Release Date: May 8, 2016
Record label: XL
Genre(s): Alternative, Pop/Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Review Summary: This is not Radiohead's most experimental album, but it just might be their best. Is Radiohead the last great band? It’s a question that has been making rounds as Nirvana met an abrupt end in the mid-90s following Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and as U2 fades further into the rearview mirror while age and loss of relevance take over. In terms of influence, there are currently few other acts that come to mind with the same amount of historical importance as Radiohead; and the sheer relevancy that they’ve maintained over the course of their multi-decade spanning run essentially pegs them as the “generational band” of the 2000s, a tag they’ve been awarded with practically no competition.
For the last decade, every member of Radiohead has been given complete licence to do their own thing. Solo projects are allowed to come first, when the timing’s right. When the opportunity knocks to form a band with Flea, of all people, who says you can’t? Previously all-consuming, life in this band has taken on a new form. And every member of the group - if you include Colin Greenwood’s fashion show catwalk phase - has done their own thing.
Mourning can be a potent muse. For many, it simply necessitates transmission as a purgative statement, lest the opportunity to pick its lock is passed up and corroded over time. A confrontation with reprieve and recovery amidst the aftershocks of sudden loss, Radiohead’s ninth full-length album, A Moon Shaped Pool, sees Thom Yorke opting for masterfully earnest self-therapy over silence, tearing up the floorboards of his recent split from his partner of 23 years to expose a realm haunted by the phantasm of fading memory.
Radiohead have seemingly run out of reinventions—but that could be for the best. During the sessions for 2011’s patchy King of Limbs, the world’s most innovative rock band hunkered behind sequencers and turntables, splicing together fragmented loops into droning collages like “Morning Mr. Magpie” and “Feral.” “We didn’t want to pick up guitars and write chord sequences,” multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood told Rolling Stone of their creative flux.
Radiohead, who titled their ninth studio album A Moon Shaped Pool, have a unique grasp on how easily profundity can slip into banality. Their music is obsessed with the point where great truths harden into platitudes, where pure signal meets wretched noise. In the past, Thom Yorke has sharply peppered his lyrics with everyday cliches to suggest a mind consumed by meaningless data, but on the new album, he largely moves beyond cynicism.
There is a concept known as "hypnagogia." It is most succinctly defined as the transitional state of consciousness between being awake and being asleep. To be in a hypnagogic state is to essentially straddle the line between conscious and unconscious. When one wades into their first listens of A Moon Shaped Pool, they may feel as though they've entered this dreamy, somewhat surreal state of being as Radiohead's ninth studio album creates a powerful sensory experience across its 52-minute runtime.
Obscurity has always been an essential tenet of Radiohead's sidelong approach to rock stardom. Coming of age amid a crop of bands who flaunted a shrugging disinterest in the demands of musical celebrity, however, they've somehow managed to persist, flourish, and evolve as their contemporaries disappeared or were mothballed as museum pieces. Radiohead has done so by functioning as a cunning pop act hiding out inside the classic packaging of a cerebral rock band, maintaining a resolutely aloof exterior—and an air of remote intellectual purity—while pioneering new techniques for sneaking difficult music into the mainstream consciousness.
Radiohead is gonna do Radiohead, sidling ethereally through a confusing, increasingly unstable world as only Radiohead can. So what does that mean? It means that presidential terms may elapse between studio LPs, meticulously constructed by a team the size of a very small hamlet. Said LPs will roll out and retail in ways that seem cryptic and contentious, until in retrospect they seem absolutely inevitable; massive world tours will follow; there will be bafflement and fevered theorizing and furious rhapsodizing.
It's easy to fall in too deep with Radiohead. If you don't call them your favourite band then you know someone who does. When Radiohead release new material that person doesn't just fawn over it: they obsess, listening on repeat to work out what this means for the band. They don't just want to decode Thom Yorke's cryptic lyrics; they want to understand Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood's time signatures, to discover allegories created by Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien's augmentations and to interpret everything as though it had been bestowed upon them by deities whose music transcends what we mortals are capable of.
For all their ‘sticking it to the man’, you’ve got to hand it to Radiohead – they’re masters of modern marketing. A Moon Shaped Pool has arrived off the back of a slow burning tease of rumours, internet blackouts, a new company and eventually the promise of a date and time for digital release. To top off the pre-release talking points, the preceding singles were published on platforms Thom Yorke has previously described as “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse.” Thankfully, the band have produced a record that elicits strong feelings; it has an immediate effect on the listener.
It would have been difficult to envision back in 1992 when a young British band from Oxfordshire named after an obscure Talking Heads song released their breakthrough single “Creep” and its accompanying album Pablo Honey that Radiohead would someday become far and away the most important band of their generation. Sure, there were flashes of brilliance on that album, like the unhinged eruption of self-loathing in “Creep” or the slow-boiling tension of “Lurgee”, but Radiohead had every appearance of being one of those countless ‘90s alternative rock bands that would make a quick splash and then just as quickly disappear into the ether. Fast-forward 23 years, and Radiohead remains the world’s preeminent rock band.
Of all the potential titles circulated during the wait for Radiohead’s ninth album — Dawn Chorus, Burn the Witch, Silent Spring — A Moon Shaped Pool comes as a petty disappointment. It reads like a typical Thom Yorke tweet about global warming and how rising sea levels will turn our planet into an amorphous blob of water held together by gravity. Other readings exist, be it nature repelling corporate oil (a literal take on Stanley Donwood’s album artwork) or heartbreak instigating musical inspiration (a literal take on the “Identikit” verse it appears in).
For a Radiohead record, everything about the journalistic rush to judgment dictated by short-notice releases in our shoot-first media economy feels wrong, corrupt, diseased. That's especially true for A Moon Shaped Pool, whose launch – that goofy word, as if LPs were space ships! – began with the band circulating snail mail, erasing its Facebook and Twitter histories, and issuing a song led by orchestral musicians whacking out beats on wooden instruments. Welcome to the new artisanal Radiohead: provisionally unplugged, old-worldly, and mass-produced with small-batch aesthetics as an antidote to low-flying panic attacks, if we could only slow the fuck down and savor it.
While the 2011 release of The King Of Limbs caused the kind of cyber kerfuffle that tends to greet the slightest of stirrings from the Radiohead camp, there was a curious feeling after its unveiling; as if fans were – whisper it – slightly underwhelmed by the release. Rumours quickly circulated that the album represented the first of a two-parter; while this wasn’t to be the case, more songs did trickle out as disparate limited or download-only releases, adding to the scattershot impression given by the whole project. With hindsight, TKOL’s slightness is part of its charm, an anomaly in their discography with a few real gems.
Radiohead have long trafficked in existential dread and political anger, and in a wider sense of twitchy bereftness that bends to fit any number of scenarios – their very own aural shade of Yves Klein blue, maybe, just a little more bruised. This arresting ninth album is bathed in it. Overshadowed by the break-up of singer Thom Yorke’s relationship, announced last year, A Moon Shaped Pool finds the band mining their long and deep back catalogue, while pushing their compositional skills relentlessly forwards.
Back in the day, before Spotify and YouTube, bands inspired tribes. Radiohead were part of your identity, where you placed yourself. It's still difficult to believe that the Oxfordshire quintet were founded all the way back in 1985; they led the last generation whose teenage years weren't defined by the abundance and cross-pollination of the internet.
Just over a decade ago, the going line about Radiohead was that the English band could "release an album of its members farting into a paper bag and still be called geniuses. " That seems like centuries ago now; in the following years — and particularly following the release of the hyper-divisive The King of Limbs in 2011 — the band have become something of a punch line themselves, a go-to symbol for the kind of self-serious music snobbery that's fallen out of fashion in the Age of Poptimism. But for an album that features the London Contemporary Orchestra's string ensemble and choir on all but two of its 11 tracks, A Moon Shaped Pool hardly feels like the work of a band taking themselves too seriously; if anything, Radiohead's ninth album is their most effortlessly languid yet, a record that stretches out and unfolds gently, warmly.
Last Tuesday, the world was treated to the improbable spectacle of tastemaking US music website Pitchfork earnestly trying to explain 1960s and 70s UK kids’ show Trumpton to its American readers. Their London-based contributing editor was drafted in, the better to elucidate the importance of Pugh, Pugh and Barney McGrew, as was the son-in-law of the show’s 96-year-old creator, whose solitary quote – “I’m not aware of anything” – winningly suggested a man quite keen to get the bloke from Pitchfork off the phone. Elsewhere, parallels were drawn between Trumpton and what might become of America were Donald Trump to become president, which feels like rather a harsh judgment on the seemingly benign regime of the mayor and Mr Troop the town clerk.
UFOs don't usually figure in the canon of heartbreak metaphors, but Thom Yorke likes to do things differently. On "Decks Dark," from Radiohead's ninth album, he sings: "And in your life there comes a darkness / There's a spacecraft blocking out the sky / And there's nowhere to hide / You run to the back and you cover your ears / But it's the loudest sound you've ever heard." A few seconds later, a chorus with all the rainy grandeur of "Subterranean Homesick Alien" sweeps into view. News of Yorke's separation from his partner of 23 years filtered out last year, a few months after the release of another major breakup album.
Somehow, in a moon-shaped slice into cultural consciousness, alienation, anxiety, sentiment, and dulcet sympathy spilled out into a weird pool. New, hybrid strands of critical music fragmented “the band” into 1,000 electronic vessels of pained identity formation — literal vats of sonic influence that often provoke sensibility through extreme measures — be it imagistic, cultural, ironic, or virtual. The rallying force of some of music’s most iconic figures has faded into memorials, into monuments depicting an eternal sonic battle against permanent themes.
Review Summary: Just the beer light to guide usWhen we’re told to “reach for stars,” it isn’t with the expectation of spiralling back down to Earth. A Moon Shaped Pool contains themes of far-reaching otherworldliness, but with a mix of both self-awareness and oblivion. It’s often apathetic, with a greater-than-thou beauty that seems to fade in and out of the protagonist’s focus.
The last time Radiohead released an album – 2011’s The King of Limbs obvs– this website responded to its surprise release with an instant reaction piece that aggregated 11 mini reviews from 11 of our writers. Obviously it’s a terrible cliche to single out the world’s most fanboyed band for special treatment, but it felt like about the sanest way to cut through the feeding frenzy that accompanied the record being ‘dropped’ – ours went up at the same time as all the other insta-reviews, but at least the range of voices felt like nobody was presuming to pass final judgement after one listen. Ironically, the mix of over-excited diehards (‘Their best record in a decade: stunning’ - David Edwards), over-cynical diehards (‘something merely “good” represents failure for Radiohead’ – Paul Brown) and bleating equivocators (‘I suspect people will only truly get their heads around it when the next record turns up’ - Andrzej Lukowski) actually captured a sense of the low-key, somewhat flawed record quite well and the aggregate 7/10 score seemed about right.
The band’s latest stealth release is a frustratingly uneven piece of work. Launched unannounced in digital download form on May 8, Radiohead’s ninth album landed softly on a giant mattress of rush-written critical raptures. With the opportunity for deeper reflection, A Moon Shaped Pool feels flimsy and unfocused, adding no strong new flavours or dazzling sonic shifts to the band’s 25-year track record of high-art experimentalism.
Radiohead rolled out their ninth full-length in a way that felt reliably contrarian. At a time when high-profile LPs are stunt-released with Jumbotron teasers, surprise announcements and online scavenger hunts (a trend they helped precipitate with In Rainbows in 2007), the band methodically scrubbed all signs of their presence online, which in itself conveyed the sense of a Big Event looming on the horizon. Then a comment attributed to the band’s manager surfaced, promising an album “unlike anything you’ve heard from the band.” This was quickly corrected and retracted: it was not the band’s manager speaking; it was not the band’s wish to characterize the album that way.
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.
A Moon Shaped Pool feels like the end of something. One of the UK quintet's greatest triumphs, their ninth studio full-length mirrors David Bowie's swan song Blackstar as a jazz-fusion production, utilizing electronics, strings, and Thom Yorke's soaring vocals to shed any remaining Neanderthal rock. Inward and reflective, the LP feels like the singer's solo project, other band members, especially multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, helping their leader process his changing emotions.
A cursory glance at A Moon Shaped Pool may suggest a certain measure of indifference on the part of Radiohead. Its 11 songs are sequenced in alphabetical order—a stunt befitting a Pixies concert or perhaps a Frank Black box set, not a proper album—and many of these tunes are of an older vintage: the group began work on the opener "Burn The Witch" at the turn of the century, while the closing "True Love Waits" first appeared in concerts way back in 1995. These are the elements of a clearinghouse but with Radiohead appearances are always deceiving.
After a month when big, meaningful albums have come thick and fast – ‘Lemonade’, ‘Views’, Anohni, James Blake – it doesn’t feel like there’s quite so much riding on Radiohead’s ninth album. That will suit them. Thom Yorke and co remain reluctant saviours of rock, and ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ doesn’t so much grab you by the throat as creep into your house in the night and paint your walls an enigmatic shade of blue.Lead single ‘Burn The Witch’ is a bit of a red herring, a classic slice of Radiohead scaremongering with cellists wielding their bows like pitchforks.
“Open all channels,” Thom Yorke softly demands at one point during Radiohead’s latest record, “A Moon Shaped Pool.” “Ready to receive.” It’s not the first time Yorke seeks connection on his band’s new album, a rich and engrossing listen that somehow finds more undiscovered territory for a band that has built a career on doing just that. This is a modal window. “A Moon Shaped Pool” came out Sunday after the band released two singles and corresponding videos last week that culminated with Friday’s album announcement.
The future is dire, the past a blur and the present heartbroken yet hinting at possibilities on Radiohead’s “A Moon Shaped Pool,” its ninth studio album and perhaps its darkest statement — though the one with the band’s most pastoral surface. Radiohead worries throughout the album: about environmental devastation, about mass thoughtlessness, about love gone cold, about finding some way forward. “You’ve really messed up everything,” Thom Yorke sings in “Ful Stop,” one of the album’s few up-tempo songs, though it uses its insistent beat for jitters, not pleasurable motion.
For a band that has so significantly reinvented its sound over nearly 25 years’ worth of recordings, the mood of Radiohead’s music has remained remarkably consistent—a mood that might best be described as “troubled. ” A sense of unease and tension runs through nearly the entirety of the band’s catalog, from the jagged guitar blasts of “Creep,” to the snakelike guitar lines of “Paranoid Android,” on through the electronic pulses of “2 + 2 = 5” and the jittery rhythms of “Morning Mr. Magpie.
Watch the video for "Daydreaming," from Radiohead's new album. In “The Numbers,” a new song from Radiohead’s ninth studio album, “A Moon Shaped Pool” (XL), Thom Yorke calls for a revolution, in the way Radiohead does these sorts of things. Where other bands or orators might be tempted to shout, Yorke sounds like he’s singing a lullaby. “We’ll take back what is ours,” he calmly declares.
Remember when Radiohead had fire in their bellies, blood in their mouths? When there was drama to their music, a singular lurch and lope; when they were truly themselves and several years ahead of dancing around the handbag of self-pastiche? I was reminded of that phase in the band’s career recently, when a trailer for the new series of the BBC’s Peaky Blinders (it’s alright) popped into position on my tellybox. It lasts just 20 seconds, but that 20-second snatch of Radiohead’s OK Computer-featured ‘Climbing Up the Walls’ has more drama to it, more intrigue and innovation, than anything I hear on its makers’ ninth long-player proper, A Moon Shaped Pool. And trust me, I’ve been desperate to hear anything on this set that wasn’t the sound of Radiohead chasing their own tail, blissfully unaware of the requirement to pay anyone else the slightest mind.