Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool

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Radiohead
A Moon Shaped Pool
(XL Recordings)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

That adage about not being able to please everyone applies to every artist, but Radiohead is burdened by it more than most. Many fans want to hear them come up with OK Computer 2, while another segment of their backers desires them to keep pushing rock and roll into braver new worlds with their experimental tendencies.

Their ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, arrived amidst the band’s usual cloak of secrecy and misdirection this past weekend, and it’s unlikely that either of the aforementioned camps will be too happy about the direction it takes. Too bad for those folks, because this feels like the band’s most successful move against the grain since Kid A blew up expectations 16 years ago.

It doesn’t take long to notice the changes. Opening track “Burn The Witch” deals with alienation and paranoia run amok, familiar themes; “Cheer the gallows,” Thom Yorke intones. But while the beat is darkly funky and there’s an ominous hum on the bottom end of the song, the rhythm is driven by some rapidly-played violins that clear the air for the gloomy pronouncements to begin. The second track, “Daydreaming,” is even more striking: Lonely piano arpeggios and unsettling electronic twinkles sit in the background, but they are only window dressing for Yorke’s vocal. It’s been a while since we’ve heard his instrument not shrouded or robotically rendered or altered beyond recognition. Here it’s fragile and wounded, singing in dejected tones, “Dreamers, they never learn.” It’s an indelibly riveting moment.

That kind of directness is what stands out the most about A Moon Shaped Pool. That’s not to say the band has in any way abandoned the sonic frippery in which they’ve been indulging since Kid A. But it’s only part of the equation, not the driving factor. “Ful Stop” may begin with sound effects achieving the intensity of an air raid, but it’s eventually driven by one of those frenetic Radiohead rhythms, man-made by Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway. “Identikit” starts off with machine beats, but it eventually unravels into the dizzying guitars of Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien. Although it’s always difficult to assign credit in this group, it seems likely that Jonny Greenwood’s film-scoring experience played a big role in the prominent strings in several songs; they’re just as effective ratcheting up the drama of “Burn The Witch” as they are buffeting Yorke’s sad exclamations in the ballad “Glass Eyes.”

A Moon Shaped Pool never settles into any kind of predictable groove for too long. There are hints of the 60’s British folk revival in “Desert Island Disk,” while “Present Tense” surprises with its effortless samba, allowing the narrator to dance away the turmoil all around him. “The Numbers” throws just about everything at the wall and it all sticks, ending up like a cross between Meddle-era Pink Floyd and “I Am The Walrus”, with Yorke chanting “We’ll take back what is ours” over the maelstrom at the end of the song.

Those looking for some sort of thematic link are probably barking up the wrong tree; the fact that the songs are sequenced in alphabetical order should put an end to that notion. But there is a unifying element here, and that’s the lack of an obfuscating filter on both the music and the lyrics. The veil of fog has been largely been lifted from these songs. Fog isn’t necessarily a bad thing for this band; a song like “How To Disappear Completely” wouldn’t work without it. But the clarity suits the material here, especially when you consider the personal nature of Yorke’s lyrics.

Personal doesn’t have to mean autobiographical, despite early internet speculation that this is Radiohead’s divorce album. But where Yorke’s narrators in the past often felt like stand-ins for anybody who’s ever been intimidated by technology or sickened by a politician, you get the feeling there’s less separation between him and his characters this time around. It’s why “Daydreaming” and “Glass Eyes” can stop you short with their intimacy, especially when he sings on the latter “I feel this love turn cold.” The angrier sentiments also burn with a little more intensity; when he sings “Truth will mess you up” in “Ful Stop,” you believe that he’s lived it and learned it.

Considering this, it makes sense that the album ends with “True Love Waits,” a longtime concert staple that most had assumed would never see the light of day in a studio take. Most fans know it as a love song sweetened by acoustic guitars. Here it’s hollowed out by lonely piano, and Yorke’s exhortations of “Don’t leave” are painfully vulnerable. For a long time now, Radiohead has been achieving mesmerizing results by blazing the trail for synthetic sounds in rock and roll. But it’s the humanity, oh, the humanity, that makes A Moon Shaped Pool so moving.