On May 8, Radiohead released their ninth full length album, titled A Moon Shaped Pool. It is their first release in five years, following 2011’s The King of Limbs, and goes in a completely different direction.
Longtime fans will recall the surprising nature of The King of Limbs, a record that eschewed all parts of the pop formula and focused on an experimental music. Some were put off by a forty minute album that consisted largely of repetitive drum loops with electronic bleeps and bloops and falsetto singing, as well as sporadic additional instrumentation. Some others commended a band that had enjoyed so much mainstream success for releasing something so difficult to appreciate. It also threw into question what the band’s future would look like, assuming there was a future for the aging group.
These questions have finally been answered with the release of A Moon Shaped Pool, a collection of soundscapes, which can be thought of both as much more conventional than The King of Limbs but much more captivating.
The album’s opener, “Burn the Witch” sounds like nothing the band has ever released before, and contains the first of many string arrangements in A Moon Shaped Pool. In terms of the fast, upbeat rhythm, tempo, and tone, the song stands alone. It’s hardly a banger, but it’s a lot more attention grabbing than anything else on the album, and it’s radio music compared to The King of Limbs. The string arrangement is pleasant to the ears, yes, but in part it feels lazy and uncreative. It’s never not in the foreground (bar lead singer, Thom Yorke’s, voice), and the crescendo at the end is a bit uninspired.
That being said, it’s the only string arrangement on the album that warrants criticism. The album is incredibly consistent following the first track. Track two, “Daydreaming”, serves as a clear shift in tone to the rest of the tracks. Ambient soundscape fades in, bleeps and bloops appear, piano loop takes the foreground, Thom starts singing in that unintelligibly high voice, and suddenly we switch to a wonderful, purposeful string arrangement. Exceptions to this description are on the album, and they’re good, but this describes most of A Moon Shaped Pool. The acoustic guitar, once at the front of every Radiohead song but faded into the background for The King of Limbs, makes a triumphant return on several tracks, such as “Desert Island Disk”, “Ful Stop”, and “Identikit”. The album closes with “True Love Waits”, a song Radiohead has played live for 20 years. On its first and only album appearance after all this time, it has taken on a pleasant yet underwhelming piano arrangement. Unfortunately it’s not better than the live versions the band has released before, though it is enjoyable in its own right.
A Moon Shaped Pool can be considered a gathering of the band’s post-radio presence, a culmination of styles and tones from Amnesiac, Kid A, and The King of Limbs. It’s one of the most clearly conceived and thematically coherent albums you’ll listen to in 2016.
I strongly suggest you listen to it start-to-finish.