“Dreamers/They never learn.”
Like The Bad Seeds’ Push the Sky Away, A Moon Shaped Pool doesn’t reach out and grab you immediately. It is unquestionably a grower, slowly creeping up on you the more you listen. But you have to listen. This is not background music.
I often wonder quite how Radiohead keep doing it. How they keep evolving and innovating, always relevant always box fresh. There are very few acts who have maintained such a high standard over three decades. And despite a minor blip (to my mind) with King of Limbs, A Moon Shaped Pool drops and ultimately confirms their status as the best band of all time.
It comes out of the blocks with a vengeance. Burn The Witch, with its Trumpton animation, paranoia-driven lyrics, dissonant harmonics and chopping strings is a superb opener. Thanks to Classic FM (geeky, I know) I learned that Jonny Greenwood used a technique known as col legno to achieve the weird, disturbing sound that prevails on Burn The Witch. Basically, this involves bashing the strings with the back of the bow and, because it is so unusual, it enthrals.
It leads into the most beautifully crafted, most haunting song of the decade (by anyone) – Daydreaming. It is dream-like throughout and closes with an extremely disorientating section with Thom Yorke intoning “half of my life” over the cellos of The London Contemporary Orchestra who have been asked by Jonny Greenwood to detune their instruments. This results in an eerie sounding, growling backdrop.
Two things to pick up from that previous paragraph. As always with Radiohead, Yorke’s lyrics have a political element, although not quite so prominently on this collection of songs. Perhaps the reason for that is that a lot of the lyrics address his break up with long term partner and mother of his two children, Rachel Owen. It is thought that the “half of my life” line in Daydreaming referred to the twenty-three years he spent with Rachel, equating to half of his forty-six years on earth. Break-up lyrics crop up throughout, although never with self pity.
The other thing is the orchestration. If King of Limbs was, musically speaking, a Thom Yorke album, A Moon Shaped Pool is unquestionably Jonny Greenwood’s. Lush strings, bringing the most beautiful textures and layers and, as highlighted earlier moments of extreme dissonance, dominate throughout.
There are so many brilliant tracks on A Moon Shaped Pool. I have picked out Daydreaming above, but could easily have picked the celestial Deck’s Dark or the fragile beauty of Glass Eyes or the throbbing, rhythmic Ful Stop. They are all, every track, exceptional.
It’s worth looking at how it ends though. I’m fascinated by closing tracks on Radiohead albums and A Moon Shaped Pool brings an unexpected treat in the shape True Love Waits, a fan favourite since the days of OK Computer. Unlike the ‘old’ acoustic guitar led version, this one features Yorke and his electric piano. The track finishes on a beautiful chord that sustains before fading out gracefully. It reminds me so much of the closing seconds of Radiohead’s other masterpiece, OK Computer, with that single bell chiming at the end of The Tourist.
Oh, one final thing – the songs are all played in alphabetical order. That’s probably just coincidental, but because it’s Radiohead there are probably a million conspiracy theories.
A Moon Shaped Pool is a gorgeous album. The strings are artful and beautifully arranged. Yorke’s vocal has never been better. The band gel perfectly. It’s eleven tracks, all of which are nigh on perfect. There are very, very few better albums this decade.