It began with a tweet; not the kind you’re most familiar with, but the old-fashioned chirping of a bird.
The landscape of music has changed dramatically since the release of Radiohead’s 7th LP, In Rainbows. Though ‘rock’ has since faded from popularity, the importance of the album itself is ever-present; less so for its tracklist, but rather its release strategy. A milestone in recent music history, In Rainbows offered a pay-what-you-want model, and publicly announced the record a mere 10 days prior to release – a major influence on the surprise releases we now see so often today.
At the time, In Rainbows was described as Thom Yorke’s collection of seduction songs, and the result was the prettiest album they had ever made. And here we stand, nine years on, with its natural accompaniment. Where In Rainbows was full of beauty, wonder, and love, A Moon Shaped Pool is about the lack of. It’s reflective, full of longing, and tinged with regret. With Yorke having recently split from his partner of 23 years, A Moon Shaped Pool is very much Radiohead’s version of the breakup album, and it’s the most human their music has ever been.
Many months ago, Jonny Greenwood described the recording process as ‘trying to use very old and very new technology together to see what happens’. This juxtaposition is the single most important aspect of the album. It’s reflected in the ‘tweet’ that signalled the release, and central to the music within the LP, particularly the opener, “Burn the Witch”. Percussion-like strings introduce the song before soon being joined by a drum machine and droning electronic bass. Yorke joins in with his signature falsetto, ‘Sing a song on the jukebox that goes Burn the Witch’.
These elements are far from coincidental; in both the music and lyrics we get something new, and something old. Radiohead are highlighting a certain timelessness to the record, in its societal and political commentary, and its handling in the nature of love. No matter when and where you’re from, there will always be someone shouting ‘burn the witch’, and that broken hearts will always ‘make it rain’.
‘I’m not living / I’m just killing time’
- “True Love Waits”
The second track from the album, the stunning “Daydreaming”, utilises an outro that comprises solely of the slowed down and reversed-vocal lyrics, ‘Half of my life’, repeated constantly, as if stuck in a numbing trance reflecting on the past. At 47 years of age, Yorke has literally devoted half of his life to his former partner, and to the music industry – Pablo Honey was released 23 years ago. It’s a daunting thought, to have given so much of yourself for an unfulfilling end.
This vulnerability is amplified by the fact that A Moon Shaped Pool contains some of the most jarring lyrics I’ve ever heard from a Radiohead album. In particular, ‘Take me back’ / ‘You really messed up everything’, from “Ful Stop”, and the chilling final words to the gorgeous ballad, “Glass Eyes”; ‘I feel this love turn cold’.
Jonny Greenwood’s ventures into orchestral work, particularly his collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson, are paramount to the success of the album, as is the truly phenomenal production and mixing. They bring much needed weight and comfort to the bleak themes, and result in moments of transcendent beauty; namely, the outro to “Daydreaming”, the intro to “Glass Eyes”, and the remarkable backend of “The Numbers”.
A Moon Shaped Pool also sees Radiohead diversify their music in ways they never have before. This is evidenced in the krautrock-influenced “Ful Stop”, and the bossa nova of “Present Tense”. For a band who have built a career on incorporating new sounds to each and every album, it should come as no surprise that these two songs are immediate highlights, with the former’s mid-section among the most arresting in their entire discography.
‘This goes beyond me, beyond you’
Content-wise, A Moon Shaped Pool is simply astounding. The three-track stretch of “Decks Dark”, “Desert Island Disk”, and “Ful Stop”, stands among the greatest album-successions in recent music history. “Daydreaming” and “Glass Eyes” lay in uncharted territory for popular music, as does the string-incorporated backend of “The Numbers”. This is seriously accomplished music, a level one only aspires to.
And finally, after the cathartic experience that is A Moon Shaped Pool, we reach the closer, “True Love Waits”. A fan-favourite ever since it was first played live over 20 years ago, Godrich had at one point clarified that to put in on an album, the song had to have a ‘reason to exist as a recording’, and that Thom needed to ‘feel the song has validation’. The old version, with its lively acoustic guitar and passionate vocal, was indicative of someone’s love for someone else - someone precious, conflicting the joy and pain in love; ‘I’ll drown my beliefs / to have your babies’ / ‘Just don’t leave’.
With Thom’s recent breakup, the song gained validation. Stripped back and lyrics without change, a sombre piano accompanies Thom as he cries out those same three words, now devastating in a post-relationship context; ‘Just don’t leave’. It is hauntingly beautiful.
A Moon Shaped Pool is one of the defining works by the greatest artist of our generation. They are without comparison, and the record itself documents a fragile point in time in Yorke’s life. This juxtaposition of conflicting ideas within the album - of old and new, of joy and pain, of love and its dissolution - is reflected in the first and last words of the album; ‘Stay’ / ‘Leave’. If they continue making music even half as accomplished as this, I hope they choose to stay.