Obscurity has always been an essential tenet of Radiohead’s sidelong approach to rock stardom. Coming of age amid a crop of bands who flaunted a shrugging disinterest in the demands of musical celebrity, however, they’ve somehow managed to persist, flourish, and evolve as their contemporaries disappeared or were mothballed as museum pieces. Radiohead has done so by functioning as a cunning pop act hiding out inside the classic packaging of a cerebral rock band, maintaining a resolutely aloof exterior—and an air of remote intellectual purity—while pioneering new techniques for sneaking difficult music into the mainstream consciousness.
For the release of their first album in five years, the band once again cloaks bold promotional showmanship beneath an air of artful inscrutability, subverting the recent trend of abruptly dropped albums with a hasty but forceful rollout that’s included mysterious mailers and the temporary deletion of their entire social media presence. These ominous forewarnings find their full expression on the doom-laden A Moon Shaped Pool, an ostensible breakup album that, in true Radiohead fashion, also operates as a restless self-erasure fantasy, a grim grappling with middle-age ennui, and a grand proclamation of resignation toward mounting global chaos.
More so than the band’s previous work, A Moon Shaped Pool looks to the past as a guide, surveying emotional wreckage over an alphabetically organized tracklist full of corroded junkyard versions of old songs, many of them former tour tracks now resurrected after years in limbo. Performing this reckoning in the wake of Thom Yorke’s recent divorce, the album features distorted variants on many of Radiohead’s favorite methods and modes: outbursts of strangled rage that either blossom into manic explosions of joy or curdle into bleary sorrow, bucolic nursery rhymes that pulse with an undercurrent of miasmic dread, plain piano ballads that gradually reveal a nimble interplay between hope, sadness, and terror. It’s a testament to the band’s endurance and innovation that they’re able to make all this sound entirely new.
This is accomplished through the ingenuity of Radiohead’s core creative trio, anchored by Yorke’s opaque vocals and eccentric lyricism, Johnny Greenwood’s lush orchestrations, and the densely layered production of longtime producer Nigel Godrich. Of course, A Moon Shaped Pool’s richness benefits hugely from a full band effort, with bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway providing a sturdy skeleton for all of the album’s tempestuous soul-searching, and Ed O’Brien’s dynamic lead guitar acting as the perfect partner to Yorke’s keening wail.
At a time when the most memorable music on the market is primarily supplied by powerful pop figureheads and the shadowy teams of writers, producers, and ego massagers who prop up their stardom, a work whose sources and origin points are as easy to locate and delineate as this one seems even more special. The album’s apocalyptic slant also feels especially apt, considering Radiohead’s standing as veritable dinosaurs; with the increasingly moribund state of serious guitar music, it’s tough to imagine anyone else who can so deftly juggle bombastic arena-rock stardom with eclectic highbrow expressions of such gravity and wit.
Befitting this status, A Moon Shaped Pool is chock-full of big statements, at once geared toward reflecting a fractious political landscape and the internal state of Yorke’s distressed narrator. Bad vibes are evident from the outset, manifested by the eerie nativist nightmare of “Burn the Witch,” which sets the album’s tone both lyrically and musically, its cryptically conveyed trepidation underscored by Greenwood’s racing, unsettling string arrangement. Songs like “The Numbers” and “Ful Stop,” meanwhile, apply a sort of broad end-times indictment that could apply to a distant romantic partner, malevolent corporate and governmental forces, or the narrator himself.
Anxiety has always been a significant factor in Radiohead’s work, the engine driving the group’s involuted considerations of the fraught relationship between society and self, and here that fretfulness finds a definitive object. Refracted through a focus on immediate loss and looming destruction, these songs routinely edge toward fatalistic expressions of helplessness, attaining an arresting universality despite their insistently interior nature.
Radiohead’s beleaguered response to such turmoil seems as suited to the congested modern consciousness as it was for the jaded exhaustion tapped into by ’90s alternative rock. Albums like The Bends, OK Computer, and Kid A were preoccupied with the vague air of unease lurking around the margins of a culture largely defined by productivity and abundance. Two decades later, universal predicaments are a bit easier to define, and A Moon Shaped Pool’s thorny lyrical missives respond by evoking the psychic horrors of the surveillance state, religious extremism, and encroaching environmental catastrophe as gloomy confirmations of that initial apprehensive outlook.
As always, Yorke specializes in overripe gnomic pronouncements, which posses an ambiguous yet tactile meaning: “a 10-ton head made of wet sand” on “Decks Dark,” “glassy-eyed light of day” on “Glass Eyes,” “a low-flying panic attack” on “Burn the Witch,” and so on. He also offers a slew of bland declarative avowals that take on a haunting eloquence thanks to his tormented, ethereal voice (the “in you I’m lost” refrain on “Present Tense,” or the ghostly “broken hearts make it rain” mantra on “Identikit”).
As usual, these qualities cohere into a dense, often impenetrable collection of dark-toned tunes, the kind fans will love and skeptics will view as more of the same persnickety pretension. But beneath its typically oblique surface, A Moon Shaped Pool also registers as perhaps Radiohead’s most revealing work to date, a piecemeal portrait of trauma that comes into clear focus after a few close listens. This character is crystallized by stately, heart-rending songs like “Daydreaming,” which closes with a repeating string of indecipherable pitch-shifted vocals, resembling a snoring animal or a manipulated stand-up bass, the sort of inexplicable sound that’s recognizable as one of the band’s familiar fan-baiting Easter eggs. As Internet sleuths quickly decoded, however, the garbled refrain here (“half my life,” an apparent reference to Yorke’s 23-year marriage), is also a revealing clue to the album’s fragile beating heart. Beneath the customary veneer of mystery, Radiohead is taking on something more solid and demanding than their usual indistinct angst.
This conclusion is confirmed by the album-capping appearance of longtime live-favorite “True Love Waits,” here downshifted from a coy declaration of audacious attachment to a desolate admission of defeat. In its much-loved but indefinite previous forms, the song has often been frantic but optimistic, anchored by buoyantly strummed acoustic guitar, with Yorke pledging devotion with an almost adolescent sense of openness. Here, wreathed in somber minor-key piano, “True Love Waits” definitively marks the end of the singer’s relationship with the person he likely wrote it for in the first place.
Part of Radiohead’s rich mythos has been its habit of letting songs pickle, sometimes for many years, before being granted a popular release. Now, out of that oblivion explodes a formerly youthful ballad re-contexualized into the desperate cry of a bereft middle-aged man. It authenticates the fact that, while A Moon Shaped Pool offers little in the way of new sonic territory, its newly naked and incisive portrayal of emotional vulnerability remains a resoundingly major achievement.