If you’ve paid attention to rock music at all in the past twenty years, you know that Radiohead are a pretty big deal. They’re one of the few alternative bands from the 90s that’s managed to stay relevant after 24 years, they almost constantly receive critical acclaim, and they can sell out an arena in minutes. More impressively, they’ve never changed their lineup and have maintained a devoted following despite drastically changing their sound over the years. When Radiohead speaks, the music world listens.
This is why when Radiohead deleted their entire internet presence on May 1, the internet took notice. While some thought the band was making some sort of social commentary with the act, most others correctly predicted the release of their ninth album was imminent. After all, Radiohead are no strangers to release gimmicks: their seventh album In Rainbows is famous for allowing listeners to pay what they wanted for its tracks, and frontman Thom Yorke’s second solo album Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes was initially only available via BitTorrent. Sure enough, snippets of a new song called “Burn the Witch” began to appear on Instagram May 3, and the full song was released later that day. On May 6, a second song called “Daydreaming” was released and the band announced their new album would be available two days later. This album’s title, A Moon Shaped Pool, would only be revealed on its release date.
While the album’s release was a surprise, its content would be a little more familiar for fans, almost resembling a compilation. This is partly due to the fact that its eleven tracks are in alphabetical order, raising the question of whether Radiohead carefully planned this (this is Radiohead after all) or if the order of the tracks is irrelevant. More importantly, a significant part of the album consists of songs that are several years old, yet have never appeared on studio releases. “Identikit” and “Ful Stop” were first played in 2012 while the band toured for The King of Limbs, “Present Tense” appeared in shows about eight years ago, and the song that became “Burn the Witch” is at least ten years old. Then there’s “True Love Waits,” which is at least twenty years old and has only appeared on their 2001 live album I Might Be Wrong. For die-hard fans that had attended shows, collected live recordings, and watched many a grainy YouTube video of concert footage, the album must have seemed a godsend.
The major takeaway for less hardcore fans will be how mild A Moon Shaped Pool sounds relative to Radiohead’s other albums. There’s no rocking out moments like “Bodysnatchers,” “2+2=5,” or any of the tracks from their first three albums. Instead, A Moon Shaped Pool more resembles the quieter moments from Kid A and In Rainbows, and barely sounds like a rock album at all. Only “Ful Stop” and “Identikit” have noticeable electric guitar lines, and these favor calculated plucking over any riffs. Likewise, it also moves away from the electronic sounds that defined King of Limbs and Yorke’s solo albums, as synthesizers only appear on “Burn the Witch” “Ful Stop” and “Tinker Tailor Solider Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief.”
In place of these relatively modern instruments, listeners will immediately notice prominent string sections throughout A Moon Shaped Pool, which gives the album some of Radiohead’s lushest instrumentation to date. Sure, the band has dabbled with strings on tracks like “How to Disappear Completely” and “House of Cards,” but this album features the London Contemporary Orchestra performing string pieces arranged by Radiohead’s guitarist Johnny Greenwood. These strings dominate tracks like “Burn the Witch” and “Glass Eyes,” but are also effectively used in a more subtle fashion on “Daydreaming” “The Numbers” and “Tinker Tailor Solider Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief.”
This varied instrumentation creates a range of sensations throughout A Moon Shaped Pool, a skill Radiohead have shown their aptitude for many times before. The strings of “Burn the Witch” create a tension akin to Owen Pallett’s “The Riverbed,” and this tension returns in the bassline and creeping synthesizer notes of “Ful Stop” as Yorke sings “You really messed up everything.” Similarly, the off-kilter piano and background choir of “Decks Dark” give it a very ominous feel somewhat resembling Amnesiac’s “Pyramid Song.” Elsewhere, the gentle piano melody of “Daydreaming” makes it incredibly aptly-named, as ethereal vocal samples are interspersed throughout. The acoustic guitar parts of “The Numbers” and “Present Tense” give them a folksy feel, and the latter even features a slight Samba influence. Of course, this dynamic list of feelings wouldn’t be complete without naming the album’s two saddest songs, “Glass Eyes” and “True Love Waits.” The former utilizes its prominent strings to tug at your heartstrings (no pun intended), while the latter is a sorrowful, beautiful piano ballad.
On this note, much of the album’s lyrics are sad and confessional, which is surprising given how the band is best known for cryptic social commentaries. To give some context, Yorke recently separated from his partner of 23 years, so these are arguably the most personal lyrics he has sung to date. Sometimes, this is easily detectable, like asking “sweet darling, have you had enough of me?” on “Decks Dark,” and closing “Glass Eyes” with the words “I feel this love turn cold.” Less overt is “Daydreaming,” which closes with a distorted and backmasked voice that sounds like it is saying “half of my life” – a potential reference to those 23 years. And while these are newer songs, even the older songs included on A Moon Shaped Pool take on a new meaning in this context. “True Love Waits” was previously a simple, acoustic guitar-driven number that was sung in an earnest tone in its live performances, yet now Yorke sounds totally defeated as he sings “I’m not living, I’m just killing time” and repeatedly pleads “just don’t leave” over its piano notes. It’s an incredible way to close the album, and carries an unprecedented amount of sincerity for Radiohead.
A Moon Shaped Pool is an impressive album in many aspects. It’s a marriage of old and new both in terms and songs and styles for the band, with touches of the rock that made them famous, electronic sounds that shaped their latter releases, and orchestration that pulls in new directions. Even lyrically, lines like “avoid all eye contact/do not react/shoot the messengers/this is a low-flying panic attack” on “Burn the Witch” are archetypal Radiohead, while several tracks with personal lyrics are unprecedented for the band. Admittedly, some of its tracks may not evoke a desire for repeated listens outside of the context of the album, but as a whole A Moon Shaped Pool is an excellent release. It may not be the best thing Radiohead has ever done, mostly because the bar is set incredibly high, but it does serve to demonstrate how the band has earned its prominence for over two decades, and how it will likely remain there.