Released on May 8th, 2016 just two days after my 36th birthday, A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead’s 9th proper studio release. The fanfare started a couple weeks earlier as opening single “Burn the Witch” saw widespread release via the internet. While “Witch” was an ominous harbinger of the set of songs to come, it remains the most urgent and forceful composition on the record, which slows deliberately after the opening number. If “Burn the Witch” is a foreboding cacophony of strings and guitars, the remainder of the album is the post-apocalyptic aftermath of the ‘low-flying panic attack’ referenced in the song’s refrain.
The next single released and next song on the album is “Daydreaming” which at first appears to be an unremarkable and meandering exercise based around slowly descending piano triplets. However, multiple listens reveal details and nuanced layering, with Jonny Greenwood’s expertly arranged strings answering the melodies with droning echoes. It’s a classic example of how repeated listening uncovers more depth in both composition and production, a trademark of Radiohead’s catalog.
The remainder of the album weaves slowly through foreboding yet delicate soundscapes, sometimes rehashing old ideas (“Decks Dark” revisits the brooding extra-terrestrial imagery of “Subterranean Homesick Alien” from nearly 20 years prior) or transforming them into new ones (the acoustic guitar chords “True Love Waits” are deconstructed and replaced with sparse, glitchy piano couplets.) The overall record retains a slower, quieter feel than other Radiohead records, with heavy guitars replaced by deft string arrangements as performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra. There are additional rewards in the subtle percussion motifs, for example the subdued ‘Identikit’ which swirls around a bass and hi-hat theme before settling into the album’s lone guitar solo, still clean and undistorted, but echoing with the angular precision of Radiohead’s greatest 90’s work.
This is a strong Radiohead record, and would have easily topped my 2016 year-end list, if not for some glaring flaws (and some strong hip-hop records being released!) First of all, the opening track is out of place on the album, with a bombastic sense of impending doom it sets the stage for a grandiose statement on the world of politics through the lens of rock and roll, but the albums settles quickly into a quietly muted and introspective study of relationships and the author’s own persona. While “Daydreaming” is also a gorgeous composition, no other track on the album comes close to the apex of Radiohead songwriting with the possible exception of “Present Tense” – a subtle calypso number with a final refrain (“in you I’m lost”) elegantly punctuated by frontman Thom Yorke’s pained and unyielding tenor.
A Moon Shaped Pool is an excellent album. In Radiohead terms easily their best in nearly 10 years, but it’s also only their 2nd album since 2007’s return-to-form In Rainbows, while their last offering (2011’s King of Limbs) seemed abbreviated or unfinished. As a collection of songs it holds up to the rest of the catalog, but it’s not as cohesive an effort as The Bends or Amnesiac, and certainly not as groundbreaking/game-changing as OK Computer or Kid A (duh!), but the latest Radiohead album is certainly a work of art worthy of anyone willing to put in the time to understand and appreciate the complexity of the band’s most interesting songs. I just hope we don’t have to wait another 5 years until the next one!