5 years ago, Radiohead surprised everyone with the release of their 8th studio album, ‘The King of Limbs’. Once the initial excitement had subsided, the album came to be viewed as a disappointment, a slight blotch on an almost flawless career. The album was short for one thing, clocking in at only 8 songs and 37 minutes, and some felt short-changed, having waited 4 years since the previous outing. Knowing that Radiohead albums have not arrived thick and fast in recent years (this was only the second since 2003), fans gradually struggled with the notion that this was all they had to tide them over. Many thought that the album strayed too far into glitchy, Thom Yorke solo work, territory, and on an 8 track album, there is really nowhere to hide. To clarify, ‘The King of Limbs’ is a fantastic album by any other standard, but Radiohead are not judged by any other standard, they are judged against their previous output. When this output consists of some of the greatest records ever created, any minor dip will be noticeable. The opener Bloom, and the second half of the album – particularly the gorgeous Codex – hit the levels that the band have set for themselves, but elsewhere the record was lacking.
This dichotomy of the normal standard vs the Radiohead standard is a tricky one; it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to hear the albums in a vacuum, to judge them on their own merits and not comparatively to the best work of the past 20-25 years. Every Radiohead album is greeted with a mix of excitement and trepidation, as a fear swells that the anticipation may result in a damp squib, such a rarity in the band’s oeuvre. Thankfully, these fears are entirely unfounded on Radiohead’s latest masterpiece, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’. I have tried to give myself a few days, and a number of listens, before writing this piece. Opinions will still vary as time goes on: due to their complexity, Radiohead albums develop with every listen, they are dense and require a long time to fully appreciate. From personal experience, ‘Kid A’ did not become my favourite Radiohead album (and favourite album of all time) until around 3 years ago, almost a decade after I first heard it.
However, after 10-15 listens, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is able to go toe to toe with any of the band’s other work. It is difficult to articulate just what makes it so spellbinding; it is a work that evokes and draws on numerous influences, yet sounds like nothing else. Throughout the album there are snippets of other artists, particularly Scott Walker, who has been an influence on Radiohead (and hundreds of others) through their career. ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ draws both on his lush, beguiling late-60s period (Scott 4 in particular), and on his more recent work; the sensational Ful Stop begins like a song from Tilt or Bisch Bosch (particularly Yorke’s delivery of “that’s a foul tasting medicine”), before metamorphosing into a classic Radiohead song, redolent of Weird Fishes or The National Anthem. One also hears elements of Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Histoire de Melody Nelson’, of Talk Talk’s later work, of Neil Young, of Can, of Nick Drake (the opening of Desert Island Disk could easily be a lost Nick Drake track), even of Air’s Moon Safari, yet Radiohead transcend these comparisons to yet again create a piece that is singular, that is impossible to pin down, that genuinely coalesces to sound like nothing else.
‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ showcases one of Radiohead’s greatest strengths: their ability to build a song, layer by layer, subtly until all of the members come together to reach a transcendent moment. Think of the aforementioned Weird Fishes and The National Anthem, as well as Let Down, How to Disappear Completely, Reckoner, Fake Plastic Trees, There There, Pyramid Song – the list goes on. They surreptitiously sneak up until they hit an ecstatic moment towards the end, and ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ contains plenty of these moments. Identikit, a song (like many on the album) that has existed in various forms for a number of years, builds slowly to a glorious crescendo, making use of the strings and choirs that permeate the album. It is like the song that Alt-J have being trying to write for the past 5 years. Unusually for a track that has been around for a while, it acts as an example of Radiohead refusing to stagnate, of never resting on their laurels, as the song is one of a number that display the real key to the album: Jonny Greenwood’s orchestral arrangements. Having written film soundtracks, including There Will be Blood and The Master, to great acclaim, Greenwood’s stamp is all over the album, providing it with a magnificent cinematic quality. Indeed, it at times feels like a soundtrack to Radiohead’s career itself, tying in with a theory doing the rounds that this will be Radiohead’s farewell (I’m not going to discuss this here as I will cry).
This is one reason that the album, while containing some of the jumpy, fragmented sounds that have become hallmarks of Radiohead’s recent work, is actually extremely warm and welcoming. It is not a difficult listen. Yes, it is intricate and multifaceted, different sounds seem to appear from nowhere with every listen, but at its core it is at times a somnolent (in the best possible sense) piece that one can allow to simply wash over oneself. The core of the band’s work for over 20 years has been beauty. We fans love Radiohead for a multitude of reasons, but the thing that has always set them apart has been the delicate wonderment of their songs. I do not return to Kid A, Amnesiac or OK Computer because they are boundary-pushing, seminal albums; I return to them because of their staggering splendour. ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ contains some of the most exquisite songs Radiohead have made; Glass Eyes, Present Tense, Daydreaming and, the jewel at the end of the album, True Love Waits. The first incarnation of True Love Waits dates back to 1995, and it has been one of my personal favourite songs for over a decade. This version is very different: the guitar has been replaced by a piano, and Yorke’s delivery is slower than it was in the past. It is impossible to ignore the context: Yorke split from his partner of 23 years in 2015, and his choice to now, after 21 years, put True Love Waits on an album is heartbreakingly poignant. Whereas the song used to have a slightly hopeful sound, a plea from a young man to his young love, it now appears as a forlorn, desolate sigh from a middle-aged man who has lost the woman with whom he spent half of his life. I have always thought of True Love Waits as a kind of companion piece to Jacques Brel’s masterful Ne Me Quitte Pas, as both desperately beg someone not to leave them; while Brel pleads “let me be the shadow of your shadow, the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your dog, don’t leave me”, Yorke sings “I’ll drown my beliefs to have your babies, I’ll dress like your niece and wash your swollen feet, just don’t leave”. It is achingly beautiful, and as my first listen of the album came to a close, I was stood in a queue at Madrid airport trying not to burst into tears. Yorke said that he moved beyond personal writing after ‘The Bends’, but this album feels different; cynicism often takes a back-seat, and a whole multitude of emotions come to the fore.
While this may sound to non-fans like “depressing old Radiohead”, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ actually contains great swagger and rhythm. All members are at the top of their game, and the lynchpin is Colin Greenwood, who delivers some of the best bass lines since Airbag and A Punchup at a Wedding. At times staccato and disjointed, Greenwood’s bass rolls the songs along, and Burn the Witch, Decks Dark, Ful Stop and The Numbers are held together by his wonderful playing. The entire album sounds like a band that has realised that they are light-years ahead of any of their counterparts. Thom Yorke once said that ‘Kid A’ was like looking at a fire from afar, while ‘Amnesiac’ was like being inside that fire. ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ sounds like the fire has passed, and the band are now at peace with themselves. It is an astounding achievement, and while it is impossible to say this soon after release, I believe it will go down alongside Radiohead’s greatest ever works.
We must cherish Radiohead while they are here, because no band has been this consistently phenomenal for 20 years. 9 albums in, they are still setting trends, they are still the defining, pivotal artists in music, and they are still making work of astounding beauty. ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is a triumph, a masterpiece, and it is hopefully not their last.