Radiohead know how to make a grand entrance. For months the internet has been alive with rumours of a new album, which went into overdrive last week when the band’s social media and web presence disappeared. The subsequent arrival of A Moon Shaped Pool, their ninth LP, over the weekend thus caused a quite splash.
In the southern hemisphere the release also happened to coincide a sharp turn towards winter: the perfect weather for listening to Radiohead’s atmospherics.
Simply put, it’s a good thing that a band like Radiohead can even exist. In a sea of simple and generic pop products, their sophisticated art-rock compositions are a life-raft for those who look for a little more challenge or intelligence in their listening choices.
Having established themselves long ago, the band are able to do things their own way, without having to bend to industry norms. With each recent release they have incorporated a new company to circumvent the major label system, and have managed to largely abjure the Spotify behemoth (albeit pre-releasing two singles via the streaming service, but withholding the actual album). It does give some faith in the future of music to know that some acts are able to put art firmly before commerce.
A Moon Shape Pool proves to be strong justification for the band’s approach. And ironically, will likely turn out to be a big commercial success precisely because the artistic vision comes first.
This is a very strong outing that will sit comfortably alongside Radiohead’s best work. More focussed and more direct than previous effort, The King of Limbs, it is their most immediately engaging work for some time, while also managing to remain faithful to their legacy of intricate, sophisticated song crafting. Songs build with subtle beauty often reaching epic peaks, particularly through Johnny Greenwood’s orchestral arrangements. His experience composing film soundtracks is employed to great effect, lending the songs gravitas with a layered, cinematic quality.
As you might expect, themes of alienation, loneliness and anxiety manifest in both lyrical and musical form throughout the record, but in toning down some of the harsh electronica of previous albums in favour of the strings and guitars, there’s a warmth about the LP that’s curiously inviting.
‘Kill The Witch’, with its frenetic strings is an engaging opener, while the other pre-release track, ‘Daydreaming’ is an ambient slow-builder in vintage Radiohead fashion that somehow manages to exactly sound like a daydream should.
‘Desert Island Disk’ sweeps the listener away on the strength of some wistful acoustic guitar, while ‘Glass Eyes’ is a strikingly intimate number adorned with stunning orchestrations.
‘Identikit’ shows the band still have a knack for getting under the skin, with jarring rhythms and buried vocals before ending in a flurry of a guitar.
‘The Numbers’ presents such a diverse mix of sounds; there’s just so much for the ears to take in, it’s a potential mess but is held together by a gentle yet commanding rhythm, and actually is one of the highlights of the record.
In ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man’ Radiohead are at their best in their careful crafting of a musical landscape; it’s a brilliant, brooding piece that explodes with some dazzling orchestrations at the end.
The beautiful ‘True Love Waits’ (which has its origins way back in the mid-nineties) then provides just the right plaintive note to end the record.
While the songs here were written in different times, they hold together with remarkable strength. With a commitment to creating an intricate and arresting soundscape, there’s aesthetic throughout the album that is both beautiful and disconcerting at the same time.
A Moon Shaped Pool is a record to be immersed in, music for late nights with the headphones on; it will continue to reveal itself as it’s played over and over again.
Written by Matthew Trainor