It’s been a long time since I listened to a new album and immediately knew that it was perfect. It is a rare experience these days, in the world of inflated runtimes, competitive single marketing, and genre-hopping inconsistency, to find a collection of songs that is truly cohesive, truly inspired, truly flawless. Not to mention that we as listeners tend to shy away from labels like perfect or the best; such terms seem to sound too bold in this inherently subjective context. Yet what else can we call a record that is so immaculately crafted and intimately designed that every second of it leaves a listener breathless, caught between triumph and pain as we are reminded of how powerful music can be? Such was the dilemma I faced when I heard A Moon Shaped Pool, the ninth studio album by Radiohead, and one of the finest rock records in many years.
It has been five years since the last Radiohead album, The King of Limbs. That was a strong album, not destined to go down as one of the band’s best, yet nevertheless a solid step forward in their progression as 30-year luminaries of art rock and alternative music. And it came with forward momentum: almost immediately after TKOL, new snippets, rumours, and live outtakes began to surface in 2012, clues met with understandably high anticipation as fans began to wait for the songs that would presumably make up the next instalment in Radiohead’s impressive story. Even so, A Moon Shaped Pool was long in gestation. In the end, silent years and a range of dark experiences befell the Oxfordshire five-piece before this project was teased with a very short and highly creative viral advertising campaign, and the album almost immediately followed as a surprise release on Mother’s Day.
The two singles that came out during that week-long advertising blitz comprise the first two tracks on the finished album. Lead single Burn the Witch, with its incredible stop-motion Wicker Man video, made an immediate impact upon release. After all, how couldn’t it, with that churning Aphex Twin-like string refrain and Thom Yorke’s eerie appeals to “Avoid all eye contact/ Do not react." There’s an unresolved tension that runs throughout the track, reaching fever pitch during its brash culmination; an aural fulfilment of Yorke’s promise that “this is a low-flying panic attack.” Burn the Witch is simultaneously classically unnerving Radiohead at their OK Computer best and something entirely new for the band. We haven’t heard this much subversive aggression and targeted dissidence from Radiohead before; in fact, the entirety of Burn the Witch seethes with a hidden malice, and just like the story of the Wicker Man itself, the deeply unsettling picture the song paints doesn’t bode well for those at the centre of its story. In the case of this song, that means you, me, and every member of the human race. Not the cheeriest way to kick off your first album in five years.
Things don’t lighten up on second single Daydreaming, though they do take a noticeable turn to introspection. From the opening moments of the song’s video, it’s clear that the experience of this music, this visual is something special. Indeed, not for years has a music video so perfectly accompanied the song it accompanies. As Paul Thomas Anderson’s camera follows Yorke from lonely room to lonely room, the natural light shifts, fades, and peeks in, the passage of time stands still, and we’re alone with one of the most beautiful pieces of music Radiohead have ever written. “This goes/ Beyond me/ Beyond you/ A white room/ By a window/ Where the sun comes through/ We are/ Just happy to serve you,” Yorke’s frail voice informs us over the gossamer thin piano line that forms Daydreaming’s backbone. It’s heartbreaking, personal, and profoundly moving stuff; a How to Disappear Completely moment that reminds us of a Radiohead we’ve longed for ever since Kid A stunned listeners at the turn of the century.
Make of the video’s Lynchian ending what you will, but it certainly seems that Daydreaming is largely a reflection on Yorke’s divorce from Rachel Owen, his wife of 23 years. “Half my life,” the 47-year-old Yorke mournfully repeats in a pitched-down-and-played backwards Twin Peaks drawl, as the track’s meditative piano fades to nothing and the song closes with a slow withdrawal into deepest black. We haven’t heard Yorke open up so much on a personal level in a long time; perhaps even more noticeably, we have maybe never heard longtime producer Nigel Godrich take such a clear hand in the band’s musical direction before. Daydreaming itself speaks volumes for Godrich’s signature production style, alternately minimalist and maximalist, personal and worldly, cerebral and visceral.
Upon AMSP’s release, Godrich revealed via Twitter that “Making this album was a very intense experience for me. I lost my dad in the process… Hence a large piece of my soul lives here.” It’s not hard to hear: the man who brought us Beck’s most beautiful work with Sea Change has steered Radiohead in a not dissimilar direction here, amping up a beautifully intimate atmosphere that calls voices to the fore while subtle, understated instrumentation forms a gentle tapestry that ripples and changes like fabric in a light breeze. In fact, the album barely rises above a whisper during the course of its ample 55 minute length. When the mood does venture out of sad reflection, it does so in an altogether subtle fashion, as we hear in Burn the Witch with its undertow of malice, or standout cut Identikit’s punchy electronic beat and subversive progression of increasing violence.
Identikit, as with many of the songs on this album, is a track that Radiohead took a very long time to record. Various versions of the song have been performed live or roughly recorded since 2012, while other tracks on AMSP span across the past decade or two of the band’s career, finally appearing in definitive form in an entirely different context than the ones in which they were originally conceived. For its part, Identikit is a brilliant progression of the electronically-driven sound that Radiohead originally debuted with Kid A; a churning quiet storm of fury that briefly disappears into a psychedelic and ecstatic howl before Johnny Greenwood’s icepick guitar lines abrasively and decisively close the piece. Yorke’s brilliantly original, spiralling vocal lines on the song mask a state of unrest and what may amount to an existential crisis; half-imploring, half-defiant, he muses on mankind’s state of affairs as a fragile dissident: “When I see you messing me around/I don’t want to know.”
Other songs here reach their greatest heights more subtly. Listen, for example, to the slow explosion of propulsive rhythm that takes over Decks Dark at the 3:23 mark. Splashy reverb, dub delay effects, and one hell of a bassline come together beautifully, but the effect of the moment is more than the sum of its brilliant parts. We see the same effect throughout AMSP because Radiohead are working with mood more than ever on this record, spinning the warped Mezzanine-ish refrain of Ful Stop into a manic chaos that disappears and resurfaces as the dirge-like, string-led melancholy of Glass Eyes. It’s a progression of events that feels organic at all times, like the moment-to-moment decay of a human spirit, or the soundtrack to a year in the life of a broken man. Many times during AMSP, I wondered if Yorke himself didn’t find himself that particular man during the years in which he recorded these songs.
Guitarist Johnny Greenwood had a heavy hand in the liberal orchestral arrangements that crop up on this album, fully bringing the expertise he’s garnered as a film composer to Radiohead’s music for the first time. It’s yet another inspired addition to the group’s usual formula, providing a much-needed and unconventional counterpoint to the intense intimacy of many of Yorke’s most private compositions. The Numbers, for example, swells to its climax with a mournful tide of strings supplied by the London Symphony Orchestra. Choral arrangements and string-led crescendoes consume the song as Yorke pleads with us to take things “one day at a time” before we’re led into the almost unbearably pretty Present Tense. First premiered in 2009, the song finds Yorke hearkening back to In Rainbows highlight Reckoner with a soul-baring moment of vulnerability. “In you I’m lost,” he cries while the moment decays around him… Fleeing shadows, we leave him alone in an empty house.
On A Moon Shaped Pool, Yorke is never afraid to show himself at his most vulnerable and imperfectly human, whether through the Nick Drake darkness of Desert Island Disk or the opulent paranoia of Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief, the penultimate track that descends into a symphonic cacophony which recalls Portishead’s seminal live recording Roseland NYC. The album’s final track, True Love Waits, is all that remains past this point, and it carries an emotional wallop that perfectly surmises and recontextualises the melancholy of all that came before it. If anything can definitively be said of AMSP, it is that this is an album that requires repeated listens and your undivided attention; anything else, and you’ll be selling yourself short as a music lover.
True Love Waits appeared in its original form during the 1995 world tour for Radiohead’s first true classic, The Bends. It went on to enjoy fan-favourite status as an acoustic Thom Yorke solo cut, usually performed in the set’s downtime to a sea of lighters and misty eyes. A heart-renching ballad of the traditional sort Yorke usually shies away from, the song never found its way out of live recordings before now. Nigel Godrich, speaking to Rolling Stone in 2012, said of the track: “We tried to record it countless times, but it never worked … To [Yorke'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.”
In 2016, the song arrives in a subtly altered form, with a subdued low-register piano backing replacing Yorke’s former acoustic guitar strumming. It’s still effectively a solo track, but it serves as a fitting end to an album so intimately about Yorke’s life and the heartache of his past few years. Written during the early years of his romance with Rachel Owen, True Love Waits delivers an altogether different effect now, on the other side of a love that spanned decades. “I’m not living/ I’m just killing time/ Your tiny hands/ Your crazy kitten smile/ Just don’t leave/ Don’t leave,” Yorke sings in a fractured, fragile, wounded voice, fraught with the devastation of years. The story of True Love Waits is in many ways the story of Yorke’s love for the mother of his two children, his wife of 23 years, the woman he’s been joined to for half of his life. True Love Waits finally found the validation that Godrich spoke of when that love came to a close, and Yorke found himself on the other side of what once was beautiful; the song, at least, will always be so.
At its close, A Moon Shaped Pool is over suddenly, almost without warning, withdrawing into the dark night of the soul it emerged from. And the poetry of this album is in its temporal nature, its respectful and awed treatment of time, change, and loss. It is almost as though Yorke and his bandmates have attempted to capture the inherently ever-changing marrow of life on tape, committing what cannot help but be lost to an art-form that will never be. It’s enough to break the heart of a listener, to reach into the depths of anyone who sees themself in the emotion that lives in every syllable of Yorke’s hauntingly transparent voice. Make no mistake, this album is for the most personal of emotions, the dreams and devastation that occur in the dying moments of a true love.
As a critic, I fought hard to find a flaw in this album - something, anything to take my score down a notch or two so I wouldn’t harp on too much about it and so outwear my welcome. I couldn’t find a flaw in the end, not one moment which I would change if given the choice. As a listener, I accepted this album into my heart immediately and with no reservations. I do believe it is perfect, not only in the sense that its music could not be improved upon, but in the sense that it is a record which Radiohead always seemed destined to make. Rock music’s most introspective, intelligent, and downright emotional band always threatened to make an album comprised of songs with the emotional wallop of Exit Music or Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was. It has arrived, decades late but right on time, the soundtrack to a failed relationship, the death of a parent, and a brave new world steeped in strangeness.
A Moon Shaped Pool deserves to be included in the pantheon of Radiohead’s best work - The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A. Many of its songs have been formed over the past decade or more, yet it is by no means a collection of re-recorded B-sides. It is the realisation of recordings that wanted for context, for purpose, written at times in which they didn’t quite belong. They are here with us now and forever, as personal and honest as rock songwriting can ever be, as beautifully human as we could ever imagine. Perhaps the reason that perfection - with all the arguments that term entails - is such a difficult label is that true perfection isn’t necessarily the absence of something unpleasant. Thom Yorke, of all people, understands this; that pain, sadness, and desolation can be as beautiful as unrelenting joy, that hardship may itself be meditated upon and made into something pure. It’s all a matter of context: this album is perfect because life is imperfect, it is beautiful because we are so often not, it is profound because life is profound and yet we are lost within it.
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