Nine studio albums are a lot to be proud of, especially when you’re a band with such a cult following like Radiohead. Wiping their website and social media accounts clean, everyone took to the internet to declare that a new Radiohead album was imminent, which is something no one would say about any other artist. If Beyonce did that, we wouldn’t have expected Lemonade, we’d all freak out, worried about if Beyonce was okay. Apparently we didn’t take a wiped internet presence to mean Thom Yorke was having a mental breakdown however, it meant an album was on its way, and it was, as the single “Burn the Witch” was released not too long after.
Being a fan of The Bends, OK Computer, and even Kid A, I feel like Amnesiac & Hail to the Thief were just attempts to recreate the innovation of Kid A, which they realized had to evolve again, producing the fantastic In Rainbows. I even enjoyed The King of Limbs a lot, with “Lotus Flower” being one of my favorite Radiohead songs. Even though The Bends and OK Computer remain my favorites, with “Planet Telex” always my favorite Radiohead song of all time, the transformed Kid A, In Rainbows, and now A Moon Shaped Pool show that Radiohead still have a lot to give as well. Always critically acclaimed, pretty much no matter what, A Moon Shaped Pool has received some of the most highly praised reviews from a Radiohead album yet, even one of the most praised albums of the year.
Interpreted as a song against “groupthink,” a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome, “Burn the Witch” was of course the first Moon Shaped Pool track to surface the internet after the network wipe. I can read a lot into this record, like the anti-groupthink interpretation above, and I will below, but every Radiohead record still has me thinking: “Is Thom Yorke really this deep or am I reading too far into it and he’s just doing his babbling epileptic dance thing for an hour?” Either way, I can read into this record a lot, and crazy or not, this record says a great deal, and is emotionally very heavy.
Beginning unlike any other Radiohead album yet, “Burn the Witch” incorporates not just The London Contemporary Orchestra, but an audibly different type of synth bass as well. The vocals are also processed a little differently and more reverberant, as opposed to the near dry vocal sound Yorke usually tends to go for. Following the dystopian message that “Burn the Witch” gives off, the second track, “Daydreaming,” is about escaping and hiding from it all. “They never learn / beyond the point of no return / and it’s too late / the damage is done,” he dark and hauntingly croons. “We are just happy to serve,” he comments as well, harking back to tracks like “Paranoid Android” or “Karma Police” from OK Computer. The alien trope continues on “Deck’s Dark,” comparing an encounter with the unknown with an “are we trapped? Rag doll cloth people?” questioning, that also hints at the problems he’s reckoning with coming from a failed relationship as well.
If In Rainbows was about exploring the full color spectrum of emotions, A Moon Shaped Pool seems to explore the opposite; the blankness or absence of color and emotions. “Whiteness” or “erasure” is also a theme that permeates throughout the entire record, as it was also their campaign for the record’s release having wiped out their entire internet presence. The rest of the record follows the same kind of theme, as Thom Yorke explores his breakup and how empty it, and what’s happening in our society, makes him feel. His anxiety and alienation takes the most weight on him than it has from any Radiohead record and his fear of this pushes him towards escape.
Ending the album is a new favorite of mine, “True Love Waits,” which was recorded during the Kid A sessions but never saw a studio version until now. It definitely makes sense, as the piano sounds the same as it did on “Everything In Its Right Place,” as well as having a more light-hearted message then the rest of the dark and haunting A Moon Shaped Pool. “We tried to record it countless times, but it never worked,” said producer Nigel Godrich. “To [songwriter Thom Yorke’s] credit, he needs to feel a song has validation, that it has a reason to exist as a recording. We could do ‘True Love Waits’ and make it sound like John Mayer. Nobody wants to do that.” Here on A Moon Shaped Pool, it’s a fitting epilogue, where his fear of society and heartbreak turn into a longing to return, and to find love again.
While I don’t think A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead’s best, I do think its message and narrative make up for some of the moments that seem similar, like the record as one long song. Like Anthony Fantano of TheNeedleDrop said, this is not an album to put on at a party, but instead for “midnight listens, introspective moments, and the times in your life where you’re having your soul crushed because your greatest fears have come true. It’s easy on the ears but very heavy on the heart.”