As with each of their eight previous studio albums, it’s damn near impossible to form conclusions about Radiohead’s latest effort A Moon Shaped Pool upon one cursory listen. In fact, even after four or five listens, one still cannot possibly claim to fully interpret the meaning, grasp the weight, and appreciate the unequivocal beauty of the eleven elegiac songs here. It may take weeks, months even, to completely make sense of it all. Hence, I just couldn’t stomach rushing out a slipshod, premature evaluation within 24 hours of the album’s much anticipated and ballyhooed release just over a week ago. Indeed, I was happy to defer those insta-reviews to others who were chomping at the bit. Have at it, y’all.
Along with the countless critical assessments of the album, a slew of articles have been written in the past week examining the nature of and rationale behind how Radiohead released A Moon Shaped Pool in unorthodox fashion, as they’ve been prone to do over the past ten years. There’s plenty to read out there on the subject, and plenty of folks whining about the album’s conspicuous absence from their beloved Spotify. Personally, I find these discussions far less important or interesting than the music itself, so the latter is what we’ll focus on today. Okay? Okay.
From what I’ve observed thus far, more than a few pundits have inevitably and understandably attempted to assess and define A Moon Shaped Pool relative to its eight precursors. Where does it rank within Radiohead’s discography? Is it on par with OK Computer? Is it as experimental as Kid A? Is it better or worse than their most recent The King of Limbs?
But what if we listen to A Moon Shaped Pool more objectively, based on its own merits alone, without comparing and contrasting it to the albums that have come before? Can we simply approach these eleven songs as the band’s (and Thom Yorke’s) statement in the here and now, the manifestation of the band’s creative vision in 2016, not 1993, not 1997, not 2011? It’s admittedly a challenge to avoid the comparisons, particularly considering that a handful of the songs were first conceived during the recording sessions for previous LPs, but I’ll give it a try nevertheless.
To be sure, Radiohead’s music and Yorke’s songwriting have always derived their power in the cerebral and melancholic. But A Moon Shaped Pool is arguably the most introspective and lucid song suite they’ve delivered yet. The pervasive and universally applicable themes of alienation, disenchantment, and the complexities of life and love that we’ve come to associate with Radiohead are all present once again.
However, largely fueled by the recent dissolution of his 23-year relationship with his partner Rachel Owen, Yorke infuses the songs with his most starkly personal lyrics to date, revealing an emotional intimacy and vulnerability that has never been as pronounced. The subject matter is undeniably bleak. But the songs also seem to suggest the promise of redemption through the acknowledgment, processing, and exorcism of heartache. All of this while set atop some of the band’s most symphonic, goosebump-inducing melodies they’ve ever crafted, the majority of which are bolstered by the sublime string and vocal contributions of the London Contemporary Orchestra.
With a mounting sense of doom that builds throughout its 220 seconds, the ominous album opener “Burn the Witch” alludes to the xenophobia and fear-mongering nativism present today, particularly here in the States, but also throughout the expanse of Europe. With Orwellian lyrics (e.g., “We know where you live”) that evoke infamous examples of groupthink (a la George Orwell’s 1984, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, McCarthyism and the Red Scare) and imagery not dissimilar from the 1973 horror film The Wicker Man, the track reinforces, yet again, Radiohead’s unparalleled penchant for provocation.
Released as the second album teaser shortly after “Burn the Witch,” the piano-driven minimalism of “Daydreaming” offers the perfect backdrop for Yorke’s tortured, fatalistic ruminations about the loss of innocence and futility of idealism. His sobering admission that “It’s too late / The damage is done” could very well be considered as a thinly veiled commentary on environmental destruction. Though an alternative interpretation could be that it represents the first time on the album that Yorke acknowledges the irreconcilable, devastating end of his relationship.
Similar allusions to the fragility and impermanence of love reappear often across the album. On the haunting “Decks Dark,” Yorke wonders “Have you had enough of me? / Sweet darling,” while the shimmering “Glass Eyes” concludes with the closing refrain of “I feel this love turn cold.” On the plaintive “Present Tense,” Yorke struggles with the notion that “all this love could be in vain,” and later pleads “Just don’t leave” throughout album closer “True Love Waits,” an older composition that the band has performed live for years and featured on 2001’s I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings.
Amidst all of the doom and gloom, however, a modicum of optimism shines through. Originally performed as “Silent Spring” at the Pathway to Paris concert this past December, the renamed “The Numbers” is an empowering rebuke against the destructive forces of the world’s political powers, particularly with respect to the environment, and a clarion call to the world to “take back what is ours” and create change by and for ourselves.
The acoustic guitar-blessed “Desert Island Disk,” the other new song the band performed at the aforementioned Paris show, finds Yorke in unabashed mid-life self-reflection mode, as he examines his identity in the aftermath of his defunct relationship. When he sings “Through an open doorway / Across a street / To another life / And catching my reflection in a window / Switching on a light / One I didn’t know / Totally alive / Totally released” and later, “Different types of love / Are possible,” the confessions indicate an awakening, the marking of the transition into a new and hopeful phase of his life.
Repeated listens during the days and weeks to come will invariably reveal previously overlooked nuances and revelations layered deep within A Moon Shaped Pool’s exquisitely crafted songs. But in the meantime, after spending one week with the album, it’s clear that Radiohead’s ninth LP further cements the band’s unparalleled musical legacy, one that continues to evolve and excite in the most dynamic of ways.
Notable Tracks: “Burn the Witch” | “Daydreaming” | “Decks Dark” | “Desert Island Disk” | “Present Tense” | “True Love Waits”