Published in FasterLouder, 10 May 2016
I loaded up my iPhone at 4am on Monday and went driving, out of the city, on the long, slow bends of the Calder freeway. I wanted nothing but white lines in my headlights and A Moon Shaped Pool on the stereo; to focus on the road while the music bloomed, thinking about nothing. I had this idle hope that if I cleared my head I would get it sooner – that the magic eye puzzle that is a new Radiohead album would pull more quickly into focus. But it never works that way, at least not for me. I drove for three hours and there was no big picture, only blinding, disorienting detail.
It occurred to me somewhere near the Lancefield exit that Burn the Witch is an incredibly playful tune, at least by Radiohead’s standards. The Trumpton-goes-Wickerman film clip is a clearly tongue-in-cheek, but I’d missed it in the music somehow. Those giddy col legno strings, sawing on the nerves; the dissonant grinding noise; the mad peasant chanting – all of this is disconcerting, but also kind of funny. Creep, creep, creep goes the orchestra and the mob waves pitchforks, singing in unison, and we somehow have the makings of a 21st century hit. It’s amazing, when you think about it.
Daydreaming is an excellent driving tune, if you’re a maudlin son of a bitch (which I am). Nevermind the endless, fruitless doors of Paul Thomas Anderson’s music video, this song evokes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; all that sad white snow on Montauk beach. Thom’s voice has never sounded like this before, like Neil Young mourning some heroin-lost friend, but his plaintive folk is disrupted by these stray backing vocals, the portentous synth arpeggios, these curtailed slides of violin. And finally, this horrifying gnaw of glacial speech, the black devil death at the end of a sweet dream. Devoted fans have sped up the words Thom says at the end of Daydreaming and decoded them as “half my life”, assuming this is a reference to the recent end of his 23-year relationship. It don’t know what he’s saying or what he means by it, but I think we can all agree it’s a fucked up way to end a ballad.
If this album is about Thom Yorke’s divorce, it’s not obvious to me. Ful Stop carries some interpersonal melodrama in its “foul tasting medicine” and his love is turning cold on the track Glass Eyes, but these are fractions of phrases in a field of oblique metaphor. Identikit is a call back to the early B-side Pearly with its sweet faces and empty hearts, but nothing in the song here evokes the worn shell of a decades-long love. The clearest moment, thematically, is the lowest point on the album – the dire environmentalist cliché of The Numbers (debuted at the Pathway to Paris concert as Silent Spring). “We are of the earth, to her we do return. The future is inside us, it’s not somewhere else,” Thom sings. He and optimism are an awkward fit.
I know the search for a coherent narrative is hopeless, but I’m compelled to dig around. We look for meaning in Radiohead albums because historically they have been incisive documents of the cultural moment and/or the human condition. Since as far back as The Bends in 1995, Radiohead have been saying something heavy to anyone with an ear to listen. But where The King of Limbs was a dark and flirtatious sea, A Moon Shaped Pool is a white out. It’s bewildering to me.
Part of the problem I have with seeing this record for what it is is that more than half of its songs are already familiar. Six of the 11 tracks on A Moon Shaped Pool date from 2012 or earlier. They’ve been performed live and hardcoded into the super fan memory bank, so I’m not listening to the melody so much as what has been done to it. Knowing a song and hearing the curious makeover it has had in the studio is jarring enough, and Radiohead seem to go out of their way to damn expectations.
Present Tense, for example, is a head-wrecking track for anyone who has heard Thom’s stripped acoustic performance at the 2009 Latitude Festival. On the album, this delicate spider web of a tune adopts a bossa rhythm and the shuffling percussion of a cabasa or egg shaker, while a maniacal harp plays a distinct free-ranging melody in the background.
Even more alarming is True Love Waits, the last song on the album. This beloved Radiohead rarity has been kicking around on lo-fidelity bootlegs since the late nineties, reaching through the ambient lint to claw at the heart. On A Moon Shaped Pool, the song is subjugated to the style of the record, remade with soft duelling pianos and a rumbling rise of distortion. By the third listen, it has grown on me, but it sounds like an artful cover. I miss the vulnerability of those early live recordings, buried in the studio by an over zealous vision.
Identikit comes out better than the propulsive live version that debuted on The King of Limbs tour. On the album, it is a snaking, bass-heavy earworm that explodes in a neon-hued synth scale, closing with a glitchy and magnificent guitar solo. Glass Eyes is lovely too, I think, and benefits from being entirely new. Thom will be slaughtered for its miserable lyrics, but this is the most plain-spoken and revealing tune he has written in a decade. He’s having a panic attack at a train station, should he buy a ticket home? He stands there, heart wide-open and gushing blood, and the string section plays a mournful and cinematic elegy.
The strings, that’s the thing. The strings are the most disorientating element of A Moon Shaped Pool. People talk about the stylistic shifts from one Radiohead album to another; more guitars; more glitch; recorded live; built in Pro Tools. The band’s ability to remake its aural signature with each release is profound, buoying its reputation for over twenty years.
But Radiohead haven’t made a leap as huge as this since 2000’s Kid A. Their sound has evolved through moonscapes and deathlands of anxious electronica and come to rest in this lush, deceptively warm pool of orchestral strings, acoustic guitars and pianos; godly choirs and subtle, jazzy beats. With musical touch points including sixties psychedelia, John William’s blockbuster themes and Bernard Herrmann’s swirling violins, their world is completely reordered on A Moon Shaped Pool. The strings have laid a blanket over Radiohead’s long-simmering existential dread, and I am completely adrift.
As I drive back towards the city, I feel this record turning me over, folding over my tired heart. It really is quite beautiful. And I know enough to know that Radiohead takes time to settle in. Is A Moon Shaped Pool a masterpiece? Only time will tell. But in the rising sun, these white drifts of music have started to glow gold.