Two weeks ago, after five years of patient waiting by fans and a week of incredibly progressive (anti) social media campaigns, Radiohead released their long awaited ninth album: ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’. As their very limited tour begins in Amsterdam, here are my thoughts on this long anticipated, alphabetically organised comeback.
As opening track “Burn the Witch” bursts in, there is an immediately noticeable addition to the Radiohead’s sound – strings. Of course, this isn’t the first time Radiohead have dabbled in orchestral arrangements, but this album is the first time they’ve played a truly central role, and it certainly pays off. Initially sounding surprisingly jovial, the track takes a fantastically menacing turn for the chorus and its sudden end leaves the listener dazed – perfect for the following track, “Daydreaming”, which is definitely reminiscent of a Sigur Ros-style beauty. While the song is quite understated and simple sounding – no guitars or drums here – it shows off one of the more beautiful chord progressions in Radiohead’s back catalogue, and Thom Yorke’s piano playing and vocals are sublime.
Track two ends with a strange, warped, snoring-vocal and segues perfectly into the almost literal wake-up alarm that heralds “Decks Dark”, a song that in my opinion will no doubt become a standard, even a classic in the Radiohead songbook. We also get our first hints of the return of those classic, crunching Jonny Greenwood guitars on this track, as well as another brand new arrow in the Radiohead quiver – a choir. Colin Greenwood’s bass work is also becoming apparent as a highlight of the arrangements on this album – space-filling, melodic basslines that prove as a great grounding point for the listener.
We’re then treated to an acoustic ballad on “Desert Island Disk”, and the strings on this track scream out to be used on a film soundtrack. If there’s one word that can be used to describe the arrangements on this album, it’s most certainly ‘cinematic’. “Ful Stop” comes next and this is the first of two tracks on the album debuted live on Radiohead’s 2012 tour. While the album version of the song isn’t quite as loud and piercing as the original live cut, its refined vocals and truly unsettling opening synths paint a picture even better than the live version ever could.
After the sinister turn on the previous track, we get taken again into the serene sounds of Thom Yorke’s piano on “Glass Eyes”, one of the most melancholy moments on the album. The sadness conveyed in the vocals on this track make it one of the most emotional points on the album. “Identikit” is next, and this is the second of the tracks from the 2012 tour, again sounding more polished than its original incarnation and the return of the choir from earlier in the album is a welcome one. Jonny Greenwood also contributes a disorientating, manic guitar solo that sounds like very little he’s committed to record before.
“The Numbers” sounds like a protest song and is possibly the first near clear-cut example of one in Radiohead’s back catalogue. The acoustic vibe from “Desert Island Disk” returns on this track and continues to showcase the fantastic new sound Radiohead have found on this album. The abundance of piano and acoustic guitar on “A Moon Shaped Pool”, along with the orchestration, give Radiohead a natural, organic sound; a sound with familiarity but not one that retreads too much old ground.
From here, we move into another very acoustic track, “Present Tense”. This is a definite highlight of the album for me – the bossa nova-esque rhythms accompany another incredible vocal from Yorke. This is another of the tracks that fans have been waiting years for, and while this isn’t the In Rainbows-style rocky romp that was maybe expected from earlier incarnations, this is perhaps even better.
The penultimate track on the album, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” is one of the less immediately accessible tracks on the album, but with multiple listens it opens up to be a song that brings to mind images of espionage and film reels. If this was another contender for Radiohead’s Bond theme, it would not be a surprising revelation at all. The album closes with long-time fan favourite “True Love Waits”. After being around for over 20 years, it didn’t look likely that this track would ever get a true studio version, but against all odds, here it is to close out “A Moon Shaped Pool”, and while the original version had a hopeful tone to it, this new studio version seems more like a cry of desperation, and it fits in perfectly. The lyrics are classic Yorke, and both some of his simplest, and his most impactful.
After all that waiting, the new album from Radiohead certainly doesn’t disappoint. To the hardcore fans, this album is perhaps the ultimate fan service, with the band finally dishing out many songs that had been promised over the years. To the average listener, this is an excellent album that showcases a whole new side to Radiohead – more subdued, more emotional. It is often said that Radiohead’s main competition is their own back catalogue and with “A Moon Shaped Pool” they have released an LP that not only satisfies the fans, but also stacks up against the very best of their previous work. If Radiohead can live up to over five years of hype, at this point they are unstoppable.