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Album Review: Radiohead ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’


Radiohead have built a career propelling audiences to the outer reaches of aural sensibility, achieving widespread airplay and critical acclaim despite consistently pushing sonic boundaries. Their ninth studio album ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ continues a tradition of mysterious and outside-the-square composition and instrumentation. A strong departure from previous albums, Radiohead’s first offering since ‘The King of Limbs’ drags orchestral bombast across balladic pop stylings, capturing an audibly lunar soundscape befitting a characteristically creative and magnetic title.

Opening track and lead single Burn The Witch enters like a tide with pizzicato strings dancing playfully over synth-like beats and long, distorted bass notes. Clearly designed to entice, intrigue, and impress, Johnny Greenwood’s string arrangements display immediate presence in comparison to prior releases. Thom Yorke’s eerie signature vocal starts out sparse but soon rises wolf-like into splashes of reverb and glorious, cavernous delay. If David Bowie and Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu had married, this could easily be their musical lovechild. Familiar dark themes flow lyrically as Yorke sings “this is a low flying panic attack”, before the piece reaches a classically-influenced climax.

“Like the many faces of the moon, the mood of the album shifts quickly with Glass Eyes dipping into a key-laden, Dr Zhivago-like violin horizon.”

Second single Daydreaming conjures instant images of icicles and stark craters. Synthesiser and piano weave a long, psychologically picturesque introduction, played out emotionally by vocals like “dreamers, they never learn/the damage is done”. Modern classical structure closer to the style of motion picture soundtracks or epic role playing games is clear in the composition. Leaving a taste of the supernatural, the song ends with repetitious and ghostly babble that when reversed, reveals both a final lyric and a deeper meaning: “half of my life/half of my life”.

Complex construction and lush symphonic landscapes contrast with deft flourishes of electronic instrumentation on almost every track. This production ethic is repeated on Dark Decks, followed by a change of direction on Desert Island Disk. A rare moment of less subtle 60s influence, Disk is a psychedelic guitar-ballad providing a temporary reprieve from an otherwise classically intense introduction. Ful Stop mixes a slow-burning EQ sweep over old-school punk rock drumming, combining synth horns and driving bass to generate a disturbing yet somehow upbeat throwback to Radiohead staples such as The National Anthem.

Like the many faces of the moon, the mood of the album shifts quickly with Glass Eyes dipping into a key-laden, Dr Zhivago-like violin horizon. Meanwhile Identikit flows effortlessly toward lightly distorted indie-guitar territory, lush with digital delay and sparse, upbeat rhythms.

Continuing a theme of contrasted styles complementing the intelligent (and alphabetical) track list, The Numbers builds a bluesy, bass-riff driven piano song beginning with rain-like flourishes and ending with Pink Floyd-esque laughter. The track is a highlight of the record, exhibiting in equal measure external throwbacks like Led Zeppelin as it does the Radiohead crescendos of old, coexisting second to second on a record that is anything but predictable.

“If Radiohead sought to create a lunarian masterpiece, they have succeeded.”

Ninth track Present Tense is a darker take on a traditional Bossa Nova concept. Utilising an underscore of simplified Brazilian beats and delicate acoustic guitar picking to establish a moonlit musical vista, the strain seems unobtrusive until Yorke’s lyric “comes crashing down”. Sweet fantasy-film synthesiser and soprano chorals thread into a hypnotically melancholic end, opening the penultimate piece, Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief.

Atmospherics enter left and right over a foundation of steam engine samples masquerading as the beat. A drum kit appears, building Tinker Tailor into a potential soundtrack classic climaxing too soon at the four-minute mark. As transcendent lunarian strings fade out, steam samples become space noise in a clever and meaningful twist.

Closing track True Love Waits portrays a song with over 20 years of performance time and a consistent history of failed recordings. Given the background, an entire article could easily be devoted to this song alone. As a comparatively sparse, heavily emotional piece that avoids instrumental showmanship, it might have been poorly placed as the bookend of such a grandiose collection. Instead, True Love Waits represents a powerful and poignant lover’s statement, a fitting close to a powerful and engrossing album.

As a constructed whole, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is incredible. Beyond its initial scope as an indelible sculpture of emotion and sound, Radiohead’s latest record evokes complex internal imagery. Each carefully crafted track skilfully heralds the next, despite differing instrumentation and style. If Radiohead sought to create a lunarian masterpiece, they have succeeded. Do not listen to this record alone, unless you’re comfortable with a one-way trip to the moon.

Album Rating: 4.5

Radiohead A Moon Shaped Pool artwork

Written by Jimmy Sky