Radiohead have never been ones to shy away from being the lyrical correspondents of human despair, loneliness and depravity. It’s a badge frontman Thom Yorke has worn not proudly – but begrudgingly for years. Ever since the release of 1992’s smash, “Creep”, to be exact. It’s a song that would not only make them household names, but christen them the British poster boys for what they saw as some sort of misplaced, misfitted teenage angst. Their popularity and public perception arose from their synonymy with these feelings of self loathing and the band resented it, choosing to move onto much more abstract modes of production and songwriting on the albums that would follow and ultimately turn them into possibly the most acclaimed act of the last twenty years. All the while, denouncing the beloved song itself at every turn, going so far as to purposely butcher it’s live renditions. But if Radiohead once simply dipped their toes in dealing with these murky ideas of heartbreak and personal desolation, then here, with “A Moon Shaped Pool” they’re…well, now they’re swimming in them.
Before diving into this thing head first, listeners need to understand that this album is not for everyone. It’s low-key instrumentally, downright depressing lyrically, and does not waver from this precise, dreary formula. If you’re coming into this LP looking for more of Radiohead’s off-kilter brand of manic pop-rock as displayed on tracks such as “Burn The Witch”, you simply aren’t going to get it and may find yourself feeling immensely underwhelmed. However, if you’re approaching this record with an open mind and genuine curiosity in just where these sonic shapeshifters might take you next, you may be in for a perplexingly pleasant treat.
Songs like “The Numbers” and “Present Tense” build and wind with lush, melodic instrumentation as they crash into a sea of swirling pianos and guitars before being overtaken by a wave of dazzling orchestral pieces. These orchestral pieces, more than guitars, synthesizers and drum machines prove to be the focal point of the album, separating it from the rest of their renowned, diverse discography. Whereas these arrangements have played out lightly in the background in the past, here they play heavy in the foreground as one Jonny Greenwood makes his presence prevalent as ever.
“Desert Island Disc” proves to be an effective acoustic cut, while “Identikit” showcases a groovy bassline accompanied by heavy, dark synth sounds on the chorus, eventually divulging into a strung out, agitated guitar solo by it’s end. The quint ballad “Glass Eyes” once again puts the strings at the forefront as they soar over the subtle, somber intuition of a piano as Yorke’s lyrics convey his feelings of personal alienation and anxiety, longing to escape human interaction at all costs as he feels “This love turn cold”. That very idea, the idea of love turning cold is one that pokes and prods throughout the album’s entirety. It exposes and confronts our deepest fears in love. The track “Decks Dark” for example closes with a seemingly jaded, defeated Yorke asking simply – “Have you had enough of me?”.
On a lighter note, Noel Gallagher once humorously quipped that Thom Yorke could “shit in a light bulb and it’d get a 9/10”. Though those disparaging comments were made well after it’s release, Radiohead’s previous record “King Of Limbs” may have proven his theory. Limbs was painfully technical, mutated and robotic. It’s instrumentation was so disengaged from itself it was nearly impossible to make any kind of human connection within it’s lyrical content or basic construct. It had the emotional depth of the laptop it was created on. I am, however, seemingly in the minority with such beliefs as although it was relatively polarizing with even the most diehard of Radiohead fans, it was embraced quite warmly by critics as a whole.
But in the areas where King of Limbs faltered, A Moon Shaped Pool thrives. It’s instrumentation is lively and organic. It maintains a natural, evolving flow as guitars and pianos loom underneath Yorke’s twitchy, heart wrenching vocals. Leaving a lasting, often unsettling connection with its listeners. These tracks are meticulously crafted with every sound, instrument and nuance in its right place.
If the sterile desolateness of the first ten tracks are Radiohead sneaking into your house to kill you, they aren’t going for the swiftness of a knife, they’re opting for the plastic bag. The closer “True Love Waits” is that plastic bag. It offers no closure, no light at the end of the tunnel, just a slow, painful death. I mean all this in a good way, of course. So just pretend you’re a suicidal man with a penchant for erotic asphyxiation. What debuted live as a tender acoustic ballad fifteen years ago is now an icy, distant piano tune that feels like a worthy successor to previous Radiohead classics like “Amnesiac’s” “Pyramid Song”. It’s an abrupt, grim ending that concludes with Yorke bone chillingly pleading “Just don’t leave” over the instrumentation’s chorus of cold dissonance.
This is not a record for sunny days, this is the record you put on (after all your “Smiths” mixes run dry, of course) during a dreary, grim October evening when you’ve lost all hope in the world. A Moon Shaped Pool is haunting, beautiful and utterly immersive. It’s an album that speaks of demise, yet brims with life.
Rating : 9/10