reversed and pitch-shifted snippet at the very end of the track repeating the line ‘half my life’ (or as some interpret it, ‘half my love’, which likely refers to Yorke’s recent separation from his partner of over 20 years). It feels as if after all these years of Yorke’s obsession with the abstract and cryptic, he is now simultaneously maintaining his mysterious persona, while also laying his heart bare.
‘Decks Dark’, though not the most memorable song on the album, is a perfect example of how AMSP takes no explicit risks, but still distinguishes itself from the band’s previous works. For ‘Decks Dark’ this is because of its subtle similarity to ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’, an older song off of OK Computer. We get to hear Yorke’s strange ramblings about aliens as well as similar descending melodies accompanying the verses. But different from ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, a piano and even a choir replace the guitar, the tempo is much slower and the delivery is much less muted. Radiohead may have given up its wild ambition typical of the early 2000s – but nonetheless sounds incredibly mature, presenting a quieter and highly curated sound. This might come as a disappointment for fans of tracks like ‘Bodysnatchers’, but if The King of Limbs gives any indication of the band’s general direction, it’s safe to say Radiohead’s edgy-in-your-face-rock sound is a thing of the past.
However, this album’s quietness doesn’t utterly envelop it, nor does it prevent it from giving us tracks that explore some new territory. In ‘Desert Island Disk’, the repeated acoustic guitar riff alludes to Nick Drake’s Pink Moon (1972) a similarly quiet and depressing album and an unexpected influence this late in Radiohead’s career. The band’s not playing jazz or anything– but Thom Yorke’s take on folk guitar accompanied by a host of echoing ambient noises feels new enough, while fitting comfortably within the band’s familiar appeal. ‘Present Tense’, one of the final tracks, also adopts an unexpected – but nonetheless successful – influence in Radiohead’s discography. The song is carried by a light samba beat and an acoustic guitar which becomes increasingly satisfying as different layers are added throughout the song. The rich layering of guitar parts is definitely something we’ve seen before on tracks like ‘Weird Fishes’, but with much more emotionally charged lyrics (especially the refrain ‘In you I’m lost’), this new track is an unexpected but surprisingly compatible addition to Radiohead’s sound.
‘Ful Stop’ adds some intensity with the repeated ‘you really messed up everything’ over a droning bass line vaguely reminiscent of Kid A’s ‘The National Anthem’. A build up of overlapping synthesizer melodies eventually leads to this album’s first major burst of energy as layered guitar lines accompany the bass and Yorke laments ‘all the good times’ in his trademark falsetto. Along with a trademark Johnny Greenwood guitar solo at the end of ‘Identikit’, Radiohead shows they are not going to limit themselves to the slow, unsettling pace of songs like ‘Daydreaming’. AMSP walks a fine line between an album that will just put you to sleep and one that keeps you awake in anticipation of every new layer of instrumentation and stylistic change. Tracks like ‘Ful Stop’ and ‘Identikit’ make sure that the latter is predominantly the case.
By the end of the album, though, the otherwise welcome distinguishing features of this album became a bit overdone and even corny. On the tenth track ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier…’ Greenwood’s strings occupy a bit too much space, and the ‘cinematic’ quality that works well in other songs loses appeal here. There’s nothing blatantly offensive about this track; perhaps it makes sense to end such a dreary album with a whimper rather than a bang. The quiet song, though perhaps fitting, is woefully unimpressive.
For a collection of 11 tracks written over such a long span of time, AMSP sounds so sonically and thematically coherent that it may as well have been written immediately after Yorke’s oft-lamented heartbreak. Indeed, the true magic of the age of some of these tracks is felt on the album’s closer, ‘True Love Waits’; it was originally written in 1995 and occasionally performed live with an acoustic guitar. This time however, we get a piano ballad that is gradually joined by playful ambient riffs. Whereas presumably this ballad was originally about Yorke’s longing for true love, the repeated line ‘just don’t leave’ now makes it a plea to his now departed lover. Along with lines like ‘I’m not living / I’m just killing time’, ‘True Love Waits’ is a beautiful and heart-crushing display of Thom Yorke at his most honest and fragile. Despite all the years of unusual imagery ranging from ‘black-eyed angels’ to ‘worms and weird fishes’, the simple repetition of ‘just don’t leave’ reveals Yorke as no less human than any of the ‘mere mortals’ that listen to his music.
A Moon Shaped Pool is gorgeous yet unsettling, grandiose yet utterly personal. Songs drift from urgent to lamenting to utterly hopeless – but they are consistently and uncompromisingly beautiful. This album isn’t some innovative masterpiece like some of Radiohead’s other works, but there isn’t anything glaringly wrong with it. This is not an album to blow your speakers out to, and even for Radiohead, this may not be an album that grabs your attention after a first listen through. Its dreariness might take a while to settle into, but given the attention it needs, AMSP is as awe-inspiring as it is soul-crushing. There are great bands whose new projects consistently fail to live up to previous successes (e.g. The Strokes, Weezer). A Moon Shaped Pool has shown that Radiohead is not one of them. If anything, AMSP has reminded us that we should have taken Radiohead when they last warned us: ‘If you think this is over, then you’re wrong’.
Highs: Daydreaming, Ful Stop, Present Tense, True Love Waits
Lows: Burn the Witch, Tinker Tailor