After five years of waiting, we finally have a new Radiohead album to enjoy. Here’s Buster Stonham on whether it was worth all the fuss.
A Moon Shaped Pool
After five years of rumour, speculation and anticipation, Radiohead emerged from their long self-imposed hibernation in the most Radiohead way possible: by removing all traces of themselves from the internet, shutting down their website, and deleting all previous social media posts.
This most subtle of promotional moves sent shockwaves through social media and the music press, fuelling the belief that an impending album release was inevitable. It was happening again. Since the 2007 release of In Rainbows, where fans were offered the chance to pay what they wanted for the album, Radiohead have tormented the record industry and kept fans on their toes with convention-defying releases and promotional campaigns. A Radiohead album release has become a unique event unlike any other in the industry.
Sure enough, Thom Yorke and co. had a few more tricks up their sleeve this time around, teasing fans with a couple of short stop-motion video teasers before releasing a Trumpton inspired music video for new song ‘Burn the Witch’. This was followed the next day with the Paul Thomas Anderson-directed video for ‘Daydreaming’ and – finally – a release date for later in the week.
The result is a A Moon Shaped Pool, an album, like each of the band’s previous offerings, with a unique character of its own. What is immediately noticeable is that there’s far more traditional instrumentation than you might expect from a Radiohead album in 2016. The syncopated sequencers and stripped-back aesethic that characterised 2011’s The King of Limbs and Thom Yorke’s recent solo work is replaced by more lush orchestral arrangements that add a depth and warmth to the album.
Radiohead’s sound has benefited hugely from Johnny Greenwood’s widely praised film scores on films like There Will be Blood and Norwegian Wood. Greenwood’s influence is felt throughout the album; from the pizzicato strings that give ‘Burn the Witch’ its driving urgency to the strings section in ‘The Numbers’ which appears halfway like a punch to the stomach. In fact, on ‘Indentikit’ there’s even something that sounds suspiciously like a spiky Jonny Greenwood guitar solo.
One thing diehard fans may notice about the new album is that much of it isn’t all that new. A number of tracks have been part of the band’s live repertoire for a number of years, including ‘Identikit’ – first played on the King of Limbs tour in 2012 – and even ‘Burn the Witch,’ on the back burner since 2003’s Hail to The Thief and frequently teased by Thom and co. at live shows since. But without doubt the oldest new song is album closer ‘True Love Waits’, a fan favourite at live shows since the mid-90s. The song even appeared on live album I Might Be Wrong in 2001.
Including so many previously heard tracks could have left a sense of disappointment at a lack of new material, but in reality the opposite is true. The chance to hear these songs finally given their chance to flourish as fully realised tracks feels like a real privilege. ‘True Love Waits’ in particular is almost unrecognisable from the angsty acoustic track of The Bends era, becoming a haunting and powerful solo piano piece seeing Thom repeatedly pleading “Just don’t leave,/Don’t leave.” It seems in little doubt that the track’s inclusion was influenced by Yorke’s split from his long term partner in 2015, making it an intensely emotional and personal ending to the album.
The sense that this is a deeply personal album is something that strongly characterises A Moon Shaped Pool, setting it apart from its predecessor The King of Limbs, which had a mechanical and clinical feel and that made it a difficult album to love. That’s not to say there isn’t a healthy dose of existential exploration on the album, with the subject matter of the songs bathed in the usual riddles and metaphors, creating a whirlwind of debate amongst both fans and critics into the inner working of Yorke’s brain.
Some tracks turn a mirror on current events, such as ‘Burn the Witch’ which criticises the political exploitation of fear around the migrant crisis in Europe. Others offer a glimpse into a personal torment. On ‘Present Tense,’ for instance, Thom sings ‘It’s no one’s business but mine,/That all this love could be in vain’ before the refrain of ‘In you I’m lost’. At times the personal and political become interchangeable. The beautiful ‘Daydreaming’ for instance, could just as easily be a resignation of defeat on climate change as an acceptance of the end of a long term relationship: ‘it’s too late, the damage is done./This goes, beyond me, beyond you.’ Overall, this mix of the personal and political make this album wonderfully rich and relatable for those willing to give it the time it deserves.