Chameleons of genre, icons of self-redefinition, dealers of some of the bravest decisions made in music history; the qualifications that reify Radiohead’s legacy are more than laurels upon which the band can rest, they are also the embodiments of character traits that have allowed the band to not only endure time, but claim it, and then redefine it. A Moon Shaped Pool serves to show that these impressive shows of ingenuity, as detrimental as they may potentially be, are still re-deployable in 2016.
On A Moon Shaped Pool Radiohead has demonstrated a mastery of their idiosyncratic approach to alternative music, doing so on the most sonically spare and lyrically provocative platforms of their career while simultaneously drawing upon the subtleties of their best work. The album features the minimalist electronic motifs of Kid A alongside the nimble guitar picking and understated riffs of In Rainbows, without negating its innovation. The album’s lead single “Burn the Witch” offers Radiohead at their most orchestral, while the ensuing single “Daydreaming” reemploys the band’s dichotomy of subtle instrumentals and paining vocals. Though this contrast may evoke comparisons to Kid A’s “How to Disappear Completely,” the song is a pivotal transitioning point into A Moon Shaped Pool’s most unexpected and most challenging material. The new album deals heavily with loss on a soundscape that is even more minimal than Kid A’s ambient tracks. But while the band has curtailed its complex instrumental layering in favor of isolated pianos and finger-picked guitars, the decision has resulted in an emotionally reductive listening experience.
Lyrics such as “Dreamers / They never learn / Beyond the point / Of no return” repackage the warnings of Radiohead’s signature doomsayers’ message with more consequential and permanent subjects such as hurt, regret, love, and longing. Paired with characters like those introduced in “Identikit," “Sweet-faced ones with nothing left inside / That we all can love… Pieces of a rag doll mankind / That you can’t create,” Yorke’s lyrical content offers a scathingly futile, yet beautiful message. His vocals vary between a soaring falsetto and an unembellished delivery; sometimes offering levity to weighty material and other times presenting disheartening scenarios straightforwardly. The latter is the perfect pairing for “Identikit"’s antagonistic guitar-riff – a palm-muted baritone melody teeming with attitude.
The shifts A Moon Shaped Pool takes between moods are noticeable, but not coarse. The piano arpeggios and trills of “Decks Dark” and “Glass Eyes” have a very secluding effect, though their background orchestration attributes a certain grace to the songs which yields an air of peaceful helpless, exemplifying the careful balance found in the pairing of lyrics and instrumentation and the selection of songs as well. The acoustics of “Desert Island Disk” and the dissonant synths of “Ful Stop separate “Decks Dark” and “Glass Eyes,” allowing listeners to shift between the various mental spaces these songs inhabit. It is the transitions made between moods, instrumentation, and lyrical content that allow songs such as “Ful Stop” and “True Love Waits” to coexist and help create one of the most unique Radiohead albums.
A Moon Shaped Pool is an album that may find some fans flat-footed. Those not expecting to deal with themes of loss and the fulfillment of love may find themselves either uncomfortable on occasion or dissatisfied. But if allowed to thrive past any initial sock, A Moon Shaped Pool will knock anyone on their ass and place them in the grips of an existential dilemma. But maybe “existential” is an inappropriate term for this album. It is modernist, as evidenced by details as spare and as fleeting as Thom Yorke’s buzzing background vocals. These droning and abruptly cutting falsettos provide the most succinct and holistic summations of what A Moon Shaped Pool offers: impressionistic whirs of pain and restraint, and a heart-hollowing sense of loss.