I’m sure there’s some audiophile out in the world who asks a question that few have dared to ask: What’s so great about Radiohead? And you know what, it’s the perfect time to ponder the impact of a band that’s been around a year longer than the person writing this review.
What makes Radiohead so beloved? Is it the music that morphs and mutates into various definitions of sonic beauty every album? Maybe the quixotic but actually forceful lyrics that’ve tackled technology invading life or inner paranoia? How about the sullen yet manic enigma that is frontman Thom Yorke? In actuality, it’s what all those elements create from their collision: an engrossing, near-cinematic experience to lose yourself in through the comfort of your headphones. Despite the band forming over 30 years ago and the constantly changing music landscape, the ninth album from Britain’s alt-rock superheroes is their best work in years.
Released with little fanfare and even less explanation, A Moon Shaped Pool sees Radiohead once again morph into an entirely different sound while still being something that Radiohead would make. At 52 and a half minutes in 12 tracks, A Moon Shaped Pool is a journey down a dark rabbit hole filled with haunting string sections and the occasional swirls of electronics. Plus, guitars! Radiohead actually decided to throw in some plucks and picks of guitar strings that make a more prominent appearance this time around. The focus of the instrumentation here is more on delicacy and fragility than the creeping repetition of their last album, 2011’s The King of Limbs. There’s a sense of quiet beauty to the sounds of “Daydreaming,” “Glass Eyes,” “Present Tense” and “True Love Waits.” Those tracks are fronted mostly by a soft acoustic guitar, a lush piano or sometimes both with haunting ambient electronics filling the background.
While it sounds more like a collaboration between Yorke and guitarist/composer Jonny Greenwood, the rest of the band get their due. The jazzy groove of “Identikit” reminds listeners that the backbeat of drummer Philip Selway and bassist Colin Greenwood remain Radiohead’s secret weapon. “The Numbers” sounds like Radiohead circa OK Computer with the band cruising along to a light beat, while “Ful Stop” has a similar chaotic atmosphere to something off of Kid A.
This may be the quietest record the band has ever released and it occasionally feels like an album belonging entirely to Yorke and Jonny Greenwood. Lyrically, it’s Yorke’s showcase to bare his soul after recently splitting with his girlfriend of 23 years, Rachel Owen. “Identikit” is most definitely a break-up song as Yorke notes seeing a girl “messing me around” and how “Broken hearts make it rain.” “Decks Dark” has Yorke noting the girl’s “face in the glass, and it’s dark now / it was just a laugh, it was just a laugh.”
Yorke also knows how to construct an interesting narrative on the outstanding “Glass Eyes,” where he sets himself alienated by the “concrete grey” faces and chooses to escape it all for the excitement of the unknown. A less-concrete narrative is found in opening track and lead single “Burn the Witch,” where the thought of “sing[ing] a song on the jukebox that goes / burn the witch / burn the witch” can relate to outcasts being ostracized by the surrounding public (rumor has it the song and video is meant as commentary on the refugee crisis in Europe).
But it all comes back to broken hearts, especially on the crushing album closer “True Love Waits.” A track held in high regard by Radiohead cultists, “True Love Waits” is a tragic love story that opens with a straight punch to the gut: “I’ll drown my beliefs / to have your babies / I’ll dress like your niece / and wash your swollen feet.” Yorke believes that “true love waits / in haunted attics / and true love lives / on lollipops and crisps” as he begs his true love not to leave. Despite the electronics in the background, Yorke’s vocals are so bare that the cracks in his delivery are crystal clear. It’s fantastic to hear that balance between spacey ambiance and naked confrontation.
So what makes Radiohead so great? Taken from A Moon Shaped Pool alone, Radiohead have found a near-perfect balance between music ahead of its time and lyrics that clutch the soul. In fact, this is probably Radiohead’s idea of a soul record. The sparse instrumentation and haunting vocal delivery make for an engrossing sonic experience that speaks loud while keep the actual volume relatively low.
Once again, A Radiohead album is an experience instead of just another check-up on the world’s most interesting rock band. A Moon Shaped Pool is a fitting title, because I wanted to swim in the sonic flow of the album. Radiohead seemed to have slowed down and taken a look at the world around them more carefully instead of just starting a commotion in their own weird way. It’s going to be amazing to see how they take it on the road for the upcoming tour and it’s going to be interesting to see how (or if) they address the album’s content. But the best thing about A Moon Shaped Pool is how many times I’m going to listen to this album and discover new elements about every time I let my head dive deep into it. That’s the power of Radiohead: it’s not music to just listen to, it’s music to let wash over you.