Album Review: Radiohead’s “A Moon Shaped Pool”

Radiohead's new album,

Radiohead's new album,"A Moon Shaped Pool".

It is all too often that an album release from one’s favorite band- a once much anticipated event- becomes a dreadful one as the group passes their golden era, and fades into mediocrity. For many, along with age comes a disconnect from the creative drive of youth, and the result is a desperate attempt at recreating feelings that have long since passed. While several bands birthed in the 90s are suffering this fate, Radiohead remains as they always have been- an exception in every sense of the word.

A Moon Shaped Pool- Radiohead’s eagerly-awaited ninth studio album- was released this Mother’s Day, with only a 24-hour notice to allow the public to prepare. Having been five years since their previous release- The King of Limbs- and with most of its members dedicated to their respective side projects, many believed the English quintet was moribund. In actuality, the inspiration for this work was gathered gradually over the span of the band’s entire career, as “Burn the Witch” and “True Love Waits”- two of the most acclaimed songs on the album- were written over 15 years ago. As Thom Yorke- the band’s lead singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist- has never been fond of music streaming services, A Moon Shaped Pool is unable to be found on Spotify or Tidal. Despite this difficulty of accessibility, the album was jolted into the number one spot in the US Billboard standings for rock music, and quickly became the number one album overall in the UK.

To categorize this album as a “rock album” is to do so solely out of necessity. It fits the conventions of Western music, and was created by what most would call a rock band, so therefore rock is the assigned genre. In actuality, however, this music far exceeds the connotations associated with any one genre, especially rock. Few rock bands have been able to reach such a level of intense and persistent complexity as Radiohead has with A Moon Shaped Pool. Our brains are accustomed to music that only reaches to a certain depth, relying on predictable song structures, catchy melodic hooks, and an ability to categorize mood. This album digs so far past these immediate pleasures that upon first listen, it may even appear mundane, or as lacking dynamism. It undeniably sounds “pretty”, even to the least interested listener, but upon more careful consideration one will discover an entire world of sound beyond where conventional music would dare venture. It can be puzzling, and even off putting, to struggle to grasp all that is happening below the surface of each track. Orchestral strings sing beautiful arrangements composed by the band’s own Jonny Greenwood, acoustic guitars and pianos layer on top of one another to create intriguing textures, and computerized tones blend seamlessly with the traditional to add a sense of wonder. All of this intensely-thought-out instrumentation patiently waits to be unlocked by the careful listener.

As for any Radiohead album, however, A Moon Shaped Pool is far more than an artful conglomeration of sounds. Thom Yorke’s songwriting is painfully brilliant. His works manage to resonate on a deeply intimate level, while carrying profound universal significance. After being enamored by the playful opener, “Burn the Witch”, the following track, “Daydreaming”- conceived during Yorke’s tumultuous divorce-  strikes the listener with awe-inspiring impact and touching sensitivity. Among the other compositional highlights are “Glass Eyes”, “Present Tense”, and “True Love Waits”, all of which could be stripped away from their ornate production and still remain marvelous, just as a masterpiece painting retains its value even without a frame. Each track is more than merely “sad”, as it evokes a spectrum of emotions one could not easily tap into without the aid of music, and while the mood of the album may appear stagnant song-to-song, this would be better interpreted as a deliberate cohesiveness which allows subtle change to be all the more impactful. Sonic innovations aside, Radiohead could not be where it is today without ingenious songwriting, and A Moon Shaped Pool does not fail to disappoint on this front.

Rather than remain a slave to imitation, Radiohead has chosen to embrace the wise outlook that age has given them, and used it to create a work beyond the scope of the musical imagination. Amidst all too many disappointments from beloved bands, one can faithfully say that Radiohead can never, and will never release a bad album.