English art rock band Radiohead has never been one to tease fans with cryptic messages about impending album releases. Thom Yorke and company have always opted to cut the mysterious, theatrical bullshit that usually accompanies modern music promotion, as evidenced by the sudden digital releases of the band’s last two records, In Rainbows (2007) and The King of Limbs (2011).

However, in late April of 2016, amongst rumors of the imminent release of the band’s ninth studio album, fans who had previously purchased Radiohead merchandise were mailed cards with the Radiohead logo and an unsettling, almost stalker-esque message reading “Sing a song of sixpence that goes / burn the witch / we know where you live.” The next day Radiohead completely deleted their Internet and social media presence, and posted a few stop-motion teaser clips on Instagram the day   after. Clearly Radiohead had changed their advertising approach, and I assumed that this change signaled an even greater shift in the band’s musical direction. Upon listening to A Moon Shaped Pool, released the following week, Radiohead paradoxically coupled their newfound flashy promotion schemes with their most subtle and nuanced music to date.

A Moon Shaped Pool kicks off with the record’s promotional teaser track “Burn the Witch”. Percussive yet serene strings and bassy synths tread underneath Yorke’s discreet melody, eventually giving way to radiohead_2016an explosively catchy chorus sung in soaring falsetto. The track is as unsettling and aggressive as it is beautiful. Yorke’s lyrics describe a modern-day witch hunt that blindly scapegoats immigrants in the United States. The stop-motion animation in the song’s music video bears resemblance to the 1960s animated series Trumpton, perhaps a subtle jab at the anti-immigration political tactics of GOP Presidential candidate Donald Trump.
The political commentary on “Burn the Witch” does not pervade the rest of the record, however. After the opening track, A Moon Shaped Pool becomes a concept album, describing broken romance and the impermanence of love. Pool appears to be inspired by Thom Yorke’s recent separation from his partner of 23 years, Rachel Owen. The project features some of Yorke’s darkest, most melancholic lyrics and vocal performances, enhanced with acoustic, stripped-down instrumentation. A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead’s most intimate album yet.

The delicate piano leads and swirling spacey synths on “Daydreaming” placate the furious tension of the preceding “Burn the Witch”. Yorke delivers a beautifully sorrowful melody while reversed vocal fragments and ethereal string leads masterfully decorate the soundscape. Lyrically, Yorke describes his disillusionment with his long relationship. The track eventually disintegrates, giving way to a demonic, unintelligible vocal snippet that, if played backwards, says “Half of my life/half of my yorkelove”. This is clearly a reference to Yorke’s 23-year-long relationship, nearly half of his 47 years.

On the bossanova-inspired “Present Tense”, Yorke refuses to come to terms with the reality of his broken romance, singing “This dance/It’s like a weapon/Of self-defense/Against the present tense”. The song “Ful Stop” sees Yorke in agony over the realization of his doomed love as he sings in quiet staccato “Truth will mess you up”, over which he wails “Ah the good times” in a bout of miserable nostalgia. However, A Moon Shaped Pool also displays Yorke coming to terms with his lost love, like on the song “Desert Island Disk” when he resolves that “Different types of love are possible” and not all of them permanent.

Only the lyrical content on “Burn the Witch” and “The Numbers” seem to deviate from the theme of Yorke’s breakup. But while “Burn the Witch”’s political commentary is contained at the very beginning of the record, the corny anti-climate change message on “The Numbers” completely interrupts the album’s concept, as if the song was thrown into the tracklist as an afterthought.

Radiohead fans seeking epic crescendoes and passionate vocal performances like those on OK Computer (1997) or Kid A (2000) will surely be disappointed. The magic of A Moon Shaped Pool is in its discreet details and subtle restraint. On the simple piano ballad “Glass Eyes”, Yorke delivers perhaps the most personal vocals of his career. Tearful strings swell as Yorke somberly bemoans “I feel this love turn cold” in his characteristic falsetto. The song “Decks Dawn” juxtaposes a robotic drum beat with dynamic piano trills, ambient synthscapes, and soaring female vocals. On “Identikit”, Yorke’s voice serves as a form of instrumentation atop a punchy drum beat that gradually builds in tension. Vigorous bass grooves, jangling synth melodies, and jagged guitar leads enter as a full chorus sings the refrain “Broken hearts/make it rain”.

Unfortunately, Radiohead is unable to recreate builds as exciting as the one on “Identikit”. Songs like “Decks Dawn” and “Ful Stop” spend far too much time building musical tension only to reach an anti-climactic end. The tracks “Present Tense”, “The Numbers”, and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man thomyorke-e1457981415246Beggar Man Thief” display significant promise, but fail to remain interesting throughout their long running times. Radiohead focuses on delicate nuance so much that these songs become drab at times.

However, the closing track, “True Love Waits”, perfectly caps off the album. A Radiohead live favorite since the early 2000s, “True Love Waits” is reworked from its acoustic guitar format into a gorgeous piano ballad. Yorke yearns for his lost lover and simultaneously looks to the future, singing “True love waits/In haunted attics”. However, shrouded within Yorke’s hope is a paradoxical sense of hopelessness, as he sings “I’m not living/I’m just killing time” without love in his life. “True Love Waits” is perhaps Radiohead’s most heart-wrenchingly beautiful track ever.

Despite its occasional underwhelming and uninteresting moments, A Moon Shaped Pool is another success for the twenty-first century’s most reputable rock band. After 23 years of experimentation, Radiohead still manages to venture into uncharted territory, presenting fans an extremely stripped-down, somber, and intimate work of art.


Highlights: Burn the Witch, Daydreaming, Glass Eyes, True Love Waits, Identikit

About The Author

Related Posts