Radiohead must really love their mums. Though the U.K. celebrates Mother’s Day in late March, the May 8 release of their achingly beautiful ninth LP, A Moon Shaped Pool, sounded like more than a coincidence, as even the title alludes to a cosmic manifestation of female energy and form.
Perhaps bolstered by Thom Yorke’s separation from his college sweetheart and partner of 23 years, Rachel Owen, Pool holds moments of pure heartbreak, loneliness and emotional despair, too, rooted in themes of human intimacy that the band hasn’t explored this bluntly in years.
It’s a stunning display of naked vulnerability and a notable achievement, especially considering Radiohead’s renewed status as the biggest band of weirdos in the world since 2007’s In Rainbows introduced them to a new millennial generation.
Despite its shorter length, In Rainbows sounded like a collection of all the Radiohead sounds that we loved, from spectral piano ballad to in-the-pocket prophecy and back again. But gone were the ambient meanderings of the Kid A/ Amnesiac period. Moments of lucidity popped up in spurts, but they were tampered down by the swift pace of that album.
The band then doubled down on weird for their next release, 2011’s The King of Limbs, exploring polyrhythmic grooves through repetition and some of Radiohead’s tightest playing yet (as evidenced by those killer live versions of the songs off TKOL). That one always seemed like a spiritual jazz record to me, reminiscent of A Love Supreme in its singular dedication to repeating phrases as mantra.
On A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead don’t split the difference so much as take the entirety of what they’ve learned along the way—from guitars to modular synths to orchestral arrangements and back again—and go deeper.
Opener “Burn The Witch”, one of the several songs on this record that has surfaced in fragments at shows for years, makes this clear with its quantized string swells that simultaneously evoke the brit-pop grandeur of Oasis and The Verve while taking the sonic trope someplace more far-out than any of them.
Though Radiohead have embraced orchestral arrangements since O.K. Computer, Jonny Greenwood’s vast compositional experience between albums has shown those arrangements getting more complex, as he’s scored P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice and The Master (among other projects). By opening with a ritual, Radiohead usher their signature explorations of demagoguery and paranoia to the fore. It’s a sudden moment of urgency and immediacy they use with intention, creating a push and pull between energy and passivity that the rest of Pool applies to its flow.
You hear this immediately with “Daydreaming”, as dreamy loops invite you back to a Kid A future while a repeating piano run carries you through. In this receptive state, Mr. Yorke still struggles to arrive at a place of clarity—”Beyond the point of no return, and it’s too late, the damage is done,” he says, later repeating “half of my life” backwards.
In his insta-review for the NYT, Jon Pareles points out that the 47-year-old Mr. Yorke had, in fact, been with his ex, Rachel Owen, for half of his life. It’s hard not to hear him baring it all with this Page 6 insight, and coming from a band that sometimes makes its themes difficult to unpack, such moments of transparency are breathtaking. Jonny Greenwood’s buddy P.T. Anderson directed the stunning clip for “Daydreaming”, too, which depicts Mr. Yorke in movement, desperately searching for light.
Mr. Yorke turns a corner on “Desert Island Disk”, a gorgeous psych-folk ditty in the British tradition of Bert Jansch or Roy Harper. “Waking up from shutdown, from a thousand years of sleep, yeah you, you know what I mean,” he drawls, and the clouds part if even only for a few moments.
This leads him into “Ful Stop”, the darkest and most propulsive track on Pool. A sinister synth bass line reminiscent of “All I Need” or “The Gloaming” lingers low in the mix, and Mr. Yorke finds his recent despair is starting to bring him wisdom, no matter how dark that wisdom is. “This is a foul-tasting medicine, to be trapped in your full stop, truth will mess you up,” he intones. Much like the taste of shamanistic brew, his journeys bring epiphanies that are eye-opening but not necessarily comforting.
There are further directional signs of his trajectory on “Glass Eyes”, where Mr. Yorke gets off a train and finds himself on a path, descending from a mountain. “Through the dry bush, I don’t know where it leads, I don’t really care.” He’s still in a mood, but at least he’s moving, finally able to see the “glassy-eyed light of day.”
“Identikit” sounds like self-therapy, as the most instantly “catchy” tune on Pool explores the power of will to change one’s own reality. The “broken hearts make it rain” lyric might sound like a comment on the tears of a break-up, but viewed in the larger trajectory as an example of how our individual mental state affects the environments around us, the lyric takes on a much more significant resonance to Mr. Yorke’s resolve. An identikit is another word for those composite caricatures that police sketch artists whip up to identify criminals, go figure.
When Yorke sings, “We are of the earth, to her we do return, the future is inside us, it’s not somewhere else,” on “The Numbers”, he’s finally owning the power of his will he’s starting to see in “Identikit”.
He sees the moon smiling, here, too, over dulcet piano runs that sound like harp chords in that stock-sound evocation of heaven, clouds parting and all. In that moment, where anyone healing from the end of a relationship feels like someone recovering from an addiction, he ends the song by affirming, “one day at a time.” The title of a British children’s rhyme is evoked to comment on trajectory with “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief.” A fire is built to keep the animals away, and nature can be a threat. Lessons learned.
All that resolve climaxes on “True Love Waits”, the stunning closer track that has been a live Radiohead favorite for years. Reborn from its first arrangement as a solo guitar number, Mr. Yorke’s sparse piano fingers form pools around his every syllable. “And true love waits in haunted attics, and true love lives on lollipops and crisps,” he croons. “Just don’t leave.”
Played as the penultimate encore during the Amnesiac tour (and captured in its acoustic glory on the live record I Might Be Wrong,) “True Love Waits” always had the power of a final lesson. On Pool, though, it’s the perfect cap to the journey Mr. Yorke’s invited us along for.
“We tried to record it countless times, but it never worked,” producer Nigel Godrich told Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke in 2012. “To Thom’s credit, he needs to feel a song has validation, that it has a reason to exist as a recording. We could do ‘True Love Waits’ and make it sound like John Mayer. Nobody wants to do that.”
That’s the beauty and immaculate realization of A Moon Shaped Pool right there—for all Radiohead’s vast back-catalog of live songs never released, for all of its identifiable sonic shifts, the boys have created a work here that sounds crafted and composed but not meticulous. “True Love Waits” does feel like a validation, as does the whole album, that Radiohead remain dedicated witnesses to strange new sonic universes. It may have taken years, but this time, they’ve gifted us with a window into their own.