A Moon Shaped Pool
No one expects Radiohead to, in the words of the British Ministry of Information circa World War II, "Keep Calm and Carry On.” If anything, the tormented slow dazzle they reveal on their ninth album—pop-toned, ardently ambient post-post-rock—is filled with panic, insinuation, worry, and blame. It's rarely ever personal, this hassle, yet you wouldn't tag it as being universal in its nagging energy, whether lyrically or sonically. But never before have Radiohead made anxiety such a singular concern, or unease such an agonized-over art form, as they have on the brooding, stewing, contagious A Moon Shaped Pool.
This means that when Thom Yorke spits out “You really messed up everything” in a voice that would rattle Mark E. Smith during the speedily skittering "Ful Stop," you're concerned: for him, for the person who made the mess, for what could be in the "foul tasting medicine" he's on about, and for all of its lingering after-effects. Like "Ful Stop," each of A Moon Shaped Pool's tracks has the effect of those early cinematic, black-and-white comic hero serials where the walls close in on its protagonists. You know Batman or The Green Hornet is going to make it out alive, but your palms are no less sweaty for their peril. The Earth and its amenities—on the nursery rhyme-y "Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief" or the chattering "The Numbers”—are in an equally heated panic on Pool as its ruined romancers.
This is all odd, really, this discord—the kinetic brooding, the nervous and pulpy pining—when set against its melodies. That's because musically, A Moon Shaped Pool is one of Radiohead's most cool-headed, multi-layered, and ominously balming albums, decorated with shimmering orchestral strings skirting over azure waters (as in the fluid, solemn waltz of "Daydreaming" and "Glass Eyes," the salty love-in-vain samba of “Present Tense"), plaintive still-life (even Satie-esque) pianos, and brushed-denim acoustic guitars. Those waters can be inclement, the ride rocky, the jeans frayed, and Jonny Greenwood's guitars and orchestrations dissonant, high-strung, and hollowed out. The tensed-up "Burn the Witch” with its analogous modern day inquisitions is the best example of that tension in action. Melodically, however, A Moon Shaped Pool is on the sweeter, soberer side of catchy pop—less graceless and free (and unwieldy) than 2011’s The King of Limbs.
What Radiohead are perturbed or anxious about isn't always clear, beyond Yorke’s glad-to-be-unhappy resignation. “When I see you messing me around, I don’t want to know,” goes the text of the menacingly strung “Identikit." Is it society's ills at large, the "pieces of a wreck of mankind," or is it something closer to home and hearth that makes him needle, "broken hearts make it rain”?
As with Roger Waters's Pink Floyd—who made the personal grand and the universal eerily intimate—Radiohead have become the best at being truly poker-faced in the guessing game of quizzical pop; this time, with A Moon Shaped Pool, that’s pop with a small “p,” rather than the Pop Art of the band’s past.
You can't truly enter or leave this record without considering one curious fact: of its eleven songs, Pool features seven tracks that are already part of Radiohead's catalog in some fashion. "True Love Waits” in particular goes back to 1995 and even made it to the band's often-missed 2001 album, I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings. In that respect, this is the first real Radiohead album to look backward, take stock, and tie together streams and strings from their history. Using that same past as a reference for this album's haunted finale, you must assume that certainly its meanings have shifted (as has Yorke's text) since its penning two decades ago. With Pool’s looks at bruised romance, a busted earth, and the shattered atmospheres around both figures, its closing lyric—“Just don’t leave”—gives the listener deep and genuine pause.