Rarely does one have a moderate stance on Radiohead. More often than not, those who are familiar with the band have by now either accepted that Thom Yorke and company are geniuses (or perhaps aliens) or that the band is, as Dan Ozzi so eloquently put it, “for boring music nerds.” It should be no surprise that I fall in the former camp, believing the band’s penchant for mystique and evolution has helped pave the way for other scene favorites (including Thrice and Brand New) and that even their most flawed albums (The Bends, Hail to the Thief) contain a spark that is integral to their later-career masterpieces.
Kid A, originally dubbed by many as “commercial suicide,” filtered the band’s newfound complexity and Yorke’s intense feelings of alienation through spacey synthesizers and bombastic drum machines. In Rainbows revisited the idea of Radiohead as a “rock” band, building upon 20-years of evolution with warm guitar tones, sometimes clean and sometimes completely fuzzed-out. And now there is A Moon Shaped Pool: Radiohead’s ninth album and arguably their fourth masterpiece, depending on who you’re talking to. Even the biggest Radiohead fans didn’t see this coming. Rather than taking another step forward (or, as some would argue, sideways), A Moon Shaped Pool actually reels itself back and turns inward, both sonically and lyrically.
I think A Moon Shaped Pool is the closest thing to an In Rainbows sequel we’re going to get. But, at the same time, this feels like an album that will likely find itself as a centerpiece of the band’s discography once all the dust settles. There is still plenty of experimentation here, with Johnny Greenwood’s notable orchestral touch carrying the album, providing a tense backbone for songs like “Burn the Witch” and “Glass Eyes.”
Outside of these bells and whistles, the compositional arrangements and vocal choirs, this album is built upon the best moments of Radiohead’s stunning discography. “Daydreaming,” while strangely sequenced at track two, blends strings and electronics around the central piano, calling back to several other of the band’s atmospheric ballads, including “Codex” and “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” Things become personal quickly as the song ends on Yorke’s hushed vocals, reversed and slowed down, singing “Half of my life -” likely referring to the recent divorce he and his wife went through after 23 years of marriage.
Several of these songs have been heard before, in some capacity, often live and often quite different from their now finalized versions. It makes sense that a song like “Present Tense” first appeared in 2008, just one year after the release of In Rainbows, as the plucked guitars and wordless croon could fit anywhere on that album. But the further we dive into A Moon Shaped Pool, the warmer the instrumentation seems to get and the more personal Yorke’s lyrics become. By “Desert Island Disk,” we are treated an almost full acoustic ballad, accompanied only by slight background noise and light drums that usher in the song’s crescendo. Yorke emphasizes that “different types of love are possible,” and by the time “Ful Stop” rolls around, it takes nearly two minutes of buzzing bass and whirring electronics just for Yorke to utter the words, “You really messed up everything.” The song bursts and blooms with quick-paced percussion and guitars, equal parts quiet and menacing.
“Glass Eyes” does away with the metaphors to reveal a telling a phone call between Yorke and an unknown recipient as he steps off a train mid-panic attack. As strings swell around his delicate lower register, the song becomes this album’s centerpiece. While not nearly as expansive as the rest of the album, “Glass Eyes” is one of the most intimate songs the band has ever written. And that’s before we get to the album closer, “True Love Waits.” The evolution of this fan-favorite for over 20-years is a heart-wrenching one. We now trade major key acoustics for a somber, haunting piano rendition played with over two decades of a broken marriage in mind. “True love waits in haunted attics,” Yorke sings bleakly before begging his lover, “Just don’t leave.” It will go down as perhaps the toughest moment to swallow in the band’s entire catalog, and even those wishing to start the album over again will need to take a second to reflect and let Yorke’s words settle.
Impressively, there are no missteps here, only songs that feel less notable and more familiar, including “Present Tense” and “The Numbers,” a wonderful callback to the straightforward buildups featured throughout OK Computer. The album may be a little front-heavy, but A Moon Shaped Pool is an experience. Maybe one made less rewarding when the songs are played selectively versus as a whole. But, with decades of expectations pitted against them, it’s almost unbelievable that Radiohead are still capable of a masterpiece like this, and until they officially call it quits, there’s no reason to expect anything less from perhaps the greatest rock band of the 21st century.