Review: Radiohead surprises us all with 'A Moon Shaped Pool,' an album of lush, human beauty
In the era of the surprise album release, can a rock band still, y’know, surprise you?
If any band can, it’s Radiohead. They were pioneers of the gotcha format, giving fans a mere 10 days’ notice for their splendid 2007 album In Rainbows.
Nine years later they’re back with A Moon Shaped Pool, their long-in-the-works ninth album. Teased with two singles last week, officially announced on Friday and released to the masses on Sunday, it’s the latest in a long run of surprise 2016 albums, from Rihanna’s Anti to Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered. to Beyonce’s Lemonade.
But here, the word “surprise” refers not only to the suddenness with which A Moon Shaped Pool dropped. Musically, it is surprisingly orchestral, surprisingly beautiful, surprisingly touching, surprisingly present. Had this album not come from Radiohead – a band from whom fans should always expect the unexpected – everything about it could be described as, you guessed it, a surprise.
For starters, there’s the title: A Moon Shaped Pool. Very Coldplay, isn’t it, all swoony and celestial and grandiose? Maybe that’s not an accident. There may be no Super Bowl-sized hits on this album, but it contains some of the most plainly beautiful music Radiohead has ever laid to tape. That has always been Radiohead’s secret specialty: Creating moments of musicality that burrow their way into your heart almost instantaneously – the chainsaw riffs midway into 1997's Paranoid Android, the foreboding opening tones of 2000's Everything In Its Right Place, and now the devastating piano sonata woven all throughout 2016's Daydreaming.
A Moon Shaped Pool is cinematic in scope and sound – lush strings, warm pianos, rich orchestral flourishes – pointing, perhaps, to guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s recent film work (he’s scored the last three Paul Thomas Anderson movies, receiving deserved acclaim for his work on There Will Be Blood). You might recall that in December the band released Spectre, an eerie woulda-been title track for the James Bond film of the same name. Compare it to Pool opener Burn the Witch, with its stabbing Psycho strings and fiercely menacing build – now that would’ve made for a much more thrilling Bond theme.
Each song feels not just textured but tangible – ambitious, yes, requiring the assistance of choirs and orchestras, yet somehow more human and accessible than the icy, burbling soundscapes of albums past. Pool doesn’t feel labored-over; it feels lived-in, earthen, like music you can grasp – and I daresay it rocks in ways no Radiohead album has in ages, maybe ever. In the twisty, knotty tussle of ambling acoustic guitars on Desert Island Disk or The Numbers, I hear Yes, I hear Blind Faith, I hear early Genesis. I hear friggin’ Kansas. Radiohead’s always been prog-rock, but never quite so literally.
Of course, Radiohead being Radiohead, they’re always going to find ways to make things weird. That task mostly falls to Thom Yorke’s askance-and-inscrutable-as-always lyrics about fear, paranoia, “low-flying panic attacks.” On Ful Stop, guitars swarm like waves of locusts and cicadas across a distant, lowing beat that grows closer and closer, thrusting you toward a sparking firebox of bubbling, buzzing riffs. On Present Tense, a chorus of ghostly whoo-oo-oos float in a bossa nova shuffle above a spicily plucked acoustic guitar. Identikit wraps a vanilla line like “Broken hearts make it rain” in a swirl of deep-canyon voices and slow build of space-age synthesizers.
But as weird as things sometimes get, they also never stop being gorgeous. Glass Eyes’ watery pianos drip and ripple into pools of melodic strings and pianos. “Dreamlike” is too easy a word to describe Daydreaming, but it’s apt, from the gentle lull of its Moonlight Sonata-like piano to the creepy benediction of backwards grunts and groans at the end.
Not to get presumptuous about who actually wrote and did what on A Moon Shaped Pool, but you can’t shake the feeling that of all Radiohead's albums, this one belongs most to Greenwood and producer Nigel Goodrich. Yorke’s distinctive moan and square-peg lyrics will forever remain the band’s hallmark, but his solo projects – two albums and the supergroup Atoms For Peace – have been spotty exercises in icy, glitchy atmospherics. This album makes me want to go back and re-listen to everything Greenwood’s done for the past decade, to try and suss out where this Pool of beauty came from.
But here’s the perplexing thing about that: As Radiohead nerds know, some of these songs date back years in the band's canon. True Love Waits has been around since the mid-‘90s and was featured on the 2001 live album I Might Be Wrong (this new version, which trades an acoustic guitar for a piano, is much, much better). Identikit debuted during touring for 2011’s The King of Limbs, and quickly became a live standout (albeit in quite a different form than heard here). Pool could represent a clearing out of the cupboard, a cobbling of 25 years' worth of art-rock scraps and shards into something wholly new. But it doesn't feel piecemeal or recycled. It feels like a band in full focus, hands-on in their mission to finish some sort of unfinished business.
A Moon Shaped Pool is not Radiohead’s best album (how could it be?), but it’s also nowhere near its worst. After a few listens, I'm slotting it fifth, dead center, in my personal ranking of the band’s nine albums, but I’d listen to arguments it should be as high as third.
And if you'd told me a week ago that I’d be saying that about a Radiohead album in 2016, I wouldn’t just be surprised. I’d be shocked.
-- Jay Cridlin