Album Review: Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (2016 LP)

Let’s get this out of the way right now: A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead’s latest, is not the greatest album ever made. The fact that this will be seen as a crushing disappointment by many is a measure of the devotion of the band’s acolytes.

Radiohead is often touted as the Only Rock Band That Matters, every new album treated as a missive from the heavens. Apparently one group is meant to single-handedly carry the entire concept of rock music on its back, despite the fact that half of the time Radiohead are not even a rock band. I think it’s unfair to place such lofty expectations on one band – this album is not the next installment in a serialised account of the second coming. It’s just a record of 11 songs, at least 6 of which are excellent.  And that’s enough for me. Radiohead are just a musical group, made up of humans.

A Moon Shaped Pool finds the band once again reinventing their sound, although this time more subtly than in their radical late 90s period. Gone for the most part are the jittery, crunchy electronic landscapes of The King of LimbsRadiohead has enlisted a symphony orchestra to add vibrant strings, with the result being an album that sounds more organic than their previous LP.

These strings are used to great effect in the fantastic opener, “Burn the Witch”, an ominous track that has apparently been gestating for at least 13 years. The themes of surveillance and mob-mentality clearly root the song in the Hail To The Thief period in which it was written. This is followed up by the meandering, impressionistic “Daydreaming”, released a few days before the album with a Paul Thomas Anderson directed video. These two songs for me represent the central dichotomy of the album. The songs that have been in the vault for a while, like “True Love Waits”, are just that – songs, with some semblance of a conventional verse-chorus-verse structure.

Other songs, like “Daydreaming” and the spooky “Ful Stop”, are more reminiscent of Kid A structures, where traditional modes are abandoned in favour of groove-based and dark sketches. The fact that these two Radioheads are able to coexist in a way that is cohesive and affecting is a testament to the consummate musicianship of the group. The motif that binds these two disparate elements is the warbling, slightly distorted, yet warm keyboards.

The lyrical content here is also more emotional and perhaps more relatable than the rather obtuse King of Limbs. Here Thom Yorke is not trying to confuse us, he’s trying to connect with the outside world – the lyrics are filled with dark statements like “broken hearts make it rain,” and “you messed up everything”. But there is also hope among the doom and gloom, particularly in the standout “The Numbers,” a song about climate change. Essentially an ode to mother earth’s gifts, the repeated mantra “the future is inside us/it’s not somewhere else” is a perfect summary of the cause (and, possibly, solution) of climate change – human activity.

While Thom Yorke’s lyrics can sometimes be either too opaque or too straightforward – here he has found a happy middle-ground, the words forming just part of an absorbing melange of feelings and moods. 

The only song that really doesn’t work for me is “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” – it’s an impressionistic tune like “Daydreaming” but to me it really just sounds like random noodling. Who knows, sometimes Radiohead songs reveal themselves over time, so I give it the benefit of the doubt – every other song ranges from good to excellent.

“A Moon Shaped Pool” is a fantastic album. It’s not their masterpiece – Radiohead already has more of those than some bands have albums – but it is a another pleasing musical shift from a group who has been truly and fearlessly original for two decades. They’re not the messiah – they’re just a very good band, and we should all be content to sit back and enjoy.

Review Score: 8.4 out of 10

A Moon Shaped Pool is available now.

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