Radiohead’s 'A Moon Shaped Pool' Is a Brooding Triumph: Review

Radiohead
Thom Yorke performs with Radiohead at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California, on April 14, 2012. David McNew/Reuters

Radiohead is playing the long game.

When A Moon Shaped Pool, the group’s long-awaited ninth album, finally surfaced, the most shocking inclusion was a song that is older than some of the band’s fans. “True Love Waits” dates back to the Bends era and nudged its way onto 2001’s I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings. Sparse and lonely, it is the band’s rawest album track in at least a decade. The song finds Thom Yorke pleading for a lover’s patience: “Just don’t leave/Don’t leave,” he sings over piano clusters that twinkle down like rain. Patience, sure: The song took 20-something years to materialize in studio form.

Why include the song now? Theories abound. The easy explanation is that Radiohead spent years trying to get it right—including taking a whack at it during the Kid A sessions—and is only now satisfied with the result. The crackpot Reddit theory is that Pool is Radiohead’s final album, so now or never. But the most compelling answer is that Radiohead finally crafted an album desolate and haunted enough to deserve “True Love Waits.”

True to “True Love,” A Moon Shaped Pool is awash in regret and longing. The album was recorded around the time Yorke made public his separation from longtime romantic partner Rachel Owen. Fans have been sifting through the lyrics for clues of this breakup, which are not hard to find. (Producer Nigel Godrich also tweeted that he lost his father during the sessions, “hence a large piece of my soul lives here.”) “Broken hearts/Make it rain,” Yorke repeats on “Identikit,” a skeletal groove that dances around the wreckage of Jonny Greenwood’s prickly guitar work. “Glass Eyes,” a sighing ballad that fits alongside “Codex” or “Faust Arp,” describes a dreamlike path down a mountain, though its final refrain becomes suddenly candid: “I feel this love turn cold.”

Moon 'A Moon Shaped Pool' is Radiohead's ninth album. Radiohead

Radiohead played the long game with the album too. Half a decade in the making, A Moon Shaped Pool buzzes with Radiohead’s trademark meticulous perfectionism. Greenwood’s ornate string arrangements betray much of the guitarist’s film soundtrack work and coil around the songs like velvet cloth. Hear how those strings swell in and out of “Daydreaming,” a magnificent six-and-a-half-minute ballad, trading space with Yorke’s reversed vocal blips. On “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” (a song title that remains as mysterious as the fact that the track listing is arranged alphabetically), a full orchestra descends note-by-note in what resembles a reverse-engineering of the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” outro.

Five years aside, it feels as though the album has arrived just on time. Grief, be it romantic or otherwise, is having a big pop moment. Beyoncé’s Lemonade captivated the world last month with pained lyrics about coping with a lover’s infidelity. Sufjan Stevens last year turned familial grief into the acclaimed Carrie & Lowell. Drake, Adele—these stars have long been associated with the use and abuse of the breakup jam. Sadness sells—even the viral Twitter account @sosadtoday landed a book deal—and Radiohead’s meditation on loss is a welcome shift from the group’s familiar brand of technological and sociopolitical dread.

Yet there is some of that too. “Burn the Witch,” another song with a deep history, mines for links between the Salem witch trials and the modern refugee crisis. Though it opens with a gushing flood of strings—think Steve Reich without the polyrhythms—the charged song is something of a ruse. A Moon Shaped Pool is the group’s most brooding, understated collection to date. It is also the band’s lengthiest disc since Hail to the Thief, but unlike that temperamental 2003 album, there are no jolting transitions or abrupt shifts in mood; Radiohead has lately lost interest in making songs as jagged-sounding as “Myxomatosis” or “Bodysnatchers.”

Which is not to suggest that the material sounds settled or predictable. Radiohead has managed to retain its obsessive grasp of sound design from the Kid A/Amnesiac period while discarding the more claustrophobic electronic elements. These songs are as layered as intricate seashells—you’ll need top-tier headphones to make out what sounds like laughter bubbling under the psych-folk surface of “The Numbers” or the distant murmurs of a church choir in “Decks Dark.” “Pastoral” is a popular adjective in reviews. Several tracks, among them “Desert Island Disk” and “Present Tense,” feature folky, ambling acoustic guitars. The choir re-emerges on the latter song, swooning like ghostly Christmas carolers.

A Moon Shaped Pool already seems like Radiohead’s most human album. (No more android-voiced paeans to “getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries.”) It’s surely one of the band’s warmest collections, designed to win over audiences left puzzled by 2011’s cryptic, rhythm-driven King of Limbs and Thom Yorke’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, much as In Rainbows returned rock fans to the fold after some wilderness years. The most recent decade of Radiohead’s career seems to move in cycles like this: Listeners who wrote off the band an album ago find themselves happily proven wrong by the next one. The song that most recalls King of Limbs here is an eerie, Krautrock-ish workout titled “Ful Stop.” It is also the angriest. “You really messed up everything,” Yorke mutters over horn-driven dissonance. As the song revs up in intensity, the line “Truth will mess you up” is intercut with “All the good times.” Were all the good times a lie?

At the end of it all is “True Love Waits.” Yorke wrote the song around the time he began his relationship with Owen. Now it's the shadow of that love. The song’s directness hits hard. Radiohead once wrote songs as plainspoken and self-pitying as “Creep" ("Your skin makes me cry," etc). Now the band delights in garbled messages and hidden meanings, such as the gremlin-voiced utterance at the end of “Daydreaming.” On “True Love Waits,” it’s all laid bare.

Every Radiohead album feels like some seismic shift or glacier-sized message of monumental proportion. This is especially true now that the band releases new records so infrequently. With In Rainbows, Radiohead reminded us that it’s the world’s greatest working rock band and revolutionized the music industry with a snap of the wand. With 2011’s The King of Limbs, Radiohead let us know it can burrow down any rabbit hole it likes without owing any of us an explanation.

Now comes a very different declaration. With A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead proves it is capable of symphonic beauty and stark vulnerability—and that some treasures are worth some waits.