The short version of this review is that the new Radiohead album is amazing. Breathtaking, heartfelt and paranoid all in the right ways in the right time.
The long version is a bit more involved.
Radiohead is an interesting band. Every album feels like a reinvention of the Radiohead sound, with them jumping between electronic music, folk, and straightforward rock every few years. If you asked me to pin down what Radiohead sounded like, I would be hard-pressed to describe them. I can describe what their albums sound like, but can not apply a consistent label to the band as whole.
But with A Moon Shaped Pool I think I can finally do it. This is what Radiohead sounds like. Decades of identity crises and nine albums into their career, Radiohead has finally settled down on a definitive identity as a band. And it is breathtaking.
While the previous album The King Of Limbs was disappointing to many due to its obscure and intricate arrangements that seemed to sap the life out the songs, AMSP pulls back into more familiar territory. Maybe familiar isn’t the right word. This is musical territory that sounds like human beings recorded it, with Thom Yorke and company bearing their souls out to the world. Not exactly familiar, but not completely alien.
What makes AMSP so wonderful is that the band seems to find a synergy between all of their different musical tastes and skills. Thom Yorke gets to put in his electronic music, Jonny Greenwood gets to compose excellent string scores (which are a dazzling addition to the sound of the band) and the other band members are playing at their most competent. Nowhere is this more apparent than on “Identikit”, a live favorite that is by far the best song on the album. Synergistic is the best word for this stand out track, which features electronic beats, awesome synthesizer work, strings and even a shredding guitar solo by Greenwood, the first we have heard from him since the bridge of “Bodysnatchers” on In Rainbows.
Songs like “Identikit” and the single “Burn The Witch” show Radiohead’s ability to progress while still relying on old skills and talents. At this point there is no need to reinvent themselves, and they make the smart decision to push the successful sound of In Rainbows to new heights. What emerges is a warm but still dark album, paradoxically dropping the listener into feelings of comfort and then dark paranoia.
Unlike TKOL, this album sees Thom Yorke opening up more through his songwriting. Take “Daydreaming”. This might be the most beautiful song that the band has recorded since “Pyramid Song”. Lovely electronic flourishes dot the musical landscape while lonely piano tune plays underneath. But it is Yorke’s lyrics that carry the song. He sings about the downfall of dreamers while providing hope in a new world. The heartbreak is clear. After all these years of trying to change the world, to make things better, the people on top still win. Dreamers who want to change the world are pushed below, or worse, symbolically lynched. Yorke seems exhausted, tired by years of trying to spread his message and seeing only small changes. As listeners we can feel that pain and relate. How many times have we wanted to change the world? How many times have we felt betrayed by politicians who promised us change only to continue in the path left by their predecessors? How many dreams have been shattered and lives ruined? Too many to count. But Yorke emphasizes with that pain and leads us to a world of beauty through the song. Comfort is found in the darkest of places.
There is also something to be said about the environmental themes. While TKOL did not seem to be about anything in particular, AMSP strongly hits on themes of environmental damage with “Desert Island Disk” and “The Numbers” (which debuted live in Paris under the title “Silent Spring”) both put the burden of protecting the environment on us, with “The Numbers” including hopeful lyrics about the future being inside of all of us. We are the force for change.
Writing about the album there is a lot to unpack, and I might make a track by track review in the near future. In short, I am thrilled with this album. It was everything that I wanted. Radiohead has recorded and album that combines all of their best aspects into one. Rumors abound that this might be their last album, and if that was the case I would feel comfortable with this as their sign off note.
The closer of the album, “True Love Waits” is a track that has been teased for years (really since Kid A) and has finally appeared. At the end of that heartbreaking song Thom Yorke sings:
“True love waits
In haunted attics”
It feels like a calming message from an old friend. Radiohead, the band that has gotten many of us (including myself) through some of our hardest times and the turmoil of our era, has always been about hope. Hope that one day, through all the despair and destruction around us, we will find true love; love that spans beyond romance to love of our fellow-men and love of our planet, hiding in the haunted attics of our life.