Perhaps more than any other contemporary band, each Radiohead release feels a cultural event. This is in part because of the truly stunning high-watermarks the band has achieved, having released four near-undisputed masterpieces. The obvious downside of this for the band is that every one of their new releases is going to be graded against a pretty strict curve, but if A Moon Shaped Pool is any indication, they’re more than up to the challenge.
Like every one of their previous albums, A Moon Shaped Pool sounds nothing like anything they’ve released before, in spite of feeling like a natural progression for the band. Whilst The King of Limbs fell somewhat flat in its attempt to mimic the groove-based style of electronica artists like Four Tet (it often came across as more interesting than actually good), A Moon Shaped Pool is focussed squarely on melody. It actually feels like something of a successor to In Rainbows, albeit inhabiting a more downbeat space.
Johnny Greenwood’s work on film scores seems to be the biggest influence on the record, as nearly every track features some sort of orchestral accompaniment. However, Thom Yorke’s solo career in electronica also has a significant impact on the album’s sound, with many digital beats, and clipped samples cascading across the mix. On tracks like Decks Dark, the band explores their trademark nervous energy in new ways. The track features swirling pianos and a haunting choir, as Yorke sings a series of ominous couplets about things coming to an end – “at the end of your life / there comes a darkness”. However, the tracks builds to a sudden, climactic jam that is far groovier than it has any right to be, largely due to Colin Greenwood’s bass work. The track feels much warmer than Radiohead’s previous takes on similar material, as though they’ve become a bit less nihilistic, and a bit more mature.
The obvious standout track on the album is True Love Waits. It’s one of the oldest songs in the Radiohead canon, but they’ve never released a studio recording of it. Several of the tracks on the album are actually quite old, such as Burn the Witch, and Present Tense, but True Love Waits is a real standout, because it explores a mood the band has never really set to record before – longing. Yorke has sung about insecurity and lust many times, but a pure romantic longing is new ground. Over a rolling piano line, Yorke pleads with his lover to stay – “just don’t leave / don’t leave”. The sentiment isn’t caked in metaphor like many of Radiohead’s songs, and the rawness of it makes it an especially powerful closing track. It takes on a new significance in the wake of Yorke splitting from his longtime partner recently, and his heartbreak sounds very real.
Many of the older songs on the album sound remarkably current, in spite of being written years ago. Burn the Witch is all about the dangers of groupthink, and political persecution, but it takes on a very present meaning in this age of political turbulence. Present Tense pulls off a similar trick to True Love Waits, grounding its lyrics about emotional isolation in Yorke’s romantic life. As an album, A Moon Shaped Pool is much more focused on relationships and heartbreak than any of the band’s previous albums, and this lends it an intimate, personal tone that is new for the band. After nearly two decades of looking out at the world, Radiohead has turned their attention inwards, and what they’ve found is wondrous.