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First Thoughts Review: Radiohead, “A Moon Shaped Pool”

The music gods have been going a little overboard lately. It feels like every single major release we’ve been waiting for has come at once, with the first few months of 2016 being among the most sonically fruitful in memory.

Radiohead have and will forever be one of my favourite bands. I honestly cannot think of another full discography which has affected me as much; they taught me about music, instrumentation and melody in a way unlike anyone else; about cryptic, lyrical poetry; about music that, though often dark and of alienation and anxiety, is nevertheless intriguing and beautiful.

Recently the group vacated the internet, only to reappear a few days later with snippets of new music and their first two new singles since 2011 (save for the James Bond theme that never was, the gorgeous Spectre, released last Christmas). With two singles and only a few days notice, they have now unveiled their ninth album A Moon Shaped Pool.

This isn’t a full review per se, more observations and interpretations of what I’m hearing on my first couple listens of this deeply beautiful album.

Grab your headphones. Let’s dive in.

The first two tracks are those we heard last week – Burn The Witch and DaydreamingThe videos and songs are both entirely different; the former features a chugging orchestral arrangement, a potentially socio-political backstory and a sinister, animated film clip, while the latter is an understated Kid A-type exploration through icy landscapes and foggy pathways. Each time I listen, it devastates me a little more, particularly when you take in the accompanying film clip, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

At six-and-a-half minutes long, this is a break up song of sorts. “The damage is done,” Thom Yorke declares. “This goes beyond me, beyond you.” Finally, and admittedly I only discovered this on Genius, the phrase “efil ym fo flah” is looped repeatedly throughout the rest of the track. Backwards, it says “half of my life.” Last year, Yorke and his wife divorced after 23 years, which indeed was half of his life.

This is a diverse album in a number of strange ways. Nearly every track could probably slip into any of their last six, what with the cryptic lyrics peppered with momentarily remarkable clarity throughout; the music, equal parts electronic and organic, in no way feels like the kind where you could quickly note something like, “this is Radiohead’s foray into electronic music.” Sweeping and dramatic at times, confronting and minimal at others, with subtle intricacies, booming brass and even folk-tinged moments blending together, a melting pot of their own prior musical triumphs.

Decks Dark is a sonic universe unto itself. It has a full melody and solid instrumentation, including brass embellishments, courtesy of the London Contemporary orchestra (who feature throughout the entire album) and synth lashes, a nod to their Amnesiac days, when more – not less – was more. Piano trickles burrow into each ear, while Yorke sings on one of his longstanding favourite metaphors – alien life (but really, humans). It opens up with stunning choral phrasing, rich and muffled, like mermaids beneath a turquoise sea. The dark yet catchy syncopated rhythm, with thick bass and flickers of distorted guitar adding a crisp, textured edge – I could easily picture this on Hail to the Thief. 

Desert Island Disk features a twangy guitar that I never in a million years would have expected to hear on this record. Admittedly, until the bright orchestration of Burn The Witch, I assumed would be even bleaker, sparser, more digitally experimental than their previous two. But this straight up has acoustic folk elements to it. Backed by a distant stompy beat and led by a low, intimate melody, the lyric “Wind rushing ’round my open heart, an open ravine” immediately struck me.

Later track Present Tense featured similar unexpected elements, with regional Spanish guitar and shuffling percussion. Yorke’s ethereal melody again meets this choir of beautiful, sinister mermaids; however, as the track moves along, an almost chirpy percussion rhythm begins to grow. The melody slowly begins to drop in more major progressions, and the track ultimately feels like a Radiohead interpretation of folk music.

Ful Stop is alarming and jittery, with a deep, driving bass and flutes blasting out their lowest notes with controlled, powerful breathing. Both Ful Stop and Identikit are not entirely new, having both emerged as far back as 2012 in their live sets. More aligned with King of Limbs/In Rainbows type experimentation, the lyrics almost exclusively contain the repeated lines, “You really messed up this time” and “Two fools,” while frantic instruments pours in from every angle. This is a bitter jerk of a track.

Between this and the similarly erratic Identikit comes the angelic Glass Eyes, laden with lush, sentimental strings and tormented lyrics about anxiety and feeling lost. “Hey it’s me, I just got off the train. A frightening place, their faces are concrete grey, and I’m wondering should I turn around? Buy another ticket. Panic is coming on strong.” This might be one of the most intimate songs Radiohead have recorded. It has certainly hit me hard. “The path trails off and heads down a mountain through the dry bush, I don’t know where it leads, I don’t really care. I feel this often, go

The Numbers is spindly and beautiful, and the more times I listen to it, the more I love it. Opening on an incredible piano cadenza, the guitar layer here bears a remarkable resemblance to a riff on Kid A’s Optimistic. I checked, it does, and I love that it does. I’m pretty sure that this is my favourite song on the album It certainly contains my favourite moment on the album at precisely 3:32, when an enormous grenade of a bass explodes, followed by an immense, dramatic string countermelody, an incredible juxtaposition to Yorke’s vocals.

Second last track is Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief, from the much-referenced old English nursery rhyme Tinker Tailor. The soundscape is one of the most interesting on the record, pairing a muffled, bassy piano with percussive swooshes, trickling synths and more. As I said, this album really brings together organic with electronic instrumentation. It also marries ambient and experimental rhythms with more basic rock elements and syncopated beats, as seen here. This is an ultimate blend for any Radiohead aficionado, regardless of era.

While about seven of the tracks on this album have been heard prior to release in some form or another, the album’s final track is the most unexpected and perhaps the most special: True Love Waits. This song is more than twenty years old, and its only appearance on a Radiohead record is I Might Be Wrong, a collection of live recordings from 2001 (in a case that was always frustratingly oversized for my old CD stacks). I don’t know what I can say about this track that has not already been said. This is one for the long time fans who have questioned its demarcation to deep cut since it was first played live in 1995. It’s not exactly a bright track, but the very fact that I’m hearing an album version of a song I know so well feels like it is a thick, warm blanket wrapped around me on a cold night.

This album is a masterpiece. It is a blend of everything that everyone loves about Radiohead. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who can really pull the “old stuff vs. new stuff” line about A Moon Shaped Pool, which is extremely rare for a band more than three decades into their career. I cannot wait to see this performed live.

You can listen to it on Tidal or iTunes.

Image: Radiohead