Review: A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead

Review: A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead

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Radiohead always found a way to lull you into a sense of security with a heartfelt melody, but also give you nightmares at the same time. With this album, their lullaby dreamscapes coalesce hallucinatory vocals with a new array of classical strings and orchestra to lighten their electronic euphony. Radiohead’s much awaited album A Moon Shaped Pool was released to a fanbase whose hype levels exceeded anything seen before. If In Rainbows was their ice cream after a lovely dinner, then A Moon Shaped Pool is the late night glass of wine while you’re writing sad poetry at 2 AM.

 

The album starts off with Burn the Witch, one of those songs whose title you listen to and think, ‘oh dear, they’re at it again.’ This time you’re one of Radiohead’s tunes for their 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool, and you’re the song whose title went on all the promo letters sent to random fans across the world. You start off with a duodenal string arrangement created from what I can only assume to be some weird contraption involving a cello and Jonny Greenwood’s hair from three years ago. A col legno (where you pretty much strike the bow onto the strings of the cello like you’re beating it up) interspersed with a swift bass-line gives this song a melodramatic, if somewhat airy feel. It’s only later, after you swim through your ear canals trying to dissect Thom’s lyrics do you realise that this song really is about what the title says; burning witches.

 

The following paragraph on Daydreaming is probably the toughest thing I’ve ever had to visualise in words. Usually describing a sound isn’t too difficult if you know some words. I do know a lot of words, but the transcription from Radiohead to words isn’t as easy. It’s like asking someone to paint the Mona Lisa using chocolate bars and Internet Explorer 6. Yes, I know that metaphor doesn’t make too much sense, but then again, neither does life.

Daydreaming is minimalistic and full of depth at the same time. It’s a fishbowl of tinkering bells, whoosh noises and steely guitar riffs swirling around in a cacophonic orchestral sequence. You then hear a triad of notes echoing through the musical hallway till it eventually falls into your lap amidst the soundscapes of Hellenic background vocals that I’m sure Thom and Ed spent more than three afternoons and two evenings calibrating. The resulting sound is really pretty. You can’t quite fit it into a genre, like most of Radiohead’s work since The Bends, but Daydreaming does a wonderful job of making you feel like you’d like to get lost in a cherubic, ethereal forest with candy-apple leaves peppered across the moss ridden ground.

Juxtaposition and contrast, not just in sound and lyrics but also in its message, seems to be the one persistent theme in this album. In fact, the music video for Daydreaming does a pretty good job of giving it a freeing, yet claustrophobic feel; Thom enters and exits many rooms, creeping around hallways and dinner tables and ignoring people giving him weird looks, before he stumbles into a cave and makes bear noises, presumably entering another 5 year period of hibernation (LP10 when?). It’s warm and fuzzy, but also cold and distant. The music itself is minimalist in that you can hear Jonny composing this in the same vein of his performance of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, but then there’s Ed doing some Treefingers level shit in the background that you can’t even decipher, making every moment unique.

Decks Dark is my personal favourite song on the album. It’s a Pink Floydian mix of a 1979 jam session with the eclectic beats and melodies reminiscent of Thom’s Atoms for Peace project. The lyrical theme is very resonant to Subterranean Homesick Alien, except it’s the opposite.

The wish, it seems, has come true. OK Computer gave birth to Radiohead’s foray into alt rock while experimenting with themes that would eventually go on to solidify their space in the annals of ‘bands that actually have things to say’. Climate change, divorce, breakup, politics, suicide, the dull pang of emptiness you feel on some nights where you wonder what this life thing is really about, and of course the pinnacle of Buzzfeed-esque clickbait scaremongering – alien abduction. In Decks Dark the Subterranean Homesick Alien dream has come true, and aliens have arrived. But as with all metaphors about extraterrestrials, it really isn’t about the aliens. It’s about you. You’re scared, and life is just a big spaceship hovering above you that’s going to DDOS your brain and start stealing your memories’ figurative exif data unless you stop being scared.

Stop right there (criminal scum)! There’s more to it than a simple theme reversal from an OK Computer song. Decks Dark ends with a blues-rock inspired jam, though they do it in their own style that is far enough from the blues to make it appear positively red. Optimistic, the sixth song from their 2001 album Kid A, also ends with a jam that rolls into the next song In Limbo. A lot of Radiohead’s music speaks about disenfranchisement from ‘the system’ and vulnerability, whether it be to alien abductions or dinosaurs roaming the earth once again. There’s always a sense of foreboding that they tap into with the theme itself, which eventually slaps onto the music like butter on bread. Decks Dark and Optimistic share this quality; they’re both decidedly unoptimistic. An inert, etiolated wimp cowering from aliens and a young idealist hoping that his best is good enough for the real world (it isn’t.)

From here our journey warps into a little spiritual mouse-house from the vast expanse of looming fear and groovy unease. An almost spectral acoustic guitar opens Desert Island Disc, which is a love song, possibly inspired by Thom’s breakup with his girlfriend of 23 years. This song is a lemon flavoured air freshener; the acoustic guitar and synths are easy to breathe but the lyrics still have a sour bite.

Analysing lyrics for Radiohead songs is like picking out your raisins from a raisin bran muffin… why did you get a raisin bran muffin the first place? “You really messed up everything,” could mean a variety of things, from the failing predicament of neo-capitalist globalism, to a relationship, or even to civilisation itself. After all isn’t that what Burn the Witch is about? A certain chunk of the human race spent the better part of centuries thinking that women who floated when drowned are witches. It’s probably about a relationship since Thom sings “take me back”, but then again, “you really messed up this time” represents either an extraordinary forgetfulness or a blind oversight in keeping with one theme when songwriting, or he’s just manic. In that way, Ful Stop musically is a cross between Weird Fishes and Idioteque. The melodramatic horns and fading-in percussion are busy and athletic. It’s the “tough love” song before the cold cuddle that’s Glass Eyes.

If you didn’t believe that the same guys who released Pablo Honey were able to create Glass Eyes, don’t worry, no one predicted Kid A either. Jonny’s heavy lifting in the compositional department performed with the London Contemporary Orchestra merge beautifully with Thom’s piano, resulting in an ebbing and flowing ballad about the daunting world we live in (or Thom’s divorce, could be either really). Though you could probably say that about most tracks on this album. The ending is vaguely reminiscent of Motion Picture Soundtrack, with the strings converging into a soaring crescendo that ends in a simple but poignant message. Replace “I will see you in the next life” with “I feel this love turn cold” and you’ve just transcended a 15 year expanse of Radiohead the discography. Except their music, they really haven’t changed much, have they? On my first listen of the album, when I sat in my chair with the lights off, I couldn’t think of what else one would title this track except Glass Eyes. It’s perfectly named and it’s not even related. It’s glassy. It’s watery. It flows perfectly.

I first heard Identikit in 2012 when they performed it live, and many people have been looking forward to it being on the album. When it eventually did release, many people wondered what this new incarnation was… it was Identikit… but it also wasn’t? Ed’s backing vocals were chopped, a few bars were cut here and there, the bass was made more prominent, and some verses were newly interjected with freestyle Thom Yorke and the song was made *tighter*, if I could describe it as such. I like both, but the AMSP version grew on me. It’s actually really great. The theme is similar to Ful Stop, in the accusatory “when I see you messing me around” concluding with the head-in-the-sand “I don’t want to know.” The first few beats mess with your head because it seems off, but that’s calculated. Radiohead is calculated. Every sound, every hiss and every beat is engineered and scrapped and reengineered again (this time with Thom around). Jonny’s guitar comes out of the woodwork at the end with a piercing guitar solo similar to the one on Go To Sleep (Little Man Being Erased). Out of all the songs on this album, this is the one you’d most likely find playing in a Starbucks on a Saturday afternoon, which is a good thing.

The Numbers and Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief are two songs that’d fit in either Kid A or Amnesiac, which I consider to be very intelligently produced albums. The use of orchestra adds a lot to an otherwise breadbox mix of electronic sounds that formed the basis of their last album The King of Limbs. The little bits of piano peppered in bring these songs back to their cozy little Moon Shaped Pool home. The Numbers is about climate change, by the way, while TTSSRMPMBMT is about the accustomed Radiohead signature – suspicion and derangement.

Okay, so if you haven’t heard Present Tense, this is AMSP’s Jigsaw Falling Into Place. This is the token In Rainbows song that made its way onto an album 9 years later. Well, not really, but it sounds exactly like it belongs amidst the dreamy In Rainbows songs. The samba inspired track quavers into an angelic chorus that melds orchestral strings, multi-tracked background vocal loops, maracas, acoustic guitar and Brazilian carnival-esque percussion.

Oh dear. Now we’re onto the last track on the album, True Love Waits. First performed in freaking 1994, this song has been around for a long time, and has seen its fair share of live performances (more frequently than Creep atleast) without an album release. What’s there to say about this? It gives me chills every time, in a way even Motion Picture Soundtrack doesn’t. Originally performed on the guitar, with a piano transformation on the album this track retains everything, and more. The song itself is nothing more than a plea – a sincere heartfelt plea for love. The last line of the album is a fitting “don’t leave,” which after 22 years, still serves its purpose at the end of A Moon Shaped Pool.

 

Where does this album rank?

I’d put this in the top 3 Radiohead albums released, after In Rainbows and Kid A. OK Computer comes very close and Paranoid Android is still one of the greatest ballads ever written but listening to all 11 songs on A Moon Shaped Pool from Burn the Witch to True Love Waits is an immaterial journey.

Summary

This album is an old parchment faded letter written to a lost loved one. It’s a celestial ode to the alienation, disillusionment and insanity of modern times. It’s the soul of a an era yet to come where people can’t eat or sleep or love anymore and Radiohead has captured that feeling of cold solidarity enveloped in a blanket of humanity. The music itself is heart wrenching and deep but the themes it explores, if you care about that kind of stuff, has always been about things you’d rather not think about.

Keywords: Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool, LP9, Ninth Album, Review, Daydreaming, Burn The Witch, Desert Island Disk, Ful Stop, Glass Eyes, Identikit, The Numbers, Present Tense, True Love Waits, Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Phil Selway, Colin Greenwood, Ed O Brien

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Upamanyu Acharya is a writer who doesn't write. Sometimes he's an artist, musician, photographer, physicist or lazy student. His hobbies include being vague, bending rules, time-travel, and embellishment of words. This is his personal blog where he writes on topics ranging from leadership skills to the consistency of jam.

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