By Robert Masiello
On May 1, Radiohead gradually erased their online presence. For any other band, this probably would have been seen as a hackneyed attempt to generate buzz. But disappearance has always been Radiohead’s favorite trick. Live performances are known to end with the band exiting stage one by one. Songs with titles such as “How to Disappear Completely” and “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” are longtime fan favorites. So Radiohead’s Internet blackout wasn’t some desperate attempt at pseudo-profundity; it was their way of letting fans know that new music was imminent.
And sure enough, the band shortly thereafter dropped their ninth studio album, “A Moon Shaped Pool.” Undoubtedly, the album is among Radiohead’s finest achievements. It contains some of the most conventionally beautiful and melodic music they’ve ever released, while still offering the kind of genre-bending experimentation Radiohead is known for. It’s a gentler, more focused album than 2011’s “The King of Limbs” and less overtly electronic than what we’ve come to expect from them.
“Burn the Witch” was the first track released from “A Moon Shaped Pool,” and, like many of the songs on this album, it has existed on their live set list for quite some time. It’s a skittish, anxious thing, with piercing strings and ominous lyrics that read like a disaster plan. As a band, Radiohead has always sounded decidedly futuristic, one step ahead of everyone else both sonically and politically. But “Burn the Witch” is immediate and anguished. The song isn’t a warning; it’s a reflection of our present state.
It’s worth mentioning that the tracks on “A Moon Shaped Pool” are sequenced alphabetically. As such, the frantic “Burn the Witch” segues somewhat unexpectedly into the languid, sublime “Daydreaming.” It’s a disarmingly personal song that seems to reflect on Yorke’s separation from longtime partner Rachel Owen. The piano swells and simmers, never lapsing into ambient wallpaper, but never quite climaxing either. Yorke’s warped, backwards vocals swallow the song during the coda, lamenting “half of my life… half of my life…” (a possible reference to his 23-year relationship). It’s exquisite and shattering.
Most of “A Moon Shaped Pool” continues with this plaintive, hypnotic mood. But it’s easy to get lost in the album’s beauty and lose sight of the cryptic lyrics and queasy atmospherics. The middle-third in particular spirals into a sort of paranoid nausea, with references such as “a spacecraft blocking out the sky,” and, “a wreck of mankind.” Like all the best works of art, this album makes the intimate feel universal, and vice-versa. When Yorke sings, “I am doing no harm as my world comes crashing down,” it feels both political and personal.
Despite being renowned for their forward thinking and experimentation, Radiohead have always been at their most breathtaking when they go right for the gut. This holds true on this album. “Glass Eyes” picks up where “Daydreaming” left off, a devastating lullaby that begs for connectedness and love in a world of “concrete grey faces.” The production is transcendent, sounding almost as if the piano were recorded underwater, both muted and visceral.
For an album so consistently magnificent, Radiohead somehow managed to leave the most memorable moment for the end. Closer “True Love Waits” was first performed live about 20 years ago, and has remained a favorite of fans since then. Despite its universal love and acclaim, the band never gave it a proper studio recording, with Yorke stating they couldn’t get it quite right. Finally, it rests at the conclusion of “A Moon Shaped Pool,” having transitioned from an acoustic guitar strummer to a divine piano ballad. “Just don’t leave,” Yorke pleads, his voice sitting at the top of the mix, stark and creaking. It’s an overwhelmingly beautiful portrait of anxiety, describing how desperately we attempt to cling to moments of joy and love. Considering its long gestation, it’s arguably the crowning moment of Radiohead’s career, and closes out what may be the most affecting album you hear all year.