AltWire Review: Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

amoonshapedpool However, the years have mostly been kind to the band.  They’ve evolved and experimented with each new release and for the most part their efforts have been successful.  Thom Yorke and company have also experimented with the way music is marketed and released. They did this with their name-your-price 2007 album In Rainbows, and the surprise release and atypical packaging of The King Of Limbs.  This time, 5 years later, the band removed all social media and internet presence only to return with cryptic video loops, pamphlets, and finally 2 music videos and a release date.  The hype was real, and it was strong, but now it’s here…the fabled LP 9: A Moon Shaped Pool.

Let’s be honest, The King Of Limbs had some people worried that Radiohead had their time in the sun. People assumed that the album signaled a band exiting their prime and moving towards more and more disappointing releases.  The fans can rest easy. A Moon Shaped Pool is a stunning and gorgeous piece of artistry that continues to experiment, expand, and evolve the unique talents of the band’s members.  It can’t truly be called a return to form because it is a new direction entirely, but there is a feeling that this new album shares an emotional and atmospheric core with Amnesiac and Kid A

Where TKOL was punchy and percussive, AMSP is dreamy and melancholy. It focuses more on soaring strings, smooth melodies, and space textures, giving the album a more somber and dramatic quality. The string arrangements in particular make certain moments cinematic, like the light, jumpy violins that switch off with driving basses and cellos on “Burn the Witch”.  It puts the listener on edge and unsettles the senses from the first moment. “Glass Eyes” and the finale of “The Numbers” are reminiscent of Johnny Greenwood’s work on film soundtracks; building chords and swelling to beautiful conclusions. The scope of the instrumentation elevates the songs to new and unexpected places. 

The band has been working on many of the songs on AMSP since the late 1990’s and you can hear the different moments through many of the tracks. “Identikit” and “Full Stop” call back to the percussion and repetition of In Rainbows and TKOL . “Decks Dark” and “Tinker Tailor…” call back the heavily synthesized feelings of Kid A and OK Computer. This mixing of sounds gives some songs a sense of restlessness. “The Numbers”, while it revolves mostly around a Neil Young-esque vintage folk rock sound, has so many external elements. There are piano accents and percussion instruments that jump in and out, giving the track an intentional messiness. Like an orchestra tuning before a concert, things are just noisy, like they haven’t gotten settled. It’s like the elements weren’t ready for the record to exist yet, and are desperately trying to get back in order. The album was never meant to sound settled, it’s transitioning. It’s working through some personal stuff right now so please pardon the rough edges.  This feeling of uneasiness and restlessness comes back over and over on “Desert Island Disk”, “Glass Eyes”, and “True Love Waits”

Lyrically, Thom follows a similar line.  The mood overall is pensive and even grim at times.  It makes sense, seeing as Thom Yorke recently split with his partner of almost 25 years.  Many of the songs have a somewhat cynical or pained take on the concepts of love and relationships.  But Yorke also takes on social issues and the increasing digitization of the world we live in; a topic Radiohead has approached in a number of ways for years. Here, the lyrics are conflicted in a different way. Yorke advocates running away and hiding from the world, but laments being lonely and forgotten. He cycles between feeling pain and accepting that the reasons for the pain are there and they are legitimate. He flips back and forth between anger and pleading desperation on “Full Stop”.  He seems to be wrestling with himself, his relationships, the world at large, and societal power dynamics, all with varying degrees of success. Sometimes he’s panicky and frantic, sometimes cocksure and arrogant, and sometimes pleading or demanding the world’s assistance. As a whole, the atmosphere is much more reserved and introspective, quieter than some of the band’s other work. 

For some artists, as they move in the direction of nostalgia and self-reflection, it can become predictable and uninteresting for the listener. In the case of Radiohead, the fact that so much of this album was in the works for so many years gives it a fresh quality.  It truly does read lyrically and musically as a flashback on the band’s work and on the personal lives involved. It shows where the world has gone since they started.  It’s a powerful and unique statement that, despite the variety of influences involved, doesn’t ever sound messy without meaning to.  It’s very calculated and very intentional.  Radiohead, it seems, are far from being past their prime, and still know how to transform and make great art out of pain.

Rating: A-

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