Beyoncé’s surprise album release will most certainly be remembered as one of the year’s biggest and most talked about musical events. However, when it comes to provoking intrigue and excitement, no-one makes their mark quite like Radiohead. Released as a pay-what-you-want download, 2007’s ‘In Rainbows’ altered the way we consume music and opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for artists. Almost ten years later and the Oxford quintet have still found ways to thrill. Promotion for their ninth album began after cryptic postcards were sent to the homes of fans who had purchased items from the band’s official store. It was obvious something was stirring, and not long after this the band deleted all their social media posts and website content, causing a frenzy of speculation and wild rumours.
Given the amount of time artists and record companies now commit to feeding the hype machine, the campaign can sometimes threaten to overshadow the very thing they are trying to promote (Arcade Fire’s undervalued ‘Reflektor’ springs to mind). Or in the case of Jay Z’s distinctly lacklustre ‘Magna Carta… Holy Grail’, the campaign can act as a neat diversion when the music isn’t particularly good. Then again, Radiohead have always had a knack for knowing when they’re onto something special. ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is a haunting, mesmerising and often breathtaking collection of songs, showcasing the band at their most personal. It’s both remarkably familiar yet, at the same time singular and unique in it’s execution.
‘Burn The Witch’ is probably their strongest lead single since 2003's 'There There’. Backed by what sounds like an army of Alfred Hitchcock's own personal string players, Thom Yorke delivers a truly monolithic chorus vocal. Unnerving yet thunderous and undeniably powerful, it's a magnificent opener. The Trumpton and Wicker Man-referencing music video is superb, too, and the bizarre juxtaposition of seemingly innocuous plasticine villagers set against a narrative of violence and murder is especially imposing, not to mention just plain creepy. This is offset nicely by the exquisite ‘Daydreaming’ which introduces the flickering, frosty piano lines that feature prominently throughout the album.
In fact, the ice cold, cavernous atmosphere is reminiscent of their decade-defining classic ‘Kid A’ in the way synth pads drone and fizz, the post-millennial paranoia (“This is a low flying panic attack”) and the desperate isolation of tracks like ‘True Love Waits’. However, where the band previously sounded emotionally detached, here they sound reinvigorated and completely engaged with a desire to connect. Nothing here is as prickly or deliberately difficult as 2011’s ‘The King Of Limbs’ and structurally, there’s still plenty of surprises. Take the stunning centrepiece ‘Ful Stop’ for example, which steadily morphs from murky, pulsing electro to frenetic krautrock. Cohesiveness is a another criticism that could be levelled at their previous outing but as it turns out, this is one their most fully realised works which is some feat considering their stellar back catalogue.
Elsewhere, Johnny Greenwood’s rich orchestral instrumentation helps add sumptuous layers to the shimmering beauty of ‘Glass Eyes’ and ‘The Numbers’ rousing protest folk. Yorke’s lyrics meanwhile are typically bleak but affecting nonetheless: “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?” ‘Identikit’ is excellent and its “Broken hearts / Make it rain” section and breathless guitar solo already rank comfortably alongside their greatest moments. Interestingly, most of the tracks have been in circulation for some time but none have endured a longer gestation period than closer ‘True Love Waits’. Performed as far back as 1995, it’s a beguiling wonder built around a minimal piano motif that improves upon its original template and more than justifies its inclusion.
Now moving slowly towards their fourth decade as a band, Thom Yorke and company have proven themselves to be rock’s true chameleons, shifting, adapting and moving forward with every subsequent release, and ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ continues this pattern. This is an emotionally brittle and dazzling collection that improves with each enthralling listen. It probably won’t satisfy those who still yearn for a return to their ‘90s alt-rock beginnings but it’s a good starting point for newcomers. For the rest of us though, what this all amounts to, in the end, is another fantastic Radiohead album.
Words: Luke Winstanley
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