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‘A Moon Shaped Pool’: Radiohead returns with another anxious and mournful masterwork

(Courtesy of anyonlinyr, Wikimedia Commons)

(Courtesy of anyonlinyr, Wikimedia Commons)
Frontman Thom Yorke, known for his trademark falsetto. (anyonlinyr, Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been five years since Radiohead’s last album, 2011’s “King of Limbs.” Radiohead fans have been waiting with bated breath ever since guitarist Jonny Greenwood announced in 2014 that the band was working in the studio. This year, Radiohead teased the new album by (1) registering a new company called Dawn Chorus LLP (they’ve been known to register companies in the past before dropping an album), (2) sending cryptic leaflets, which read “Burn the Witch” and “We know where you live” to the houses of fans in the U.K., (3) completely erasing their Internet presence and (4) releasing the singles “Burn the Witch” and “Daydreaming,” each with their own music video.

And now, here it is, Radiohead’s ninth studio album: “A Moon Shaped Pool.” The first thing you’ll notice on the album’s opening track “Burn the Witch” is the percussive strings of Jonny Greenwood, whose expressive arrangements are prevalent on this album, as well as the ambiguous, paranoid lyrics emblematic of Thom Yorke. The album’s first lyric reads, “Stay in the shadows / Cheer at the gallows / This is round-up / This is a low flying panic attack,” evoking everything from the frenzy of the Salem Witch Trials to the anxiety, paranoia and uncertainty of living in the modern world, which Radiohead so brilliantly captured on their landmark 1997 record “OK Computer.”

After “Burn the Witch” comes a rapid tonal shift, which due to Radiohead’s and producer Nigel Godrich’s uncanny knack for music, sounds like a natural progression. We quickly go from the anxiety-stricken rush of “Burn the Witch” to the beautifully mournful ballad “Daydreaming,” which opens with stark piano and the defeated line, “Dreamers, they never learn.” In mere seconds, the break-neck pace of the strings is replaced by slow, spare piano and Yorke’s echoing vocals.

The shift from “Burn the Witch” and “Daydreaming” is indicative of the album as a whole, which fluctuates between themes of anxiety and heartbreak. Musically, the record is not a total stylistic shift in the way that “Kid A” was, though there are new and striking elements here (the prevalence of Greenwood’s orchestration, for one). Rather, it’s an affirmation of everything that Radiohead does so well. You have Radiohead’s own unique brand of rock in songs like “Identikit,” with its stunning guitar solo, which is at once frenetic and controlled. And you have heart-wrenching ballads like “Glass Eyes,” with its devastating strings and its direct and emotional lyrics. The song opens with Yorke singing, “Hey it’s me / I just got off the train,” and ends with “I feel this love turn cold.” Despite their at times perplexing lyrics, Radiohead knows how to pull at your heartstrings when they want to.

Perhaps the most striking example on this album of Radiohead’s exceptional skill is the closing track “True Love Waits.” Though this song has been played and recorded live as early as 1994, it had yet to find its way into Radiohead’s studio work, but it has certainly found a home on “A Moon Shaped Pool.” The new “True Love Waits” – noticeably different from the version off of the 2001 live EP “I Might Be Wrong” with its driving acoustic strums – is driven by spare piano and lightly soaring vocals. The effect is devastating when coupled with Yorke’s lyrics. Yorke opens by singing, “I’ll drown my beliefs” and closes with the refrain of “just don’t leave.” Solidifying the theme of heartbreak on this record, the song speaks to the aching need of love and the wrenching pain of loss.

It’s certainly a painful ending, as the endings to most Radiohead albums tend to be. After five years of silence from the band, it’s hard to see them leave again. Fans have waited a long time for this record, and it’s safe to say they’ll be waiting at least as long for the next. Indeed, considering Radiohead’s stellar discography and their profound influence on modern music, all this impatient anticipation for their next creation is hard to deny. But hey, true love waits.

 

Contact Tyler Dunston at [email protected]

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