Radiohead have seemingly run out of reinventions—but that could be for the best. During the sessions for 2011’s patchy King of Limbs, the world’s most innovative rock band hunkered behind sequencers and turntables, splicing together fragmented loops into droning collages like “Morning Mr. Magpie” and “Feral.”
“We didn’t want to pick up guitars and write chord sequences,” multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood told Rolling Stone of their creative flux. “We didn’t want to sit in front of a computer either. We wanted a third thing.” That “thing” boosted the band’s camaraderie, evidenced by their dynamic live arrangements for the Limbs tour. Problem is, it sucked the life out of their album.
A Moon Shaped Pool, the quintet’s ninth LP, is more summary than new chapter. Thom Yorke’s oceanic piano loops, half-mumbled falsettos and reversed vocal wails recall the insular Kid A-Amnesiac era, while Greenwood’s dense string orchestrations echo the warmest stretches of Limbs and its more organic predecessor, In Rainbows. Slow-burn synth-rock epic “Identikit” climaxes with their wildest guitar solo—arguably their only real guitar solo—since OK Computer.
Subtle sonic deviations offer Pool its own distinct fingerprint: Yorke’s emphasis on acoustic guitar (the flailing fingerpicked tones of “Desert Island Disk” and muted strums of “The Numbers”), the bossa nova groove of “Present Tense,” the eerie choral harmonies scattered throughout. But unlike Limbs, Pool never strains by adhering to a methodology. It just feels like a collection of songs—very fucking transportive songs.
Most Yorke lyrics hang suspended in a dream-like state, blending imagistic poetry with vague emotional outcries—an ambiguity that keeps the songs relatable, even if we don’t know what’s fueling the melancholy. A Moon Shaped Pool finds the frontman brooding even more than usual: He observes “gallows,” a hovering “dread,” a “spacecraft blocking out the sky.” On moon-lit reverie “Glass Eyes,” he exits a train at a “frightening place” and encounters faces of “concrete grey”—but instead of turning back, he trudges forward down a mountain. “I don’t know where it leads,” he croons over crystalline strings and piano. “I don’t really care.”
Yorke’s never approached strict confessional songwriting, but it’s hard not to read between the lines: In 2015, he separated from his longtime partner, Rachel Owen, and the ghosts of lost love linger in some of his barest lyrics. “You really messed up everything,” he intones on kraut-rock thrill ride “Ful Stop”; “Broken hearts make it rain,” he squeals, enraptured, on “Identikit”; the symphonic surge of “Daydreaming” closes with Yorke reversed and pitch-shifted, like a fire-breathing dragon: “Half of my life,” he huffs, a possible reference to his past relationship. The crushing blow is unavoidable—though projecting in too much backstory is a fool’s errand.
Especially since many of these songs have existed for years. Yorke teased lyrics from electro-orchestral opener “Burn the Witch” in the artwork for 2003’s Hail to the Thief and even performed a few stray chords onstage, prompted by an aggressive audience request. “Present Tense” dates back to a 2009 Yorke solo performance. But the true “Holy shit, did they really uncover that song?” selection is closer “True Love Waits,” a stark ballad debuted during the 1995 The Bends tour, later recorded for 2001 live LP, I Might Be Wrong.
Here, the track—much like In Rainbows’ afterlife gaze “Videotape”—is gutted and re-assembled, with delicate piano loops underscoring Yorke’s heartbreak. The inclusion is shocking, considering producer Nigel Godrich joked to Rolling Stone in 2012 about their inability to work out a decent arrangement. “We tried to record it countless times, but it never worked,” he said. “The irony is you have that shitty live version. To Thom’s credit, he needs to feel a song has validation, that it has a reason to exist as a recording. We could do ‘True Love Waits’ and make it sound like John Mayer. Nobody wants to do that.”
Even when Yorke and company send in the drones, A Moon Shaped Pool feels like the work of a full band—a marked redemption from the sonically flat King of Limbs. (“They hadn’t quite exploited all the drama in the mix,” Brian Eno told The Guardian of Limbs. “As a listener there was an opportunity missed.” And if you can’t trust Eno, who can you trust?)
The biggest goosebumps are generated not by the click of computers but by hands striking strings and sticks: the guitar jitter climax of “Ful Stop,” highlighted by a Philip Selway-Clive Deamer drum duet; the billowing Latin percussion and overdubbed fngerpicking of “Present Tense”; Jonny Greenwood’s martian delayed guitar squelch on “Identikit.” His orchestrations anchor the album harmonically—from the buzzing-bee cellos on “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” to the marching pizzicato violins that propel “Burn the Witch.” And the band’s unsung hero remains bassist Colin Greenwood, a master of tastefulness and timing: His fretboard percolates with funk on “Decks Dark,” adds a bluesy lurch to “The Numbers,” and steps aside when the mix dictates.
With A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead have resumed the greatest winning streak in modern popular music. Not by flaunting any new tricks—just by delivering their normal quota of catharsis.
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