When mourning the loss of a relationship (whether by death or by conflict), people often find themselves looking backwards first. They comb through the experiences of that relationship and find moments that seemed pedestrian at the time, but now take on a new weight and significance in light of the end of the relationship. An off-the-cuff turn of phrase, a passing glance, a subtle smile or the weather on a memorable day. After plumbing these depths of history we can begin to look ahead and grapple with the future (with all its fears and hopes). With their 9th album, Thom Yorke and his bandmates in Radiohead have delivered an album that seems to encapsulate this ritual of pressing into loss and letting it affect you before turning to what’s next.
It’s been 5 years since we last had an LP from Radiohead. After their triumphal release of their 7th LP In Rainbows, the band returned 4 years later with their 8th – The King of Limbs. After the rock and roll of Rainbows, TKOL was a marked downshift. It was a sleepy, somewhat detached collection of songs that just wasn’t as compelling in comparison to the rest of their recent work. At the time of release, I speculated that the album may be a grower and more suited for autumn than the actual February 2011 release date. Or maybe I’m too seasonal in my listening. In any case, LP8 didn’t have the staying power of most Radiohead albums.
So after touring in 2012, the band took their now-traditional hiatus while sporadically putting in work on LP9 here and there. They had played some newer songs on the tour that many expected would become part of a new album down the road. But mostly, band members did their own things. Thom Yorke worked on some solo material that became Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. He also participated in a supergroup of sorts with producer Nigel Goodrich and Flea called Atoms for Peace and released an album called Amok. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood, meanwhile, created the soundtracks to a number of films, honing his arrangement craft with strings and choirs. Even drummer Phil Selway put out a solo album during this time (Weatherhouse).
Last August, Yorke announced that he was separating from partner Rachel Owen. They pair had been together for 23 years and has two children together. It was reported that the separation was amicable and they valued their years together as people and artists.
Against the backdrop of these last 5 years arrives LP9 – A Moon Shaped Pool.
Radiohead always manages to create fast-moving buzz for their albums in creative ways. This time around, they began by completely removing their internet presence. Their Twitter account went blank, their Instagram went blank and their website slowly faded away as users furiously refreshed. After a few days, they were back with cryptic teasers which led up to the release of a music video for a new single: Burn the Witch.
It’s a great lead single that telegraphs some of the texture to expect on the new album. It’s also not a brand new song, but one that has allegedly been around since the Kid A era. Indeed, the title appears on the cover art for 2003’s Hail to the Thief. Yorke teased the song a few times over the years as well, but the song was never given any public exposure. Here it appears fully formed, driven by a pensive and percussive string section throughout. Greenwood’s soundtrack efforts and influences are evident as it evokes Bernard Herrmann’s skin-crawling work on Hitchcock’s Psycho. The video helps place the lyrics into the context of the ability of some leaders to influence their constituents to support horrific injustice. Very much on point for Yorke and company.
A few days later, they dropped yet another song and video, this one entitled Daydreaming.
I like Burn the Witch, but I love Daydreaming. This song lies clear across the spectrum from Burn the Witch and finds Yorke at his paranoid best. With the video came the announcement of the new LP and also introduced some of the central core of the album: heartbreak. Yorke warbles “Dreamers, they never learn” over pensive piano and finishes the song with a reversed vocal line that seems to work out to “half of my life”. Attempting to crack the code a bit, Yorke is 47 years old and his relationship with Owen lasted 23 of those years. Amicable separation or not, A Moon Shaped Pool is, at least in part, a breakup album. Now that the full LP has dropped, we are free to dig deeper. And it’s a long way down.
Opening with the first two singles in respective order, the album continues on to visit other sites within the charred landscape of emotional and psychological trauma. Through it all, Yorke evokes images of darkness, rain, isolation and frustration. As the video for Daydreaming depicts, Yorke is moving through room after room and finding no place where he is comfortable staying until the end. And that comfortable place is a dark cave with a small fire burning as he closes his eyes. The video was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker who has collaborated with Johnny Greenwood on a number of films including the Oscar-nominated There Will Be Blood.
That film score sound is all over this album as Greenwood injects his influence in all the right places. As someone who adores the song Nude from In Rainbows because of the lush strings and pastoral beauty, this element of orchestration makes me incredibly happy. The album also distinguishes itself from recent Radiohead albums by featuring lots of organic, acoustic instrumentation. Acoustic guitar is heavily featured on a couple of songs in particular and Yorke often favors somber piano arpeggios in his music.
Highlights on the album include Ful Stop, which does little to veil the jilted lover motif – opening with the line “You really messed up everything”. This song has been featured live for a few years since 2012 and has become a fan favorite.
The midpoint of the album is Glass Eyes, a confessional song that’s something of a distant cousin to Adel’s 2016 hit Hello, beginning with “Hey, it’s me. I just got off the train” and meandering to “I feel this love turn cold”.
Identikit is another 2012 tour song brought to studio-life. Yorke painfully sings, “Did I see you messing around? I don’t want to know.” This song is also noteworthy for including an honest-t0-goodness guitar solo from Jonny Greenwood. It seriously feels like years since we’ve had that!
By the time The Numbers rolls around, it feels like something brand new. A folksy and almost bluesy tune that will remind listeners of Led Zeppelin or Neil Young. Lyrically, this song takes a break from grieving a relationship and focuses on expressing anger over society’s failure to do more to combat climate change. Yorke is a noted activist for peace and this song shows that his activism extends to climate change as well.
Finally, the album concludes in a wonderful way: a studio version of True Love Waits, a song that dates all that way back to 1995! It’s been played live frequently over the years and even appeared on a live EP in 2001. As a crowd favorite, the band has often been asked when a proper studio recording would be released. In fact, around the time of that live EP, the band did attempt a studio recording, but it was eventually scrapped for some reason. In 2012, producer Nigel Goodrich spoke up about the song in an interview, saying,
“To Thom’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.”
We can infer, then, that Yorke has validated the 20-year-old song and given it a reason to exist as a recording. A Moon Shaped Pool contains many old songs that have been given validation and a reason to exist now where they may not have been imbued with that quality to begin with. I see Yorke looking back over his songwriting from the past 23 years and reading new meanings into the words. Where True Love Waits kicked around for a long time, it finds ultimate fulfillment now in 2016 in light of Yorke’s station in life. The deep melancholy that hovers over the piano is so much more arresting today that it was in 2001’s live version. The song has been gutted, dissected and reanimated into this beautiful thing. It’s a perfect close to a beautiful and sad collection of songs. Radiohead has always been a patient band, taking their sweet time creating their albums and waiting for the perfect moment to complete the vision of a single song.
A Moon Shaped Pool is a complex album. It’s not just that the layers of musical experimentation as many and varied, it’s that it examines the complexity of human emotions and doesn’t shy away from the fearful places. It presents a protagonist who often holds the world at arms length, paranoid about and confused by most societal constructs, but who is devastated by lost love just like all of us. Beneath all the glitchy beats and cryptic linguistics, we find gentle strings and voices crying for comfort saying “Just don’t leave. Don’t leave.” True love waits. True love hangs on through the storms. When it doesn’t, we realize it wasn’t true love at all. And that is what’s truly heartbreaking. That’s what causes us to reexamine everything. Where does Yorke land in all this? Perhaps in the closing lines of Desert Island Disk: “You know what I mean. Different types of love … are possible.”
Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.
[Jesus said to them], and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.