2016 continues to be the year of the surprise albums. Honestly, releasing albums with few hints is no longer shocking because it has become “the thing to do.” Still, when big names come out of nowhere and do the aforementioned, the element of surprise is still very much “alive and kicking.” That said did anyone expect for Radiohead to drop A Moon Shaped Pool, the band’s first album since 2011? No, of course not. Listening to Radiohead’s latest, the surprise is further amplified thanks to the elite quality of the album.
“Burn the Witch” initiates A Moon Shaped Pool in enigmatic fashion. Typical of Radiohead, “Burn the Witch” coaxes the mind out of its box, taking the listener on a dramatic, clever auditory experience. Thom Yorke’s vocals are terrific as always – never forced and poised, yet pack a punch nonetheless. The strings definitely steal the show.
“Daydreaming” keeps mysteriousness afloat, for the better of course. Despite being an ambitious six and a half minutes, as Radiohead fans have come to expect over their lengthy career, the length is well worth it. Vocally, Yorke nails tenderness here, delivering a gorgeous performance. The beauty is contrasted at the end by the coarse nature of the low strings, a thoughtful orchestration touch.
“Decks Dark” fuses balladry and intensity magnificently. Much like the opening duo, poise remains Yorke’s M.O., yet there’s still a robustness and grandiose nature about his performance. One of the best lyrical moments comes by way of the chorus: “And in your life, there comes a darkness / there’s a spacecraft blocking out the sky / and there’s nowhere to hide.” Yorke isn’t being literal, but metaphorically, he makes a prudent assertion.
“Desert Island Disk” relies on its consistently reiterated groove. Unlike the three songs that precede it, “Desert Island Disk” is more guitar-driven sans strings, pianistic work, or other instrumental cues. Even though it’s less adventurous in regards to orchestration, “Desert Island Disk” remains intriguing. “Ful Stop” is more enthralling, definitely arming the listener with six minutes of sheer grandeur. Energetic, “Ful Stop” gradually builds up the intensity, thanks to its rhythmic groove and thoughtful palette of sounds.
After the adrenaline rush of “Ful Stop,” the brief “Glass Eyes” pulls things back once more, in addition to further incorporating enigma and indulgence. The return of strings amplifies the personal sentiment of Yorke’s performance (“Hey it’s me / I just got off the train / a frightening place / their faces are concrete grey / and I’m wondering, should I turn around”).
“Identikit” revives the rhythm and yields some of Yorke’s clearest vocals over the course of A Moon Shaped Pool. “Identikit” speaks to the flawed nature of humankind and disappointing people because of such poor qualities. “Piece of a ragdoll mankind / that you can’t create,” York sings, later adding, “When all I see you messing me around / I don’t want to know.”
“The Numbers” is hypnotic, thanks to its simple, vamped chord progression, phrasing, and a surprising funky-folk vibe – is there such a thing? Making multiple references to the environment, notably “The river running dry / the wings of a butterfly / and you may pour us away like soup,” “The Numbers” seems to be a “call to action” towards climate change, a divisive issue politically.
“Present Tense” sounds like a Bossa Nova/Samba song – at least rhythmically. This is unexpected, which further boosts the creativity and awesomeness. “Present Tense” doesn’t best the elite on an album filled with juggernauts, but it’s by no means a slouch.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” is a “trip.” Call the song named after a nursery rhyme both confounding and brilliant. The first time one hears “Tinker Tailor” it will stand out, but analysis only makes it riper and more beloved. It seems as if “Tinker Tailor,” like “The Numbers” is about protecting the environment (“The ones you light your fires to keep away / is crawling out upon, expelling”). A Moon Shaped Pool concludes radiantly with ballad “True Love Waits.”
In closing, the question in regards to Radiohead’s latest album isn’t whether it’s good or not but rather just how good is it? Clearly, A Moon Shaped Pool is one of the best albums of 2016. There’s clearly an argument that this is THE album to beat. Its crème de la crème status should surprise no one – Radiohead have a habit of making sensational albums.
Favorites: “Burn the Witch,” “Daydreaming,” “Ful Stop,” “The Numbers” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief”
Radiohead • A Moon Shaped Pool • XL Recordings • Release Date: 5.9.16