Album Review: Radiohead—“A Moon-Shaped Pool”

By Jamil Fiorino-Habib

When you talk about Radiohead, you can’t help but consider the personalities and voices that comprise the group–Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Colin Greenwood, and Philip Selway. In the case of Radiohead, it’s almost impossible to separate the art from the artist. Even as you listen on Radiohead’s ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, there are distinct themes that are almost immediately recognized as being from the mind of Thom Yorke or Jonny Greenwood. While each individual shines through in their own right, the band still manages to collectively reveal themselves as unmistakably “Radiohead”. Their style sets them apart and invites us to hear things differently, continuously guessing and interpreting, keeping us starved for more.

This time around, the group produced their album under emotionally strenuous conditions. The band took a two year hiatus following their worldwide tour to focus on their own side projects, and production of A Moon Shaped Pool occurred alongside the death of producer Nigel Godrich’s father and Thom Yorke’s separation from his wife of 23 years. There’s pain in this album, undeniably. “You really messed up everything.” Thom repeats. “Foul-tasting medicine”.

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Album art for A Moon Shaped Pool

I’ve been deliberating as to why they chose to release this album the way they did, by wiping their online presence away and embracing an imminent release. Knowing how cryptic and crafty Radiohead can be, the conclusion I seem to continually arrive at is that the group strives to create presence within absence. By deleting the content of all of their accounts, they bring themselves freshly back into the spotlight so that fans can anxiously await their arrival. Radiohead capitalized on their usage of technology in unconventional ways, creating hype with absence where there should be presence. In turn, they make a passive statement about the toxicity of the internet’s herd mentality. The social implications do not cease there. Interpretations of songs like “Burn the Witch” and “The Numbers” reveal the critical angle the band is taking to current events like the European-refugee crisis and climate change. Regardless of how freshly innovative this album is in actuality, it feels as though A Moon Shaped Pool was as much a symbolic release as anything else.

Most of the songs on A Moon Shaped Pool are not new to any Radiohead fanatic. Many of the tracks on this album have been played before live audiences, only now being studio recorded for the first time. As a result, what occurs is a distant familiarity that runs throughout the whole album. This record clings to its past, referential of its own history and each member’s developments along the way. For instance, Jonny’s work with film scoring in recent years pours forth onto this album, as he imbues a cinema-like visuality to the album with his modernist orchestrations. Each sound on this album produces its own image in my brain, like watercolour blending on a canvas. A Moon Shaped Pool’s noisy layers of sonic information constantly compete with one another, providing a different experience on each listen. A Moon Shaped Pool demands a focused pair of ears.

To take a sample from this moon shaped pool and lay it under a microscope would reveal within it a microcosm of activity – sounds divide, split, swirl and swim, multiply, decay, and grow before your ears. Each song dons its own life, and each part contributes to the whole like small little organelles who maintain the life of a eukaryotic cell. At the nucleus of the record is Thom Yorke, with his expressive lyricism and diverse tonal expression at the forefront of the album. Jonny Greenwood provides the energy, functioning as the mitochondria of the cell. While the band is no stranger to strings, their use has never been so powerful. (My limited knowledge of biology forces me to cease this analogy here). I also have to give praise to the timbre that they managed to extract from the piano. At times, a gentle stroke of a high key evokes the sound of a twinkling raindrop being tossed from the sky. In perfect contrast, Colin Greenwood’s bass work only serves to ground these sounds. The result is an earthy and organic ecosystem of music.

At moments, I hear elements from years past – the climax of “Ful Stop” reminds me of the effervescent drum line from “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” off their 2007 album, In Rainbows. The band’s drummer, Philip Selway, has always had a way with rhythm, which is also showcased at great length in “Identikit”. “Decks Dark”, a personal favourite, exemplifies the intricacies of Radiohead at their peak. The sound of the angelic choir looming in the background of this track adds to the depth, complexity and eeriness of the piece, lending it a daunting and ominous feel. It’s heavy, but fluid, grungy, yet dreamy. Sentiments of heartbreak, dread and skepticism linger throughout the album: “Broken hearts make it rain”; “True love waits”. The brilliance of this band stands out in their ability to miraculously fuse the gorgeous with the grotesque, confusing your emotions as they wash over you all at once.

Most of these songs, conceived over many years, have simply been unearthed from the realm they once existed in, plucked and sorted alphabetically. It’s a phenomenally coherent album considering how it’s sequenced. While I’m hesitant to say that it’s a Radiohead masterpiece, I will say that it is a masterclass for songwriters. The meticulous attention to detail and their mingle of acoustic and electric tones makes it one of their most sophisticated and ethereal albums since “Kid A”, something which is especially prevalent in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief”.. This time around, they’ve managed to engineer an organic feel, a feat that upon first listen may seem so transparent it slips past you. What I know for certain is that this record will stay with me for many years, and will grow on me with every new listen. It will remain canonized alongside the rest of some of the most influential albums of our time. (XL)

 

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