A new Radiohead album is always cause for alarm in certain circles. ‘What will it sound like?’ Is the question most asked and after a thirty year career pushing their own boundaries and making forays into alt-rock, experimental dance, electronica and jazz it’s easy to see why.
Their ninth album, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ sounds like a culmination of these various trips into the unknown and a combination of the nuances they have learned over the years. It also strives into unfamiliar territory as, for a band as restless as Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool sounds almost content in parts. The band are much older now since they released Kid A, at the time a massive departure from their work in the 90s, and there is a sense that this is finally the place they have been searching for.
Jonny Greenwood’s work scoring films has certainly made an impact as many of the songs feature string segments that would be right at home in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. The Numbers is the most striking example of this as a rousing environmentalist folk song transforms into a cinematic epic with sweeping violins that dart in and out around the vocals and mimic the piano. Thom Yorke sings ‘Your system is a lie/a river running dry/the wings of a butterfly’ as the string section swells to a crescendo behind him and you can’t help but believe that the people really do have a power that must be tapped into, and soon before it’s too late to do anything.
Environmentalist themes and visions of a rotting earth are certainly not out of place in a Radiohead song, nor are the feelings of disassociation, panic and isolation that make up many of the songs here. But never before on a radiohead album have they seemed as personal as they do on this one, especially on Glass Eyes. No longer a distant observer, we can almost feel the air on the train platform we find ourselves on. Surrounded by faces of ‘concrete grey’ we feel close enough to embrace and maybe that’s exactly what we need.
‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is not a completely depressing affair however, many of the arrangements serve to invigorate rather than sedate and in the right environment many of the sounds here are almost uplifting. The Bossa Nova guitar on Present Tense and the cool beat behind Decks Dark help to show us that if we look beyond the darkness of the lyrics we might just find some hope.
As usual with Radiohead, nothing is quite as it seems. First listens are deceiving and as we dive in it becomes apparent that the waters are often deeper than we realised and suddenly we are pulled under by the current. Tracks that felt underwhelming to begin with are transformed into works of beauty (Tinker Tailor, I’m looking at you) when a switch somewhere in your head is flicked and suddenly everything is illuminated. Something that once seemed insignificant now looms in front of you and a shadow is cast over everything else, distorting a once seemingly empty landscape into a breathtaking scene.
The first Radiohead album in five years feels more complete, more full and more comfortable than their previous outing, the unfairly dismissed The King of Limbs. It also, in a way, feels like a goodbye. The album’s closer True Love Waits has been a fan favourite for over twenty years. Usually played on an acoustic guitar with Yorke’s soaring vocals begging ‘Just don’t leave, don’t leave’ and more recently as a subdued opener to Everything In It’s Right Place, their most displaced song has finally found its home as a stark, heart-wrenching piano ballad similar to In Rainbows’ own gorgeous closer, Videotape. Yorke’s voice breaks as he sings ‘Your tiny hands, your crazy kitten smile’ and he has never sounded more sincere.