Experimental, abstract and impenetrable are all words freely and happily associated with Radiohead, often in studious discussions about the horn arrangements on ‘The National Anthem’, circling debates about Thom Yorke picking lyrics out of a hat and admiration at their sacrifice of the “saviours of rock” throne. “Pulling a Kid A” is now irreversibly part of the music writers lexicon, and rightly so – the first masterpiece of the new millennium warranted the strenuous analysis and cult praise it received, if not for it’s emotion then certainly for it’s audacity.
This made the release of The King of Limbs, the band’s shortest, least dynamic and frankly worst record since the bastard child Pablo Honey, even more paradoxical. Radiohead, kings of the graceful U-turn, simply failed to pull it off this time, and surrendered much of their sentiment to hit-and-miss sonic clutter. Suddenly their refusal to sit still caused grumblings beyond guitar purists looking for Ok Computer Part 2, and an awkward question needed to be asked. How do you follow up a failed experiment?
Thankfully Radiohead have wriggled out of spots like this before. Moving past the polarising Kid A and Amnesiac birthed Hail to the Thief, a kind of catch-all, box-ticking Radiohead record starring straight-up rock songs (Go To Sleep) practically atonal electronic dirges (The Gloming) and pretty much everything in between. They threw everything at the wall, and most of it stuck. On A Moon Shaped Pool, the fabled LP9, the response from camp Radiohead is similar – but wildly more successful.
At a first glance, A Moon Shaped Pool is an amalgam of the band’s post-millennium output – the beauty and sincerity of In Rainbows, the electronic tension of Kid A and the rhythmic disorder of The King of Limbs. Jonny Greenwood’s big budget string arrangements play more of a role than ever before, paving the way for cinematic flourishes in almost every song. Elsewhere, the production from Nigel Godrich is utterly sublime – varied, eclectic, at times overwhelming – as though a direct response to the flatness of it’s predecessor. In general the band have regained the instrumental freedom they lost on that record – the unsung heroes, bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway, return to the core, punctuating tracks like “Desks Dark” and the gutsy “Ful Stop”, even exploring new rhythms like on the latin-tinged “Present Tense”. And what would a Radiohead record be without a piano ballad? You’ve got three to choose from here, all starkly beautiful, adorned with twinkling strings, ghostly vocal swirls and Thom Yorke’s frail, anxious delivery.
I know this is a Radiohead review, and thus it’s my duty to go deeper than what the album sounds like, maybe even comment on the track list being in alphabetical order or make some assumptions about Thom Yorke’s divorce. Fine, I’ll level with you a bit – there are certainly ways the latter could tie in. A Moon Shaped Pool sees Yorke cast not just as a lonely, reclusive figure, but as half of a long-term relationship too, perhaps for the first time on a record.
But that’s as scholarly as I’m gonna be with you. Across its 50 minutes, A Moon Shaped Pool seems to speak to much simpler conclusions. At its core, it’s an incredibly moving, heartbreaking, human record. It’s as unconcerned with distance and mystery as Radiohead have ever been. Much like In Rainbows before it, it doesn’t need deconstructing. It doesn’t need analysing. It just needs experiencing.