For much of Radiohead’s career, stress, anxiety and cynicism has played a part in their sound. They’ve been described as ‘music to slit your wrists to’ by one lovely presenter and it’s impossible to not contend that some of their finest music has been borne out of isolation and disillusionment. Since their split from EMI after Hail To The Thief, the albums that came out after that had the sense of a band with the weight lifted off of their shoulders. They’d made two masterpieces and whatever they wanted to do after that was simply enjoyment. But instead, they became innovators of music delivery. A Moon Shaped Pool doesn’t have the meteoric impact of In Rainbows’ arrival, but the band’s new means of hype creation: mailing their fans, disappearing from the internet, suggest that Radiohead isn’t going to stop teasing any time soon. It’s also now very difficult to think of Radiohead as a band, in which the music is the key centrepiece and everything else is just a bonus. Perhaps this was why The King Of Limbs didn’t all hit the right notes. A Moon Shaped Pool is conceivably the most subtle Radiohead release yet, trading in huge sweeping statements and musical moments for complex, innovative microcosmic pockets of sonic exploration that doesn’t hit hard like The Bends or OK Computer did, neither does it pretend to have the answers to the problems of the world. Radiohead mature with every release, and it’s only right that this album is their most nuanced and beautiful yet.
Jonny Greenwood has always been Radiohead’s secret weapon, right from his early moments turning ‘Creep’ into a noisy mess and right up to his side projects making film soundtracks with Paul Thomas Anderson. That experience, especially the soundtrack for ‘There Will Be Blood’ influences A Moon Shaped Pool more than anything else, where he perfected eerie horror with breathtaking cinematic strings. Those strings tumble across ‘Burn The Witch’, the orchestra-led first single from A Moon Shaped Pool, the jazzy ‘The Numbers’ and the beautiful ‘Glass Eyes’, which sounds like Thom Yorke guesting on a Jonny Greenwood track. Elsewhere there’s acoustic guitar-led tracks ‘Desert Island Disk’ and ‘The Present Tense’ with minor electronic patterns and drum machines; though no-where near the amount that The King Of Limbs did. Instead of going synthetic, A Moon Shaped Pool has an organic, earthy sound from the orchestra, Colin Greenwood’s subtle bass and even less guitars than you’d expect. But where those creeping elements crawl back in, they’re always well placed, such as the guitar solo on ‘Identikit’ which is probably one of the most emotive solos that Radiohead has written since ‘Bodysnatchers’. It doesn’t explode into action like ‘Just’ would; it gently works its way out of the chorus of Thom Yorke singing ‘Broken hearts make it rain’ and snaps back and forth as the rest of the instrumentation recedes from view, all to the credit of Nigel Godrich’s production skills.
There’s no one unifying concept on A Moon Shaped Pool. It isn’t tied together in a neat bundle like Kid A was, and instead pulls from several different strands to get a good view inside Thom Yorke’s head. There’s definitely a political and ecological side to AMSP, but it’s less pronounced than Hail To The Thief or The King Of Limbs. ‘Ful Stop’ stands beside ‘Burn The Witch’ as a track where Thom Yorke blurs between personal and political, singing ‘You really messed up everything… Why should I be good if you’re not?’ before ‘A foul tasting medicine / to be trapped in your full stop’. He sings from the position of the authority before personifying the oppressed, trapped in the ‘full stop’ of someone in power saying ‘No’. ‘Truth will mess you up’ is suspiciously similar to the response of the US government to leaks of their military information – essentially scaring the public into thinking that the information would terrify them. ‘Ful Stop’, like the instrumentation, is Radiohead refining themselves further and not dealing in direct messages – these songs have multiple meanings and even ‘Ful Stop’ could be in reference to a broken relationship where the truth of collapse would rather be ignored than met head on.
‘True Love Waits’ finally gets a release after being stuck as a live performance on the otherwise forgettable I Might Be Wrong EP. And, to be honest, it doesn’t hugely improve on Thom Yorke’s rolling acoustic guitar of the original, instead layering on several pianos, and though the recording is much cleaner and Yorke’s voice finally punches through, it doesn’t have the pace or the desperation of the original. Perhaps it is just failure by comparison, as hearing this version for the first time and not hearing the live version might have provided more of a pleasant surprise. The lyrics haven’t changed, and the simplicity of ‘True love lives in haunted attics / true love waits on lollipops and crisps’ drags Thom Yorke down to earth with his plea of ‘Just don’t leave’, which is still so stark and easy to connect with. It would be easy to draw lines between the sudden reappearance of ‘True Love Waits’ and a track like ‘Decks Dark’ with Thom Yorke’s separation from his long term partner. Whereas before on ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ he begged for a UFO to come an take him away, it’s now a darkness ‘blocking out the sky’, but the spacecraft is like an elephant in the room that is casting doubt on the relationship.
There’s undoubtedly paranoia running throughout AMSP, but you could say that for almost every Radiohead release. It might be doubt over a failing relationship, government, planet even, but it’s there at the back of your mind. But what’s so engrossing is that the music no longer reflects that paranoia like ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ did. It’s joyous even, making use of all of Radiohead’s experience in and out of the band. So why is it called ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’? Surely that holds the key to what the album means? It has ecological implications, perhaps it is the impact left by a meteorite left on the earth in a pool. It’s challenging, and confusing, and maybe it should remain that way. You don’t need to explain this, or draw grand conclusions about a wide message that Radiohead are trying to say. It’s a collection of tracks that doesn’t have answers. Sometimes that’s ok, and this third album in Radiohead’s ‘independent’ cycle is just another great example of the band not forcing concepts, but maturing into a band that won’t fade out as it grows, but bloom into a more complex, but knowledgeable, beast.
Funnel Recommends: Daydreaming / Ful Stop / Identikit