A Moon Shaped Pool

Radiohead has not yet made this album available for public streaming without a subscription. Please accept the above streamed single as a very recent but unrelated free download. When the album becomes available for stream, this post will include it.

Radiohead’s new album is a cornerstone within a galaxy.

Finally, Radiohead follows up their 2007 masterpiece, In Rainbows. I mean that ironically, I know they had another LP between now and then, it was King of Limbs (2011). The day I downloaded that one marked the first time I accepted Radiohead as fallible. It had to happen at some point: They released a just-good-enough record. Perhaps the best thing to come of it was a collection of remixes by electronic artists like Four Tet, Caribou, and Jacque Greene. My opinion may not be agreeable with yours.

Their latest release, A Moon Shaped Pool, lives up to normal Radiohead standards and exceeds them with a full 52 minutes of tightly crafted songs. What fans like me need to remind themselves of is that we judge them based upon previous masterpieces (objectively speaking, this band has inspired every type of musician and is widely reinterpreted, remixed, and praised) so we must hear it as if it were a debut band. Listen to this record as if there never was a Radiohead. Only then can you say whether or not the record is great.

Left to Right: Colin and Johnny Greenwood, Thom Yorke, Phil Selway, Ed O’Brien.

That is what their music does, it forces the issue. We meet ourselves again when we hear a new Radiohead album. It is more than cathartic. The reason for that is simple: Radiohead dies with every album. Every record is drearier and more beautiful than the next, in a way, as if going through deeper stages of the afterlife. By comparing the new record to your personal favorite helps only in measuring just how far they have come in a 25-year-and-going-strong collaboration.

We meet ourselves again when we hear a new Radiohead album. It is more than cathartic.

Like the album cover artwork by long-time collaborator Stanley Donwood, this new work has apparent extra-dimension, layers of unique worlds embedded into one image, one sense of place. And nothing looks or sounds separate. There is total cohesion. It could be viewed as flat and stark, but as you dive into its intricacy, that dimension comes to life.

Despite each new album reinventing the band, they’ve found a certain identity even when their instrumentation and technique changes. A typical song of theirs, until now, usually had some kind of verse/chorus pattern with a long wistful bridge, one that quiets the dynamic, breaks down the tonal center, and comes back with a strong finish. That formula was finally transcended.

Their new sound on A Moon Shaped Pool is fluid, organic, even linear. It is more carefree and less self-conscious. It feels like a band, but it also sounds heavily produced, blending the best of all their previous techniques while pushing songwriting into new territory.

Producer and unofficial sixth band member, Nigel Godrich has become as important to their sound as anyone. If you follow his work, its easy to recognize the rich sound of acoustic guitar on his albums, meticulously automated reverb and delay effects, textural mix, and overall warm quality. He brings his best tricks back to this record, but it sounds like he’s totally current on all the latest capabilities in computing and sampling. Far gone are the days of distorted loops and choppy edits thanks to the old school capabilities of their first electronic breakthrough, Kid A. And after listening to this album for days, this is their best work since that very album, published sixteen years ago.

A Moon Shaped Pool opens with “Burn the Witch,” striking first with the stabbing, percussive strings known as col legno technique, for a minimalist arrangement backed by grooving drums and bass, and the record earns the benefit of a strong lead-in. The song was chipped away at in sessions since Kid A and appeared as a phrase in the artwork for Hail to the Thief (2003). It was released as a single and music video featuring mid twentieth century clay film animation techniques. The arrangements were analyzed by Daniel Ross, highlighting Johnny Greenwood’s musical choices, rather than their much focused-on front man, Thom Yorke.

The other song to have a music video, this one directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is “Daydreaming.” It offers something simple, so simple you might feel it’s beneath this band — I did momentarily — but it also stresses to me that the band isn’t forcing it anymore. It works. Listening to it build is the pleasure of that song. Thom’s somber vocals carries it into an increasingly psychedelic landscape that lingers for a while too long until, toward the last minute, something tremendous evolves. Something as ugly as it is gorgeous, it takes over your whole attention. This is what is different about the band on this record.

More details about the music videos in this video review.

Additional artwork related to the "Daydreaming" single.
Additional artwork by Stanley Donwood related to the “Burn the Witch” single.

“Desks Dark” comes out of that as if it’s the same song. When the electric guitar appears it really picks up the mood. This one is not quite so tragic, but it’s still pretty weird. “Desert Island Disk” crossfades in from there, establishing a continuity for over 18 minutes by the song’s end — about one side of a vinyl LP. Thom’s acoustic guitar gently cuts the tension while keeping it up tempo. Its folk-like sound serves to cleanse the palette and sooth the ear. You’ll need it.

“Ful Stop” follows and does again what so many songs on this record have done: demolish expectations. A tight and dissonant bass line drives a strange energy that Thom creeps over after two minutes, “you really messed up everything.” It’s reminiscent of vintage electronic acts like Suicide and Silver Apples. “This is foul tasting medicine…to be dropped in your full stop.” Then suddenly, drums and guitar take over, giving it a totally different urgency. “Truth will mess you up,” He repeats. It becomes a rock song, then it reverts again halfway in one of those wistful bridges — only this one goes nowhere. “Take me back again,” he sings as if longing for ignorance. It finishes strong and suddenly.

I wanted to break down each track, but I want to leave that to you at this point because this review is just collecting words, so briefly from here out.

“Glass Eyes” is something beautiful — these strings have to be the increasingly sophisticated work of Greenwood.

“Indentikit” sounds like a totally different band, no doubt it will be a hit when they hit the road.

“The Numbers” comes off at first like late John Coltrane, but then it reminds me of another song, a b-side from OK Computer I think, but different. Like the previous, it has good cohesion and reminds you that this is still a rock band.

“Present Tense” keeps it light and keeps it moving.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” is a simple progression on what sounds like a noisy old organ drenched in reverb with Thom’s ballad-like vocals. When the bass and drums kick in, plus additional keyboards and strings, it becomes something really tight.

“True Love Waits” first appeared on record as a live track from their Kid A / Amnesiac tour record entitled I Might Be Wrong (2001). They have built songs over the course of years in the grind of world touring, but this is a track that fans have really waited for, as far back as 1995. Guitarist Ed O’Brien said in his tour diary from January of 2000,

we have cast the experimental net further afield to include material like ‘true love waits’ and ‘feeling pulled apart by horses’. the former has been kicking around for about four years now and each time we approached it we seemed to be going down the same old paths………it actually sounds like the start of something exciting now.

It is sentimental. When you listen to it, don’t feel alone when you tear up. When Thom wails “Just don’t leave! Don’t leave,” I’ve choked up more than I’d like to admit. The arrangement is stark and lovely, offering up all syncopation and melody to the vocals. It may not show 20 years of work, but I would imagine numerous versions have been thrown out.

When Thom wails ‘Just don’t leave! Don’t leave,’ I’ve choked up more than I’d like to admit.

The album was released digitally on Monday with vinyl as the final product in mind. Its appearance on record store shelves will be delayed until late June. You can pre-order the CD or double-vinyl album now and it will ship on June 17th or soon thereafter. The price tag is $29 plus shipping (and half that for the CD).

But if you’re about to spend too much on records, then you might as well blow $86 and get their fully designed limited art package (which includes both vinyl and CD copies) with two new songs yet to be released, on a fresh CD. It happens to include a piece of audio tape from their actual recording sessions going as far back as the late nineties. This won’t be ready until September.

As for me, I paid $11 for the instant download, because I’ve pirated everything of theirs since In Rainbows. Find it, listen to it, and please comment to provide your own review of this record in the section below.

Full Width Art for A Moon Shaped Pool
Sean Ongley

By Sean Ongley

Co-Founder of THRU Media. A background in non-profit, music, and radio preceded my ambitions here. Now, I aspire to produce new media and publish independent journalism at this site and beyond.

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