It must have been hard to imagine back in 1992 that a little band called Radiohead would go on to be the most important band of its generation. The band’s first hit single “Creep” fit in well with the grunge-heavy landscape of the early 90s. Radiohead could have just been one of those angst-ridden guitar band one-hit wonders. Flash-forward 25 years, and Radiohead is the last great rock band standing. There is no other group, except perhaps U2 and Metallica, that can generate the same frenzy of speculation and excitement as Radiohead can. The difference is, Radiohead is still at its creative peak while bands like U2 have become old money.
Since its second album, 1995’s critically adored The Bends, Radiohead has continuously pushed the boundaries of mainstream rock. From the futuristic art rock disillusionment of 1997’s OK Computer, to the fierce experimentation of 2000’s Kid A, all the way to the lush and gorgeous melodies of 2007’s In Rainbows, Radiohead created masterpiece after masterpiece. Every album they released broke new ground. They brought progressive rock, krautrock, electronica and jazz fusion back to the consciousness of audiences and fellow musicians. They never made the same album twice. It is with this prospect in mind that fans eagerly anticipated the band’s ninth studio effort, 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool.
I was one of those fans, staying up late at night, hunched over my laptop, waiting for the record to drop. All we got were two singles and a release date, no album cover, no title, no tracklist. Will they continue to experiment with new sounds? Has Radiohead finally lost it? Does the album even exist? On May 8, 2016, we got our answers. Yes, no and yes, in that exact order. In a year during which prominent artists are redefining their sounds (Frank Ocean with Blonde, Bon Iver with 22, A Million), Radiohead manages to accomplish something completely different.
The band, with all of its members now in their late forties, is no longer obsessed with uncovering grand political lies or detailing the end of the world. Such profundities can easily become hackneyed. On A Moon Shaped Pool, lead singer and primary lyricist Thom Yorke explores simpler truths with a level of clarity that is rarely seen in Radiohead’s music. “This goes beyond me, beyond you,” he croons on “Daydreaming,” one of the album’s most hypnotically beautiful songs. Cynicism is nowhere to be found in Yorke’s singing, nor the music that encases it. For the first time ever, the paranoid android of modern rock has opened up his soul, bare for the whole world to experience.
Many of the songs on A Moon Shaped Pool have preexisted in some shape or form. Album opener “Burn the Witch” dates all the way back to the Kid A recording sessions in 1999-2000. On the album, the song bursts with great intensity. Col legno strings, composed by the band’s multi-instrumentalist genius Jonny Greenwood, attack with sharp, rapid cuts and are backed by an eerie synth bassline. “This is a low-flying panic attack,” Yorke announces, calling back to the old days of plane crashes and wolves at doors. The song’s aggressive nature contrasts with the rest of the album and yet it manages to not feel out of place. It’s the exorcism of Radiohead’s acidic bloodstream. All that’s left is a broken, weary and oddly content soul.
Lyrically, the album mostly discusses love, forgiveness and regret, colored by Yorke’s separation from his partner of 23 years and her battle with a cancer that would eventually take her life many months after the album’s release. However, I’d be reluctant to call this a breakup album or an album about death. Breakups and deaths are entire stories, plateaus of bold emotions. Radiohead’s music isn’t bound to such limits. Its music is an enigma of soundscapes that somehow, almost magically, creates an experience that is viscerally palpable on a very deep level. It fully envelopes you and attacks the most inherent parts of who we are, like a car crash to the soul. We don’t necessarily cry or laugh or get pissed, we just feel.
Musically, A Moon Shaped Pool is exquisite and a drastic shift from the computer looping and sampling of Radiohead’s previous album, 2011’s The King of Limbs. Radiohead always functions best as one collective unit and on this new record, that creative dynamic is as awesome as it has ever been. The band displays an immense amount of maturity and control. Every element is fine-tuned for perfection and nothing is more than what it needs to be. Guitars sound like pianos, pianos sound like guitars. They layer and interlock with each other. The intricate production highlights this quality of the record, often giving the spotlight to ambient drones and twinkles from Ed O’Brien’s guitar. This doesn’t mean that they’ve stopped experimenting with new sounds. Jonny Greenwood’s use of strings and choirs decorates the record with a sense of gorgeous eeriness, a paradoxical feeling that Radiohead has mastered so well over the years. The band blends these organic elements perfectly with synths and drum machines, as exemplified in the song “Identikit.” “Broken hearts, make it rain,” Yorke wails as a tide of synths and choral vocals carries the album’s most memorable lyrical hook. Bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway are top-notch, holding down everything with a tight, infectiously pulsing groove.
And then there’s “True Love Waits,” the album’s closer. It’s the oldest song on the album, one that has existed since 1995. Unlike “Burn the Witch” and all the other older tracks on the album, “True Love Waits” has long been a part of Radiohead’s live show canon. However, the album version is completely reworked. Instead of an acoustic guitar, we get pianos drenched in echoes and reverberations. It leaks into our ears, pouring every last ounce of itself. “Just don’t leave,” Yorke sings tenderly and sincerely, fabricating no false emotions.
Some people have criticized Radiohead’s decision to use older, unfinished songs on A Moon Shaped Pool and suggests it as a sign of the band’s creative decline. I disagree. You can write a song like “True Love Waits,” filled with hard hitting lyrics like, “I’m not living, I’m just killing time,” and set it to music. You can carry that song with you all around the world and perform it to legions of screaming fans. The very essence of the song could be planted in your mind, but it may take a lifetime for its true power to bloom. The inherent truth of something, in some sense, is always there. Some truths just take longer to see than others. A