First Impressions: Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool

Across the Margin weighs in on Radiohead’s ninth studio album, A Moon Shaped Pool….

by: Michael Shields1

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Radiohead, with their ninth studio album, A Moon Shaped Pool, have released the dystopian, futuristic, angst-filled soundtrack of our modern times that the world has been waiting for. They can smell the world liquefying and crumbling, and have turned that sickening aroma into potent and moving music. It’s the soundtrack for the end of the world. The sheet music for when The Empire falls and Radiohead is the band playing in the orchestra pit, and we are given a front row seat to watch it all go down.

A Moon Shaped Pool finds Radiohead at their most self-assured, fully in tune with who they are and where their potency and power lies. With an uncanny ability to invoke paranoia and to cool you down just as fast, their most recent endeavor delivers like no previous album has. On A Moon Shaped Pool elegance and dismay commingle in a way that fans of their music have yet to experience. There’s familiarity here of course, but this album invites us into a brave new world, one that we should enjoy while we still can. And that all begins with the album’s opening track, “Burn the Witch.”

“Burn the Witch” is a vociferous commencement, a resolute declaration of Radiohead’s long-awaited return2 and a reminder of their astounding capabilities. “Burn the Witch” was the first track released from their then forthcoming album, and it served to not only build the already escalating excitement, but also to make it known that Radiohead hadn’t skipped a beat. “Daydreaming,” which follows, was the second song the band released from A Moon Shaped Pool, paired with an enchanting video directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. This is the hook of the album, with “Burn the Witch” being the bait. “Daydreaming” is where Radiohead seizes you in, and lulls you into submission, soothing you into a trance-like state for the ride ahead.

“Deck’s Dark” has a tone which implies a new morning, or a fresh start. But all is not right on this dewy day. What seems new is now threatened, and this fresh dawn is a ruse, as “now we’re trapped, we’re dark cloud people. We are helpless to resist.” It is within the futuristic soundscapes of “Deck’s Dark,” where the bassline thumps like a panicked heart and guitar licks scream like an unhinged didgeridoo, where the true tone and theme of A Moon Shaped Pool reveals itself. Something is off, and “there’s nowhere left to hide.” “Desert Island Disks”3 acts as a momentary retreat from the malaise, as a nearly acoustic sounding dreamscape manifests itself where hope lingers “born of light” and “totally alive.” A place where “different types of love are possible.” But this hiatus is brief and brought to a “Full Stop,” the six-minute heart attack of sound that serves as the centerpiece of A Moon Shaped Pool.

“Full Stop” is paranoia in musical form. It’s a coming to grips, where you realize, as a person or as a species, that “you really messed up everything.” What have we done?, it seems to scream, invoking the regret of a drunk who blacked out with no recollection of the night before. “Full Stop” continually builds yet all the while maintains an eerie sense of anticipation, begging for the opportunity to take it all back and start anew – knowing full well that this desire is an airy hope.

“Glass Eyes” is what I imagine the sound a soul makes as it leaves its body. It’s a release, both cathartic and melancholy. It’s vintage Radiohead, healing and haunting. “Glass Eyes” is full-bodied, with sections that are orchestral in scope and heightened with gregariousness. But throughout the track, duplicity is scoffed at, the “sweet-faced ones with nothing left inside,” and we are still amongst “pieces of a wreck of mankind.” The snapping breakbeats of “Identikit” are revitalizing, with mechanized pops driving the track with bravado. “The Numbers” continues in this vein, a highly determined track where the strumming and overlying guitar riffs glide with purpose. And it is with purpose that Yorke croons about the power being in the hands of the people. “The Numbers” urges us to take responsibility as “the future is inside us. It’s not somewhere else.” This is our world. Our actions decide its fate. Our fate. “One day at a time.”

The onset of “Present Tense” is wholly possessed, a haunting where Radiohead releases the spirits of those who won’t abide to rest in peace. But this ghostly sensitivity morphs into an emotive reminder of the now, of the moment we live in and too often ignore. But we must get lost sometimes it declares (“a weapon of self defense”), in each other (“in you I’m lost”), and in dance (“it won’t get heavy. Don’t get heavy. Keep it light. Keep it moving”), as it’s an overwhelming challenge dealing with a world “crashing down.” “Present Tense” culminates in a melodic, rhythmic peak that is the essence of the beauty that Radiohead is so capable of birthing.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” is downbeat even for a Radiohead song, and is a mindfuck of a track awash in a sea of mindfucks that builds upon a cresting electro bass and is a true testament to the affectivity of Radiohead’s melancholic rapture. “True Love Waits” is the ideal closing song to this unforgettable album, purely blissful. It is a song we have been waiting five years for from Radiohead4, a gorgeous breeze to waft upon where “true love waits in haunted attics” and “true love lives on lollipops and crisps.”

A Moon Shaped Pool is a true labor of love. Radiohead’s producer, Nigel Godrich, has spoke of the stress involved in making the album, and in losing his father during its creation and because of this he put his whole being into its birthing (“a large part of my soul lives here”). The final product is as bold and as lush as anything Radiohead has crafted prior. They enlisted help from the London Contemporary Orchestra on the album (chiefly violinist Robert Ames and conductor Hugh Brunt) and this collaboration has empowered a highly textualized offering that is visceral and sweeping. Jonny Greenwood’s arrangements remain technically jaw-dropping and both haunting and inviting. And Thom Yorke doesn’t shy away from the harsher truths of modern society amid these gorgeous backdrops. Lamenting on loneliness, the need for escapism, certain environmental ruination, love lost, blatant negligence on both a personal and administrative level, and about finding a way to deal with it all, A Moon Shaped Pool isn’t for the faint of heart, but its melodic brilliance finds a way to take the edge off, and to allow you to meditate on what it all means…or to just sit back and enjoy the “Present Tense.”

  1. With thanks to Chris Thompson for his inspiration on the opening paragraph. []
  2. Their last studio album was 2011’s The King of Limbs. []
  3. The title invokes the age old question, if you were trapped on a desert island, which ten albums would you take with you. []
  4. Radiohead first played “True Love Waits” twenty-one years ago, so it’s easy to look at this song, as recorded on AMSP, as a track twenty-one years in the making. And many of the lyrics in the song, and throughout the album, drip with an extra poignancy in light of Thom Yorke’s recent split with his partner of twenty-three years. []

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