Radiohead is a band obsessed with reinvention. There are few groups in the history of recorded music that have released back-to-back albums as different as OK Computer and Kid A, and often drastic changes in sound are a result of desperation rather than inspiration. A Moon Shaped Pool luckily stands in a place similar to In Rainbows, a cumulative review of the sounds various band members have come to master in their years off. Jonny Greenwood has spent the better part of the new millennium composing film scores. He brings his accomplished string arrangements to the forefront of album opener “Burn the Witch,” and few songs go by without a touch of emotion courtesy of the newly prominent string department. Likewise the band’s rhythm section, all too often overlooked when discussing the high levels of musicianship present in Radiohead, lays down simplistic beats whose complexity lies in their ability to work alongside Greenwood’s thick strings and Thom Yorke’s vocals that hang over the album.
Second single, “Daydreaming,” brings back Thom Yorke’s idiosyncratic reverse-singing to even greater effect than he had previously achieved on “Like Spinning Plates” off of Amnesiac. The opening side of A Moon Shaped Pool should conquer most listeners’ fears of a return to the electronic, beat driven realm of The King of Limbs, an album much better than most would have you believe, but one that Radiohead should feel free to move on from. “Decks Dark” is a song whose inclusion should excite fans of Radiohead’s elusive live-only songs, as until now it existed only on grainy YouTube videos. This new album finds the band reaching to the past more than before, a strategy that pays off early.
The first three tracks are the album’s highlights, but there are moments of sustained greatness throughout the rest of the album as well. “Ful Stop” is A Moon Shaped Pool’s heaviest song, and the one likely to be a favorite of Radiohead fans who miss the Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows era. “Indentikit” is another mid-album track that draws attention to itself thanks to the aforementioned efforts of the rhythm section. “True Love Waits” is sure to be A Moon Shaped Pool’s most controversial track, as it’s another live favorite, but distinct in that a version of it exists on the live compilation I Might Be Wrong. This new version is a drastic change, replacing sleepy guitar chords for echoing pianos. “True Love Waits” also showcases Thom Yorke’s impressive voice, which has somehow improved in the time since the song was recorded live. The song also shows that a band can progress while looking backwards into its own mythos. A rare track for diehard fans can become the crux of a new album. Old lyrics can find new meaning when supported by different arrangements.
Lyrically speaking, A Moon Shaped Pool finds Radiohead in a political place. The music video for “Burn the Witch” makes obvious that song’s connection to The Wicker Man and xenophobia. The songs being ordered alphabetically has to be mentioned as well. Whatever it means, though, is unknown, but it should be kept in mind that Radiohead seems to do nothing by accident. A Moon Shaped Pool has no bad moments either, perhaps a few songs lean on the dull side for this band, but at least half of the album’s tracks find Radiohead at the top of their game; a ratio that lines up with the rest of their best albums. Overall this new album ranks somewhere in the middle of an impressive catalogue. Radiohead have earned themselves another five years off for the next reinvention.
Bonus: The Immortal Iron List of Radiohead Albums
1. In Rainbows
2. Kid A
3. OK Computer
5. A Moon Shaped Pool
6. The Bends
7. The King of Limbs
8. Hail to the Thief
9. Pablo Honey