Radiohead has a long history of artistic profundity, and in their thirty-some year existence, their staying power is only a testament to their continued lyrical and creative solidity. With A Moon Shaped Pool, it was hard for fans to know what to expect — the band’s illustrious discography has commented on arguably every major aspect of life and society one could imagine. But in their ninth release thus far, Radiohead exchanges continued social commentary for material only telling of their everlasting ability to work both listener’s minds and ears. Contained within A Moon Shaped Pool is a kind of wisdom that can only be afforded to a band whose content and thoughts have garnered continued relevancy decades after its release, providing listeners with an exploration of their emotions, thoughts and ideals. The band has always flirted with experimentation, but in Pool, Radiohead brings a change of content that serves as the perfect homage both to the kind of material they’ve put out and the reputation it has cemented for them. It’s an enlightening level of maturity from a band already lauded for its astute body of work.
Much of Pool’s material has either been leaked in some form or teased by the band at various concerts over the past two decades. In the album’s opener, “Burn the Witch,” the band crafts a timeless, but pointed, political message, using the imagery of a lynch mob to frame the song’s message as a critique of the devolvement of Western society’s social discourse. Though recordings of the song have floated around for a little over a decade now, the song is as apt with today’s controversies over transgender bathroom use and institutionalized xenophobia as it is with the kind social issues that plagued society at the cusp of the new millennium. The string arrangements and subtle use of electronica (a contrast from Radiohead’s last few releases) bring to life the kind of melancholy engendered by those very social issues before descending into sounds of feral anger, illustrative of the state of the modern West’s political scene.
If Radiohead’s last few releases have been outward critiques of the various ill components of society, Pool is an exploration of the emotions and feelings tied to those components. Rather than continuing to criticize from the stands, the band has taken the opportunity to introspect on their longstanding thoughts and feelings, exchanging lyrics with linear meaning for layered instrumentation that expresses their emotions better than any words could. Expansive and diverse in content, the album permeates with a divergent sound. “Ful Stop” and its vengeful synth descend into a palpable madness, juxtaposed with Thom Yorke’s signature moans and the band’s token interlacing guitar rhythms; “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief,” in all its reverberating glory, straddles the line between acoustic and electronic sound, creating a rich sound bursting with wry feelings of dread and sadness. The instruments throb, the lyrics wail and the listener unwittingly embraces sounds wrought with deep-seated emotion.
Closing the album is a much storied (and sought after) piece by Radiohead — crude concert recordings of “True Love Waits” have been floating around the internet for around two decades now, and the lack of an official studio release (bar its appearance on their 2001 live album I Might Be Wrong) was met with the constant chagrin of Radiohead’s most loyal patrons (and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t among those complaining). The album’s version is bare-boned and raw, with nothing but a piano backing Yorke’s croons. “I’m not living, I’m just killing time,” Yorke sings in a rather personal and transparent display of his psyche. Though the rich guitar and emotional depth in Yorke’s singing on past versions are still sorely missed relative to Pool’s spin on the track, the revealing humanity of “True Love Waits” is still a welcome addition to the barrage of emotional fervor contained within A Moon Shaped Pool.
While Radiohead’s discography has a set of established fan favorites (ask a few Radiohead fans what their favorite songs are and you’ll probably find an amusing pattern), few underpin the band’s thematic approach as much as OK Computer’s “The Tourist.” Though its importance doesn’t really lie in its relative musical excellence (with plenty of other masterful songs it has to rub shoulders against on OK Computer alone), it’s a song emblematic of a philosophy that’s remained a constant in Radiohead’s work. With Jonny Greenwood’s shoegazey guitar anchoring the song and Yorke crooning lyrics like “Hey man, slow down, slow down / Idiot, slow down,” the song begs people to take a step back and savor what’s around them. Considering that, to judge a Radiohead record so closely after its release is a fairly futile task. With their penchant for layered lyrics and imagery that takes even the keenest of fans months (or even years) to fully comprehend, drawing an immediate appraisal out of thin air for a band like Radiohead, especially in today’s world of throw-away consumption, is a big ask. Even in my pre-adolescent years, listening to In Rainbows thirty-some times in a row (while also wallowing in my budding angst) was the only way I could draw a conclusion as to what made the album so great. Considering that A Moon Shaped Pool is effectively the band’s most pointed, thoughtful and mature work to date, enjoying it like any other mainstream record out today would be doing both the band and its album a disservice. In their effort to erase themselves from the internet and tease the album’s release with a more orchestral single than what fans are used to, Radiohead harkens back to simpler days, separating any potential distractions from their work and boiling down their art to a rather bare, humble form — the strongest echo of the band’s undying credo to date. With its lyrical focus and messages of social and emotional consciousness, what’s the use of A Moon Shaped Pool if we can’t slow down a bit and embrace it for what it’s for?