“And in your life, there comes a darkness/This spacecraft blocking out the sky/And there’s nowhere to hide,” so begins Radiohead’s ninth studio album A Moon Shaped Pool, and for the next fifty-two long minutes, Thom Yorke and company endeavor to blot out the sun and encapsulate all existence in the anxious shadow of their psychedelic-folk songs. At this point in their careers, austere experimentalism has become second nature to the quintet–since the textured minimalism of Kid A, that genetically ingrained lean towards ambling, ambient art-rock has made Radiohead (depending on who you’re asking) the most celebrated and overrated rock band of the last twenty years. As warped as ever, nearly infinite stretches of orchestra-backed crescendos pulsate throughout the desolate soundscape of A Moon Shaped Pool, leaving Colin and Johnny Greenwood’s guitars blissfully naked and hauling the full weight of the album’s moody anxieties. Let it be noted that much like the rest of Radiohead’s discography, this is not an album to be played at low volume and find yourself drifting to sleep with. Overflowing with disconcerting shell-shocks of contorted noise and propulsive sonic stimuli, A Moon Shaped Pool should be allowed to blare its virulent narratives through your earphones until it becomes your reality.
Opening with the sharp stabs of col legno and Yorke’s dire wails that plead for you to “abandon all reason/avoid all eye contact/do not react/shoot the messengers,” the visceral escalation of ear-splitting violins to groaning cellos on “Burn the Witch” is only the prologue to the album’s overwhelmingly jittery misery. Strained and tense in its crudely metallic screeches, the song is a despairing echo against the deadly pitfalls of groupthink, one accentuated by the shrill cacophony of its choppy strings and electronic hums. But these horrible panic-attacks give way to haunting fantasies in “Daydreaming,” as Yorke strolls sleepily through vaguely poignant lamentations, while distorted shrieks, transcendental piano tumbles, and swelling strings attempt to wrest control of his delusions. Deeply organic in its transitions from bubbly synths to lilting keys, A Moon Shaped Pool’s first attempt at ambience peers sadly through a climax of reversed vocalizations (resembling wheezy snores) and twinkling percussion.
Delving further into Yorke’s trippy fantasia you find yourself at “Decks Dark,” a bland description when contrasted by the song’s murky atmospherics. Between weeping siren calls and the rippling drone of smoky electric guitars, Yorke tiredly paints in the bleakest of tones his hopeless dirge–one made evermore eerie by its supernatural imagery of ominous spaceships and blackened skies.
“Desert Island Disk,” another grimly imagist title, shoulders a hefty folk motif with its stuttering acoustic plucks, but Yorke’s depression only deepens with every repetitive assertion that “different types of love are possible”; while on the fanatical exhilaration of “Ful Stop,” sweeping percussiveness rolls wearily forward on abandoned dirt roads, as a broiling storm of turbulent electrics gleam and burn like scars of lightning across Yorke’s blanketing howls.
Effervescent keyboards, dulled as if echoed from another world entirely, meet the lavish, beatific movements of gushing strings on “Glass Eyes,” a distressing ballad that drips woefully from Yorke’s crisp intones. Those same strings eventually grow to fill the colossal, cathedral sized anthem that is “Numbers,” but not before dissolving within angelic, choral harmonies and resurfacing as erratic thrums and piercing whines. “Identikit,” rightfully returns Greenwoods’ mournfully thrilling guitars to the spotlight–blistering and white-hot, the dizzying chords dance blissfully over Yorke’s spookily layered chants.
“Present Tense” sees the beleaguered singer on the cusp of some emotional breakdown, as spools of fingered strings twitter festively around Yorke’s frenzied agitation, yanking and jerking his limbs with every delicate riff like some terrible marionette. Dissolving into the abysmal void from which it evidently surfaced, The album’s finale dissipates spectacularly on its last two songs, the first coming in one final surge of orchestral harmonies on “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief.” Yorke’s broken transmissions garble in through static exhales and magnetized electric guitars burst in the background, until those fantastically menacing strings begin their escalation from soothing moans to hair-raising bewails.
“I’ll drown my beliefs/To have your babies/I’ll dress like your niece/And wash your swollen feet,” so cries a now fragmented and crushed Yorke on “Love Waits,” as he whispers them from his sad isolation on some lonely planet, as each unraveling piano key carries further out into space. “Just don’t leave/Don’t leave,” he begs, but love to him is a distant star already out of reach.
Stare into the abyss and Yorke will stare back at you from the darkness–but with every listen his yawps lose their prolific warning and become ever more inviting. For every minute of A Moon Shaped Pool, the wearied frontman is right there whispering into the back of your neck, yowling his jarring melancholia until your hair and soul stand on end. Part B-list horror film, part Aesop’s fairytale, Radiohead appears to implicate a lesson that is somehow either lost in translation or overshadowed by their sonorous extravagance. Even at its most minimal of arrangements, A Moon Shaped Pool retains a complex, almost troubling, intimacy at the cellular level that shines through its loudly arresting orchestral barrages. While Yorke’s vocal utterances, as breathlessly despondent and hysterical as ever, remain the most critical in Radiohead’s instrumental arsenal.
Words: Steven Ward
Radiohead have a string of show and festival dates kicking off May 20th including two Los Angeles dates at the Shrine Auditorium on August 4 and August 8.
A Moon Shaped Pool is out now via XL.