Final Rating: 9.5/10
After months of speculation from fans all over the world, it became quite clear that a new Radiohead album was on the horizon. Thom Yorke and Radiohead social media accounts became ghost towns. Empty and voided of all previous content, the website joined too and became a blank space. It felt unnecessary, it didn’t make sense. Why bother going through all that effort just to release new music? Well as most hard-core Radiohead fans know, nothing the English rockers do is ever without purpose. Whether that’s in their music or on social media feeds, everything is done with reason and perhaps that was the intention all along. An indication that a new beginning was unfolding for us.
The album begins with Burn the Witch, the first single the band released as part of the buildup to the full album release. It instantly features a striking string arrangement curated by Jonny Greenwood, with a bass line layered below from Brother Colin Greenwood. Thom’s vocals come in gently as he mutters “stay in the shadows”. The structure shifts on the cue of the lyrics “this is a low-flying panic attack” as it builds and transitions into the chorus of a long drawn out wailing from Yorke of “burn the witch”. In typical Colin fashion the bass line is simple but solid, it compliments and supports the overall sound of the drums and string arrangements throughout the song.
Second on the album is another song they released prior to the album, a haunting track titled Daydreaming. It opens up with some choppy distorted sounding bells or xylophone, that instantly take the listener back to the title track of 2000’s album Kid A. While remaining in the song, the noises slowly fade and give way to the piano chords that carry the track through its various stages of ambience, and swirling banshee-like vocals. The lyrics offered by Thom to open the track really stand out, “dreamers, they never learn…beyond the point, of no return”. Throughout the song there are a lot of reverse loops. Watching the music video in reverse provides some clues as to what Thom might be saying here, and as to the topic of the song. One theory is that the haunting demonic noise that closes out the song in forward play, when played in reverse actually sounds close to “half of my life” or “I’ve found my love”. Personally I find the former to be more relevant, as Thom also walks through twenty-three doors in the music video, the same amount of years he spent with his partner Rachel Owen. At 2:30 into the reverse video you can audibly hear the words “I’ll sleep after”. Even stranger than all this is the fact that the song almost holds up as just as incredible completely in reverse. This is just another stunning example of the genius and intent that goes into everything the band does.
The song Deck’s Dark comes next carrying on with the haunting theme of the album including the opening lines of the song “And in your life there comes a darkness, this spacecraft blocking out the sky”. The lyrics are guided in by some ambient choppy keys and a very simple drum loop. A piano chord slowly slides in as the first line is uttered. It slowly builds towards a shift in the drum track and piano chords, as a bass line is added whilst Thom sings the line “we are helpless to resist, in our darkest hour”. A low pitched and subtle guitar riff appears amongst the many layers as the song continues to evolve. The structure of it feels similar to the song All I Need from In Rainbows, though it’s completely constructed with different elements. The similarity is in reference to the progression of the song only.
The fourth song on the album is a relatively simple song in the scope of Radiohead’s catalogue. It’s not stunning by any means, beyond the beautiful acoustic guitar riff that drives the song. It is however, relevant and well placed. It bridges a gap between the start and middle stints of the album, while repeating the themes displayed through the first three songs. With lyrics such as “wind rushing around my open heart, an open ravine” and “waking up, waking up from shutdown, from a thousand years of sleep”, it appears to be a conscious narrative of introspection regarding the break-up, feeling relieved and finding a new light. The song ends with the lyrics “different types of love are possible” as if to state the understanding that perhaps there is a reason this relationship had to end.
Next up is one of the superior songs off the album, Ful Stop. It’s hard to say which song is the clear cut best song. They all seem to contribute to the overall feel of the album, but if you had to choose only one, then this song is a contender. With a long faded drum loop intro surrounded by a flurry of ambient synthetic noises, it’s similar to the intro of Idioteque from Kid A. Horns slowly come in around the one minute point and help guide the song into the opening lyrics of “you really messed up everything”. The bass line starts at the beginning of the song but is hard to recognize as it shifts in and out of high to little levels of distortion. The song builds up to a major shift around 3:11 as Thom belts out the line “still trapped in your full stop”. The structure and composition of the song is simply brilliant. It sounds like something combining elements of some of their essential albums such as Kid A and In Rainbows, an impressive feat to accomplish on their ninth record.
Glass Eyes is the sixth track on the album and features some brilliant string work. It is yet another haunting track churned out by the band. Opening with some reverse loops once again before giving way to the opening verse of “Hey it’s me I just got off the train, a frightening place, their faces are concrete grey, and I’m wondering, should I turn around? Buy another ticket, panic is coming on strong, so cold, from the inside out”. This song just sounds like heartbreak. It feels lost, introspective and features a flurry of swarming violin and cello that come in and out in an abrupt, panicky way as Thom works through his thoughts. It’s not great as an individual song but is very topical and important to the album as a whole. It serves as a good track to usher in the fan familiar track of Identikit.
The song was first featured during set lists in the The King of Limbs tour era. Many fans became quite familiar with the song and it was generally accepted that this song would be making it on to any new album that the band would release down the road. However, it’s been reimagined for A Moon Shaped Pool. Ed O’Brien’s backing vocals have been placed into a layer of less prominence in comparison to the live versions of the song. The song still holds up even with its re-tooling, and is one of the better songs on the album. The bass and drums work well in unison to serve as a solid base to build the rest of the song upward. Thom’s vocals are in sync with the rhythm of the bass and drums, while a guitar riff that’s slightly askew is peppered throughout the song, and occasionally syncs up with the other three elements during the chorus of “broken hearts make it rain”.
The Numbers is the eighth track on the album and is once again, one of (if not) the best song on A Moon Shaped Pool. It opens with a flurry of noise and an abrupt sound that appears at the start of the song The National Anthem off of the album Kid A. With reverse loops layered above a simple piano melody, the song transitions into acoustic strumming with a simple drum beat. Featuring strong lyrics throughout and including some of Yorke’s best vocals on the album. Lines like “we are of the Earth, to her we do return, the future is inside us, it’s not somewhere else” hit powerfully, especially with the emphasis Thom puts on “the future is inside us”. The line and harmonized vocals of “one day at a time” lead into the addition of some intense string arrangements. The final verse features some more powerful lyrics in the lines “we call upon the people, people have the power, the numbers don’t decide, the system is a lie” , before giving way to some more beautiful vocal harmonies reminiscent of Nude from In Rainbows towards the end of the song.
The song Present Tense comes next and it’s another brilliant song. The acoustic guitar to open the song is very soothing and layered with gentle vocal harmonies. Another fantastic vocal performance from Yorke really gives this song its beauty. The progression and composition is extremely pleasing to listen to. Strings added to an instrumental break help usher in a nearly euphoric uttering of the lines “in you I’m lost…in you I’m lost” before shifting back into the verses. The same type of progression is featured each time the song shifts back to the chorus. It’s truly remarkable and deserves recognition as one of the best written songs on the album.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief is a very dark song that appears as the second last song on the album. It’s hard to say what the meaning behind this song is. The lyrics offer some clue in the lines “the one’s you light your fires to keep away”, and “honey come to me before it’s too late”. Perhaps a realization that she is leaving, an attempt to strike fear that the one’s you’ve spent so long avoiding and betting rid of, will now come out to “prey” once again. A desperate plea to come back and stay safe. It’s really up to interpretation but it would appear to make sense logically at this point of the album as this song gives way to the legendary unreleased song True Love Waits.
A song that first appeared live during the mid-90s, it’s been a fan favourite for nearly two decades but never once appeared on any studio album. Considering all the prevalent themes of separation, loneliness and heartbreak throughout the album, it’s an incredibly perfect ending to A Moon Shaped Pool. The lyrics are beautiful, and the raw emotion in Thom’s voice as he utters the lines “Just don’t leave…don’t leave” can single-handedly bring a tear to your eye. The desperation displayed in the previous track appears to have shifted into depressing realization as he begs her not to go. The song was clearly written sometime near the beginning of their twenty-three year relationship, as that is when it first surfaced live. Its appearance as this album’s closer could not have been more fitting.
The context of the lyrics and the supporting music have changed so drastically from early live recordings of the song. It now sounds like a haunting of Yorke’s soul and heart instead of a friendly acoustic sing-along. Perhaps he wanted to put it out there now for the world. A song he surely sang thinking of his undying love for her has now taken on an wentirely new meaning, and appropriately has been re-worked to fit that meaning. It surely provided closure to release this song now as a chapter of his life has ended, a chapter that lasted half of his life.
It truly feels like a rebirth of sorts. By the time it ends it feels complete. All the pieces were arranged neatly before the final door closed. An album that truly holds up with some of Radiohead’s greatest work. A Moon Shaped Pool appears to be a hauntingly beautiful final page in this chapter of Thom’s life.