For nearly twenty years—since the paranoid malaise of 1995’s The Bends crystallized into the full-bore technophobia of 1997’s OK Computer—we’ve viewed Radiohead principally as an act of disruption. Upon perfecting the rock album in three tries, the band returned in 2000 with Kid A, which famously took nearly half an hour to arrive at anything resembling an identifiable electric guitar. After 2003’s rock/IDM powwow Hail to the Thief sprung a leak before recording was completed, the band used the occasion of the expiration of its six-album contract with EMI to circumvent the major label machine entirely, surprise releasing 2007’s In Rainbows as a pay-what-you-want mp3 download, with physical copies distributed by dedicated indie XL Recordings the following New Year’s Eve. More recently, battles were waged and won with EMI and Spotify to sort out matters of control and compensation for the band’s valuable back catalogue.
Where do you go after decades of defied expectations and scathing criticism of big business and government? Away and inside, if the abruptly released ninth Radiohead studio album A Moon Shaped Pool is to be believed. The new material was presaged by a mysterious darkening of the band's social media presence, and the Paul Thomas Anderson helmed video for early highlight “Daydreaming” that surfaced days later features bandleader Thom Yorke trudging determinedly through warehouses, beaches, and other people’s houses to come to rest sprawled out by a fire inside a snowy mountainside cave. “Glass Eyes” is a narrative about a man who panics on commute into a city his nerves can’t handle. “Their faces are concrete gray, and I’m wondering: should I turn around?” Off to the mountains he goes. A Moon Shaped Pool is full of lovers and loners at their wit’s end.
Loss is a trusted familiar in Radiohead’s world, but A Moon Shaped Pool wields its darkness like a scythe, with lines so gutting and precise they can feel like ill-gotten exclamations from tear stained journal entries. “You really messed up everything.” “Why should I be good if you’re not?" “I feel this love turn cold.” “Broken hearts make it rain.” “As my world comes crashing down, I’m dancing, freaking out.” Jarring as it is for a lyricist that treasures his abstractions as much as Thom Yorke does to embrace narrative and directness, Pool feels like a conscious effort to ground the full fleet after the texture-and-groove-first flights of 2011’s occasionally spotty The King of Limbs. The new album eases off of Limbs’ jittery electronics the same way In Rainbows reined in a few of Thief’s, but with Radiohead, there’s always a twist.
Album opener “Burn the Witch” bears a striking resemblance to the space age strut of OK Computer, but this is achieved not with electric guitars, but through a section of violins playing spiccato and col legno—techniques where different parts of the bow are bounced off the strings instead of run across them—creating the effect of strummed guitars over the fuzzed out bass notes and electronic drums that comprise the rhythm section. Late in the album “The Numbers” bulks up with soaring strings and swatches of manipulated piano. Like Wilco did with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot cuts like “I’m the Man Who Loves You” and “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” A Moon Shaped Pool strips the classic Radiohead sound down to its framework and then attempts to rebuild it with different parts.
It wouldn’t be unsound to call this Radiohead’s “acoustic album,” since Pool’s primary building blocks are acoustic guitars, pianos, strings, sparing drums, and tape hiss. If this sounds like the list of ingredients for a mopey breakup album, though, remember that this is a band who spent half their career melting faces and the other coercing dance parties. “Present Tense” opens as a light folk reflection pushed by shakers and floor toms underfoot, but midway through, drummer Phil Selway kicks up a shuffle indebted to the work of Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen, and suddenly it swings. The cascading keys of “Decks Dark” build to a sinister unison groove subtly foregrounding pianos ahead of the album’s belated first bit of electric guitar. (It’s far from the last: “Ful Stop” employs them as it bounds from swooshing “Autobahn” synths to hellish “Negativland” fury, and later “Identikit” features a jagged section of stunning fretwork as it draws to a close.)
Though his seat as breathtaking ax-man of Radiohead albums past isn’t central to the sound and scope of A Moon Shaped Pool, this is very much Jonny Greenwood’s album. His experience scoring films by Paul Thomas Anderson and French director Trần Anh Hùng can be felt most acutely in Pool’s orchestral accompaniment, provided by the London Contemporary Orchestra and Choir. Radiohead albums have always found room for strings and the like (see: Kid A’s shimmering Disney reverie “Motion Picture Soundtrack”), but the arrangements move and breathe thanks to tricks Greenwood picked up on the side. The army of tapped violins from “Burn the Witch” are holdovers from There Will Be Blood’s “Proven Lands” and The Master’s “Applications 45 Version 1,” while the skyward sliding strings that carry “Ful Stop” off are used to chilling effect in The Master’s “Baton Sparks.” Throughout A Moon Shaped Pool, especially highlights “The Numbers” and “Glass Eyes,” the strings aren’t sideline flourishes so much as weightless carriers of crucial melodies.
The most stunning convergence of A Moon Shaped Pool’s refined approach to lyrics, arrangements, and instrumentation comes in the closer, “True Love Waits.” Avid Radiohead fans will recognize it as a Bends-era fan favorite non-album cut and a concert staple memorialized on 2001’s I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings, “that shitty live version,” as longtime producer Nigel Godrich would call it in a King of Limbs-era Rolling Stone band profile. The new album’s earthy quiet blesses “True Love Waits” with its most breathless recorded incarnation—a skeletal, deconstructed piano chord fleshed out by bass notes and a splatter of countermelody—and in return, the threadbare directness of the lyric sharpens A Moon Shaped Pool’s stark meditations on love to a point, lifting it to the pantheon of great Radiohead closers. It’s peak Radiohead, finding a way to shock and astound even with the familiar.
Craig lives on lollipops and crisps too. Follow him on Twitter.