I must admit that whenever I read the words “new Radiohead album”, I get a little nervous. Despite the fact that the band has made a disproportionate number of my favorite records, I’m always fearful that their newest effort might be swallowed by creative hubris and ambition. I suppose my mistrust is their well earned reward for always pushing the envelope. Today they released their ninth studio effort. Titled A Moon Shaped Pool, Thom Yorke and the gang offer up eleven tracks presented in alphabetical order, including ten new songs and a surprisingly familiar closer. This afternoon, I donned my headphones, nervously hovered my curser over the play button, took a deep prayerful breath, and listened to the album precisely one time. Here is what I heard:
This album plays like a lucid dream. The instrumentation is often sparse, but there is always a lingering atmospheric thrum; something ever growing at the edges of perception, waiting for just the right moment to take over entirely. The much discussed single Burn the Witch plays paranoia over staccato strings, and a cool, effortless vibration. The lyrics are fairly focused for Yorke. When he sings “Red crosses on wooden doors, if you float you burn” he is playing with well known historical tropes, rather than his often chopped up, stream of consciousness associations. It seems novel for him to be using such familiar cultural reference-points and allusions to address issues of contemporary suspicion, disconnection, and perhaps creeping totalitarianism.
Through the atmospheric dreamscapes of A Moon Shaped Pool, songs like Desert Island Disk and The Numbers are anchored by folky acoustics that are almost reminiscent of Jimmy Paige’s more effervescent work. The conventionality is both pleasantly jarring, and fleeting, as the band weaves ghostly, childlike choral arrangements through challenging chord structures and playful cut-and-paste tracks that reveal their production through tape sounds and abrupt stops.
On Present Tense, a bossa nova rhythm underpins pained vocals offset by bright musical turns. Yorke lets the lyrics slowly reveal themselves, repeating chopped up segments until they combine to become a unified whole. When he dissects the phrase “Distance is like a weapon of self-defense against the present tense,” he is pushing and pulling on the listener’s relationship to time and coherence, and he is deploying his own “weapon of self defense” by keeping the listener at a careful distance. This coy lyric technique had me anxiously awaiting each turn of phrase. By keeping the listener at bay, Yorke draws the listener ever closer.
I was amazed (and nervous) to find that the album closes with a new version of True Love Waits. The song appeared on the 2001 live album I Might Be Wrong, but until today there has been no studio recording available. It is a seminal favorite for Radiohead fans (I used to stay up late in my freshman dorm, studying the guitar tabs and pissing off my neighbors), so it strikes me as an audacious statement that the band has resurrected it to round out this new album. Instead of an acoustic guitar ballad, True Love Waits is presented here on a shaky muddled piano. The mechanical apparatus of the instrument is often audible, once again revealing typically hidden layers of labor and production. The mechanical sounds are augmented and supplemented by arhythmic clicking and jangling; when Yorke croons that “true love waits in haunted attics” it sounds as if that is just where we are. It is a lovely new version, but I feel it lacks some of the unrestrained heartache and simplicity of the original live cut amidst the more elaborate production.
Upon finishing this album, I was overcome by the sensation of waking from a dream. Dreams shift like sand, faces change, logic rewrites itself, the waking world periodically seeps in. Whispers become echoes, echoes become thunder, and then you wake in a fog and you can only hang onto the brightest parts. A Moon Shaped Pool is like that. When it is over, it has you reaching for the bits that escape you, even the parts that frightened you. However, while the album is evocative and sonically captivating, it doesn’t reach the emotional peaks and valleys of storied works like Kid A, though that may be too much to ask of the band. Nonetheless, I am looking forward to whatever rewards subsequent listening might hold, and I am relieved that Radiohead has once again pushed their boundaries without allowing their ambition to swallow them whole. The album is complex and challenging, moody and sumptuous, meticulous and patient. You should listen to it.