In a brilliant marketing stunt, and a nod to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Radiohead hit “delete” on their internet presence (and their digital past) two Sundays ago. Without warning or explanation, the band’s social media accounts were scrubbed clean. Their website’s homepage soon turned ghost white. When Radiohead reemerged from self-proscribed exile two days later, they came bearing a new single called “Burn the Witch” and, with it, a dazzling old sound. Man-made notes marched in the foreground. Artificial flourishes were banished to the sonic hinterlands. Strings ruled all. A week after that digital memory-wipe, Radiohead returned in full with A Moon Shaped Pool, their most emotionally mighty album yet, and their finest work since Kid A.
Ever since Radiohead upended rock music sixteen years ago, their studio output has been a bit overpraised. Each new album following Kid A has been rightly lauded for its breathtaking formalism. (Hey, I'm beginning to think these guys are talented musicians!) But how well did those LPs hang together thematically? Loosely at best. Unconvincingly at worst. Amnesiac, Kid A’s 2001 follow-up, arrived as a magnificent odds-and-ends affair. Hail to the Thief, a personal favorite of mine from 2003, was basically a collection of (too many) songs. Their last great record, 2008’s In Rainbows, delivered sonic cohesion and muscular tunes, but what was it trying to say? The King of Limbs, from 2011, had its moments, particularly during a spectacular Side B, but it felt frustratingly minor.
A Moon Shaped Pool, the band’s ninth studio release, is a different beast altogether. First of all, it’s aggressively pretty. No Radiohead album has sounded so sparkling, so piercing. In fact, much of it seems to exist within the swooning chorale that comes near the end of “Paranoid Android”. A Moon Shaped Pool is also a singular and devastating statement of past, present, and future loss. It offers an eerie balance between the recent political protests of Anohni’s Hopelessness and the marital breakdowns of Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Over and over again, these tracks build to glorious climaxes and burst as Thom Yorke warbles about coming catastrophes, both global and personal. Notably, only the long-awaited studio version of “True Love Waits”, a Bends-era ballad, fails to swell. The album-closer instead drifts sideways, catatonic but no less beautiful than the ten songs preceding it.
Many of Yorke’s lyrics on A Moon Shaped Pool seem to invite a biographic reading. After all, in 2015 he and Rachel Owen ended their relationship of 23 years. It’s obvious that “Desert Island Disk” (“Different types of love/ Are possible”), “Ful Stop” (“You really messed up this time”), “Glass Eyes” (“I feel this love turn cold”), “Identikit” (“Broken hearts make it rain”), and “Present Tense” (“In you I’m lost”) point to romantic discord. On the coda to “Daydreaming”, “Half of my life” is repeatedly sung backwards. The song's accompanying video, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, finds Yorke wandering dazedly through various domestic tableaux. Ending the record with “True Love Waits”, after holding out for so long, only intensifies the speculation. Online commenters have been quick to note that some of these compositions far predate last year’s breakup, which is true but still doesn’t address the question of their original meaning. And yet, does it matter when tales of alien invasion (“Decks Dark”), ugly nativism (“Burn the Witch”) and climate change (“The Numbers”) appear to be just as nakedly personal?
There’s a stateliness to A Moon Shaped Pool, an aural exactitude — what a cynic might call an English primness — to these songs. The addition of the London Contemporary Orchestra to the sonic mix is only part of the cause. If you were to wipe away its wonderful string arrangements (no doubt the handiwork of Jonny Greenwood, expert composer), A Moon Shaped Pool would still sound strikingly calculated, even by Radiohead’s usual standards. When the album freaks out a little with the barreling momentum of “Ful Stop”, the bossa-nova grooves of “Present Tense”, the remarkable tantrum of “Identikit” — it feels electrified and vibrant. However, there are stretches of A Moon Shaped Pool — on “Glass Eyes”, “Desert Island Disk”, and (the unfortunately titled) “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” — where drowsiness overtakes its regular majesty.
Some have theorized that A Moon Shaped Pool will be Radiohead’s final album. The inclusion of so many older tracks does give the appearance that the group is putting everything out there, only to shutter the whole thing up and call it a day. If so, this would be a fitting finale. If not, it marks Radiohead’s turning point into elder statesmanship. A Moon Shaped Pool is the best album we could expect from a rock outfit already into its third decade of existence, and a superb work from the last important band left in the universe. A