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A Non-Supernerds' Guide to Radiohead's New Album, 'A Moon Shaped Pool'

You have questions. We have answers.

by Alex Robert Ross
May 9 2016, 2:42pm

Well, now it's here. Four days after announcing the imminent release of a new studio album, Radiohead has unleashed its ninth studio album onto an only somewhat suspecting audience. A Moon Shaped Pool is an astonishingly rewarding first listen, in turns serene, ominous and skewed. You can download it right now from your online store of choice via the band's website. You should do that.

We all sort of knew this was coming a little while before it came together. It's been a full five years since their last studio album, 2011's King of Limbs, a long gap even for a band as enigmatic and patient as Radiohead. Then, at the start of last week the band vanished from social media, falling silent in the loudest way possible, before dropping two new tracks in “Burn The Witch” and “Daydreaming,” both accompanied by magnificent videos.

Now we have a whole album's worth of music to pull apart and pore over, 11 whole tracks to be set next to their sprawling back catalogue. At this early stage, there are things to be dealt with, questions to be answered. Let's get to them.

Are there some tracks on the record that I might have heard before?

Oh buddy, yes there are. Seven of the 11 tracks on A Moon Shaped Pool have turned up elsewhere in one form or another. “Numbers,” “Desert Island Disk,” “Present Tense,” and “Burn the Witch” have either been played live or hinted at in some way before while “Identikit," “Ful Stop,” and "True Love Waits" have been live favorites for a while. It's all typically Radiohead; remember if you will that "Nude" found its way onto In Rainbows a good 14 years after its inception.

So why is everyone losing their collective shit over "True Love Waits" in particular?

Because track's been around almost as long as the band itself. It first turned up in 1994, fully 22 years ago, and it has finally found its way onto a studio album. There are people downloading this album right now who are significantly younger than that track. Lots of people. It's changed shape plenty since its earlier live showings, slowing down and embracing keys rather than Thom Yorke's acoustic guitar. And even though the new version is stunning, it's still pretty cool to watch him play it in 1995:

Who's responsible for that sweet artwork?

Great question, close observer. A Moon Shaped Pool's cover art is the work of Stanley Donwood, the same man whose work adorns every one of Radiohead's studio albums all the way back to The Bends. He was also responsible for the imagery on Thom Yorke's The Eraser and had a key role in the delightfully strange Radiohead-scored app PolyFauna a couple years back. We spoke to him the other week about nuclear weapons, and it was great.

Where are those gorgeous choral sounds and orchestral flourishes coming from?

That'll be the London Contemporary Orchestra conducted by the prodigal Hugh Brunt. Check out those haunting vocals on "Decks Dark" for a clear example of what they bring to the record. It's not the first time the LCO have collaborated with a Radiohead member, either. They worked with Johnny Greenwood on some tracks when he scored Paul Thomas Anderson's 2012 movie The Master. The above video of them performing live together is wonderful…

…but if you really want to lose yourself in the dissonance and beauty, here's a Boiler Room set from 2014 that'll suck you in for an hour or so.

Is Nigel Godrich on production duties again?

Yep. Like Donwood, he's been there from the start and he's not going anywhere. Also, let's all remember that he landed a role as a stormtrooper in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, playing the highly-coveted role of FN-9330.

The man is essentially Radiohead's sixth member; he knows the band's process inside out, and he knows how to get the best out of them. He tweeted yesterday about the emotion that he personally poured into the record:

Can I listen to A Moon Shaped Pool on my streaming service of choice?

Sure you can, as long as that streaming service is Apple Music, Amazon or Tidal. Spotify have said that they're working to get the album up "as soon as we can," but Thom Yorke has never been their best friend. In 2013 he called the company "the last desperate fart of a dying corpse," which is a wonderful quote but not a great omen for Spotify or its subscribers.

Is there some sort of insane special edition package I can get my hands on while I wait for Spotify to get it together?


Photo via amoonshapedpool.com

Of course there is. The band are putting out a special release that will include a "Case bound album, inspired by the albums for 78rpm shellac records in the library of La Fabrique, France," which is a good start. There's also "32 pages of artwork; The 11 track album on two heavyweight 12" vinyl records; Two compact discs: one with the album and one with two extra tracks," and "Recording tape belly band applied."

That last bit is actually incredibly cool. According to the album's website, "This is a piece of a Radiohead half-inch master tape from an actual recording session. The tape degrades over time and becomes unplayable. We thought rather than it ending up as landfill we would cut it up and make it useful as a part of the special edition. A new life for some obsolete technology..." Think William Basinski if you weren't already. The band say that the sample could be "from any era in the band's recording past going back to Kid A," so "you may have silence, you may have coloured leader tape, you may have a chorus... It's a crapshoot."

Are all the tracks in alphabetical order for some reason?

Yeah, they totally are.

Is Thom Yorke pissed that the world is ending?

Seems so. In an interview with George Monbiot in the Parisian magazine Telerama last year, Yorke said that reducing his carbon footprint "kept me awake at night," but that, "If I was going to write a protest song about climate change in 2015, it would be shit." Yorke debuted A Moon Shaped Pool's "Desert Island Disk" and "The Numbers" at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris last December, but it's "Daydreaming" that stands as the record's most overt statement on climate change. It might stop short of being an outright protest song, but it's hard not to read his apocalyptic lyrics as a rumination on the environment and our role in destroying it: “They never learn / We never learn / Beyond the point / Of no return / It's too late / The damage is done.”

Alex Robert Ross is Noisey's chief Radiohead fan forums correspondent. Follow him on Twitter.