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Album Review: Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool

Album Review: Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool

Tuesday 31st May, 2016 11:19AM

In some respects, it’s pretty unfashionable to like Radiohead. There’s Thom Yorke’s earnestness and the pained lyrics. There’s the notion of music that sets out self-consciously to be art is, well, trying a bit hard. And there’s the cloying overwhelming acclaim that has followed most of the band’s work since 1995 when they released My Iron Lung EP (technically, let’s say The Bends as the EP was largely ignored, but that was the starting point). Their career however is a fairly remarkable sustained period of reinvention and experimentation. But the problem most of their critics have faced for more than two decades is that each new album has been pretty impressive and offered something fresh. Radiohead’s latest, A Moon Shaped Pool is at once, no different in offering something new, but also mines the past to beautiful thematic effect.

A Moon Shaped Pool’s predecessor The King of Limbs was jittery and dance-y (as much as Radiohead can be dance-y) and followed on from the triumph that was In Rainbows, an album even non-Radiohead fans seemed to grudgingly accept. A Moon Shaped Pool is a bit more restrained. It’s built more on loops and acoustic sounding instruments, although as usual, with the trademark layering of various textures on top of each other.

This more restrained approach however is not immediately apparent. Album opener ‘Burn the Witch’ has been around the scene since Kid A, but clearly benefits from Jonny Greenwood’s recent Paul Thomas Anderson soundtrack work (the strings in particular were used to stunning effect by Greenwood / Anderson on The Master). The string work sounds terrifying, like the score to a horror film – and of course, Radiohead emphasise that point by mashing together a ‘60s children TV show with The Wicker Man on the music video. While their music may shift between tones and textures, you can always trust Radiohead to maintain an unashamed lack of subtlety.

That initial blunt approach slows down with the floaty ‘Daydreaming’ (complete with a Paul Thomas Anderson video) section. Initially it sounds simply melancholic, but when Yorke starts singing “I’ve found my love” backwards and the strings reappear – it immediately seems more claustrophobic. On ‘Decks Dark’ he asks: “have you had enough of me, sweet darling?” over a descending guitar riff. Broken relationships and resulting loneliness becomes built into the way the music itself plays out – and this forms the major core of the album.

Whereas in the past, Radiohead’s anger has taken on larger targets – corporate greed and Tony Blair (OK Computer) or George W Bush (Hail to the Thief) – A Moon Shaped Pool is more about personal disappointment and self-loathing. Yorke on ‘Glass Eyes’ sings, “panic is coming on strong, so cold, from the inside out.” Guitars veer off into gnarly solos after Yorke laments “when I see you messing me around, I don’t want to know” on ‘Identikit’. In fact, A Moon Shaped Pool is one of Radiohead’s best albums at matching the music with Yorke’s lyrical content. This unity was perhaps helped by the album’s insular focus.

While it all sounds horribly dark, the music remains thrilling for the most part (‘Desert Island Disk’ for example is a rare dull misstep). Album centrepiece ‘Ful Stop’ plays this exciting feeling out perfectly. It starts out sounding like your neighbours are having a party while you’re trying to go sleep – and then first the bass, the tape loops, the motorik drumming, and Yorke’s sneer take over, followed finally by the guitars. It’s a masterly piece of space and texture.


The album however refuses to close on a gloomy note and Radiohead cast their eyes backwards to do so. Despite the end of relationship vibe to the album, Yorke refuses to let the end of the relationship be an excuse for vitriol and hatred. ‘Present Tense’ another album highlight, mixes chiming guitars and swirling strings as Yorke defiantly tries to fight off the moroseness. “It’s no-one’s business but mine that all this love has been in vain; in you I’m lost.” ‘True Love Waits’, the gorgeous album closer, ends with resignation and sadness, but it’s also a wistful acknowledgement of past love. ‘Present Tense’ dates from 2008, while ‘True Love Waits’ has been around since The Bends and had only appeared (formally) on the 2001 live EP I Might Be Wrong. For an album built largely on loops, this is the biggest loop of them all.

Yorke seems to suggest that people don’t have to keep starting anew, even if a relationship ends. He is allowed to acknowledge what had once been; he doesn’t have to lock the past up in an attic. For a band that has so consistently reinvented itself and refused to look backwards, this is perhaps one of the more optimistic endings possible.

Review by Brannavan Gnanalingam.

A Moon Shaped Pool is out now via XL Recordings


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