With the release of its ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead may finally have wriggled free once and for all from the expectation that it'll save modern music. That's likely fine with the band members, who never wore the mantle of rock gods lightly. We might not all agree, if we ever did, that it's the most important band in the world, but what A Moon Shaped Pool makes clear is that Radiohead has built, in its 30 years, an audience that will ponder its smallest gestures.
And so, after A Moon Shaped Pool arrived on Sunday night following a week of gentle teasing, NPR Music's staff gathered in our virtual town square (over Slack and email) to crow about its triumphs and — in at least one case — burn it to the ground.
Ann Powers: The first song that jumped out at me from the muddy lily pond that is A Moon Shaped Pool was "The Numbers." It's like an expansive blending of Neil Young's "Old Man" with Patti Smith's "People Have the Power" with some Eurodisco strings thrown in, and the most openly inspirational call to action on this album. I'm not the only listener to have identified a gospel feel in here; when Yorke gets almost melismatic on the phrase "The future is inside us," it's as close as he's ever come to channeling his inner Beyonce. Upon hearing it, I immediately wished for a mash-up with Queen Bey's Lemonade catharsis, "Freedom."
Yorke's grown increasingly more soulful as a vocalist over the course of Radiohead's career, though he still loves the flat affect that speaks for his inner android, even on "Desert Island Disk," this album's cautiously hopeful, post-breakup call for "different kinds of love." Yet it's obvious that in the five years since King of Limbs, the band has registered the rise of a new kind of soul music that as sonically experimental and emotionally unpredictable as its own twisted take on realness. Many are identifying A Moon Shaped Pool as more in line with the pastoral legacies of auteurs like John Martyn, but I'm also hearing Radiohead rise to the challenges put forth by Frank Ocean, who had fun sampling the band on his groundbreaking 2011 album Nostalgia, Ultra, or Janelle Monae's pal Roman GianArthur, who stirred up a brew of D'Angelo and Radiohead ingredients on last year's EP OK Lady. With its obvious acolytes like James Blake also showing a huge debt to the experimental side of soul, the band seems to be making sure that its hybrid sound acknowledges its roots in Afro-Futurism as well as on progressive rock's dark-sided moon.
Mike Katzif: For close followers, the tracklist for Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool includes so many familiar songs, including "Desert Island Disk," "Identikit" and "Burn The Witch." But the most surprising entry on the track list is "True Love Waits," a simple but stirring acoustic guitar live staple that's been a fan favorite for more than 20 years — since the days of The Bends and OK Computer. As the final track on this long-gestating and brilliant album, it was worth the wait, partly for how it offers a glimpse into Radiohead's mysterious creative process. In its new iteration, Radiohead reimagines it as a gorgeous and somber ballad, constructed from a minimalist four-note piano figure that poly-rhythmically cycles through the progression as if implying where the guitar strums used to be. Slowly, piano countermelodies, shimmering little sonics and ghostly strings begin to bloom in the corners of the mix while Yorke sings "Don't leave..." It's a stunning and moving final statement for an album that so masterfully blends politics and personal tragedy.
It's possible some may decry the new version of "True Love Waits" as unnecessary George Lucas-grade retconning of something they love already; maybe it's not the "real" version to them. That's okay: The earlier version is still lingering out there. To me, the ability to hear Radiohead retrofit an older song methodically over two decades actually makes the band feel refreshingly human.
Robin Hilton: Think of the greatest rock bands of all time. Legends like Led Zeppelin or The Beatles, or even The Velvet Underground and The Sex Pistols. Now think of how completely drained those bands were after maybe ten years or less of making music. It's a common progression for any artist — you simply run out of things to say or run out of new ways to say it, or in some cases the center can't hold, the band implodes and whatever creative magic held it together quickly evaporates in the ether. Listening to the new Radiohead album, it's easy to think there's no logical explanation for how a band 30 years deep into its career could continue to make music pulsing with this much life, that still delivers wave after wave of sonic adventure and leads the mind into kaleidoscopic worlds. But never underestimate the power of acute loss and grief to move twitchy hands to make great art.
Framed and colored largely by the dissolution of Thom Yorke's 23-year relationship with the artist Rachel Owen (they have two children together), A Moon Shaped Pool will go down as Radiohead's most emotional, most heartbreaking and most beautiful album in a well-stocked catalog of dark but gorgeous set pieces.
In some ways A Moon Shaped Pool is a lot like Beck's 2002 album Sea Change. Both are lushly produced, string-heavy albums built on mountains of deeply personal heartache. (Both were also produced by the visionary Nigel Godrich). Like Sea Change, A Moon Shaped Pool will also most likely polarize fans who either want the band to return to its early guitar-rock roots (Pablo Honey and The Bends) or prefer the more emotionally remote, dystopian mutterings of albums like OK Computer or Kid A. But also like Sea Change, A Moon Shaped Pool will ultimately be regarded as a triumph for a band that finds itself easing into quiet middle age, drawing from a well filled long ago with pennies, but no less inspired or cunning.
Lars Gotrich: I'll start at the end. "True Love Waits"! Everyone's favorite Radiohead rarity with a title confusing for '90s Christian teens forced to sit through an abstinence program of the same name. The Napster-traded live cut was just Thom and an acoustic guitar, getting all emo before it became a ubiquitous verb. Many feels, such singalong. Now it's just Thom and some middle-school piano noodling, sucking out every ounce of life, wrenching sadness from aimlessness.
And that's what much of A Moon Shaped Pool — killing me without the hyphen — feels like: alt-rock grumps too embarrassed to make rock music again, or electronic experimentalists too bored to jump into the dance music underground, and just settling for something between with loads of string schmaltz. Tracks like "Decks Dark" and "Present Tense" could have been on OK Computer if instead making us give a damn about technology and death and isolation, OK Computer lulled us to sleep. The quiet motorik rhythm on "Ful Stop" is promising, but by the time Phil Selway gets to make something of it, Yorke's already checked out, barely whimpering some diary scribblings, "Truth will mess you up." Later on, "The Numbers" throws some Tim Buckley-like folk and soul into the mix — a quality heard on "Desert Island Disk" — giving Radiohead's rhythm section their first real work in who knows how long, but never delivers on the climax Jonny Greenwood's funky strings are desperate to suggest will come.
Patrick Jarenwattananon: I haven't yet been able to put my finger on why I'm not as immediately moved by this record as previous Radiohead albums. Those of us who gathered in our friends' basements in high school to devour Hail To The Thief communally because here was finally something that was definitely Art, but also Popular, and Widely Agreeable, and Cutting-Edge, and Generally Crushing It To The Point Of Elation — we still held some hope that Radiohead could be that for us again. Heck, barring that we'd have accepted a song or two that would make us dance to the apocalypse with Thom Yorke.
"You really messed up everything," Yorke sings on "Ful Stop." Well, no, that's not my plaint. A Moon Shaped Pool is still an enveloping electroacoustic experience with characteristic attention to sonic detail. Yorke is still anxious about something or other; strangely, that's still comforting to know. And the heavy presence of strings feels not just gestural but iterative, like a conscious effort to wear a new wardrobe in order to signal a change in the concomitant presentation of self.
So all this record (and its predecessor, really) means is that Radiohead has just gone back to being an occasionally interesting band. Pretty much every tune has some or several elements, from the percussive opening of "Burn The Witch" to the drowning piano suffusion of "True Love Waits," which promises intrigue. But where does the simmer and heave boil over into a high-flying panic attack? Where's the harmonic or melodic development? The moments of frenzy and subsequent catharsis? What's left to distinguish this band from all the other polyphonic sprees who use both drum kits and drum machines? I'll keep listening, but I'm not sure I'll find the answers totally satisfying.
Jacob Ganz: I didn't buy it at first. As my wife said when I told her A Moon Shaped Pool was supposedly Thom Yorke's break-up album, "How would you know?" 2016-era Radiohead sounds as lost and forlorn as Radiohead from literally any other era, though perhaps not as angry as the time of "Fitter Happier," when the songs were a brittle bunch of street corner prophets that fit the Fight Club-era, seriously-sheeple-won't-you-pay-attention mold of the white man on the brink. (We are Jack's solemn warnings about the mindlessness of humanity.) You know, back when the band was stretching its panic attacks into seven-minute multi-part freak-outs that did flaming barrel rolls through the stratosphere rather than letting them fly low.
By contrast, the gleeful propulsion in the the opening notes of "Burn the Witch' reminded me of the first scenes of The Lego Movie, in which that movie's hero and all his little plastic friends smile when they're told to and get a genuine thrill from it. You can almost hear the sun shining and the grass growing, which makes the grinding discontent under the song's surface more, not less, perverse.
What ends up being great about A Moon Shaped Pool is what's great about all the other top-level Radiohead albums: There are so many different ways in. Ask me to pick a favorite song from The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac or In Rainbows, and I'd have half a dozen different answers for each, depending on the day. (Pablo Honey, Hail to the Thief and The King of Limbs have, sadly, been reduced to unsurprising singles in my memory.) I still don't love Thom Yorke's lyrics, but over the last two days of rather intense listening — our humble chat room standing in for the release-day dash from morning classes to the record store and back to my dorm room for a group listening session/debrief with which I greeted Kid A in 2000 — quite a few musical doors have opened in this album for me: the way the descending piano hook in "Decks Dark" becomes the song's swampy coda; the slowly-emerging guitar solo in "Identikit;" the massed vocals and strings in "The Numbers;" the pinched upper register Yorke hits in the still-crushing-after-all-these-years "True Love Waits," which makes me wonder how long the band has been sitting on that vocal take. These bits sound good on loud speakers, great on headphones; if history is any judge, they'll lead me deeper.
Tom Huizenga: You could always tell who wrote a song in the Lennon/McCartney partnership. It's less obvious with Radiohead. Yet the latest album appears to lean heavily on Jonny Greenwood's classical experience. Greenwood has long harbored strong taste for modern classical music. He was the one who, on Saturday Night Live in 2000, played the ondes martenot, an early electronic instrument associated with one of his idols, the French master Olivier Messiaen. The Radiohead guitarist is also a fan of Kryzsztof Penderecki, the Polish legend whose sonic innovations in string textures Greenwood emulates on the new album's opener, "Burn the Witch," and on his earlier orchestral piece, Popcorn Superhet Receiver.
In recent years, Greenwood has become visible as a film score composer (There Will be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice) and it appears his classical music sensibilities have infiltrated A Moon Shaped Pool more than usual. Nine out of the album's 11 songs make room for either the London Contemporary Orchestra or a 13-member female choir, or both. Strings are sometimes deployed for color and effects. Near the end of "Daydreaming," the glissandos and hiccupped rhythms mimic the backwards tape sounds heard earlier in the song. In "Glass Eyes," strings play a larger role, emerging seamlessly from the muted keyboard and electronic introduction, blooming into shifting pools of sound, nearly overtaking Thom Yorke's languid vocals. Even songs that do not sport the obvious classical trappings feel orchestrated. "Ful Stop" lays down a muted electro beat but as layers are added and interleave, the sound reaches a complex, and fascinating, canvas of sound and color.
Marissa Lorusso: Approaching A Moon Shaped Pool as a bona fide millennial means missing out on much of the real-time musical context of Radiohead's long, impressive career. So for those of us who were toddlers when OK Computer did whatever Gen X's version of metaphorically breaking the Internet is, Radiohead albums have come to represent something particular: It's all about the experience — some might say the spectacle — of the release.
With In Rainbows and The King Of Limbs, Radiohead made us talk not just about the music but the medium of delivery. The digital-first, pay-what-you-want approach of In Rainbows seemed both revolutionary and almost too obvious for those of us raised on a steady diet of pirated albums and Myspace mp3s. The band used a purposefully ephemeral medium to garner excitement for The King Of Limbs, an environmental manifesto-laden, creepy-yet-beautiful newspaper called The Universal Sigh, available for free around the world, anachronistic and disposable. This time around it used blank space — via its erasure of its Internet presence — to do the promotion. Clearing your past from the Internet, only to reemerge with something new for fans to consume: That's the creative, confounding, warping-technology-to-fit-its-needs side of Radiohead I know and love. Ok, so Radiohead's sonic boundary-pushing is debatable on A Moon Shaped Pool. I'm glad to see the band stayed characteristically weird in the spectacle of its release.
Stephen Thompson: Two years ago, Radiohead's Thom Yorke dropped a solo album called Tomorrow's Modern Boxes with no advance warning; it just showed up, available for free download, for everyone to hear all at once. It happened to show up a moment or two after I'd stepped out of the office to run an errand, and in the time I was gone, the social-media chatter went from, "Whoa, there's a new Thom Yorke record!" to "Meh, a new Thom Yorke record" to virtual radio silence. By the time I got back to my desk and learned of its existence, it felt as if it had already been digested and forgotten. That's the most dangerous downside to releasing albums with little to no notice: that, for every Lemonade that merits weeks of thinkpieces and obsessively analytical repeat listening, there are drab also-rans like Tomorrow's Modern Boxes, which are forgotten practically the instant they arrive.
A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead's first album since 2011's lightly regarded The King Of Limbs, deserves a better fate: It's a subtle, strange grower that often works in whispers, yet deepens with each successive pass. Yorke mines familiar thematic terrain on the new record, with its references to anxiety and panic, but there's an especially interior quality to the songs that makes them feel personal. This is understated but powerful headphone music, suitable for full immersion.
Anastasia Tsioulcas: I can't think about A Moon Shaped Pool without thinking about how Jonny Greenwood has evolved as a storyteller who, track to track, utilizes different timbres, instruments, harmonies and rhythms to amplify — or occasionally, provide something of a surprising counternarrative — to the songs' other elements.
In some instances, those textures illuminate and amplify the emotional arcs of the songs' melodies and lyrics. Think of the album's first track, "Burn The Witch": the brittle, rat-a-tat-tat chatter of the strings playing col legno — that is, with the wood of their bows, rather than with the hairs, which produces that very specific effect, one later joined, around the words "Abandon all reason/Avoid all eye contact," by fluttering trills that telegraph not a sweet Baroque placidity, but instead a nearly palpable anxiety.
At times, it's a super-saturated, nearly indulgent effect, as in "The Numbers" (previously referred to as "Silent Spring"). Cinematic strings arrive in formation to create impasto-thick lashes of sound that wouldn't have sounded out of place in the 1970s — with The Who, say, or Led Zeppelin. In "Tinker Tailer Soldier Sailor..." the strings drip like a honey glaze in a score that seems to derive its DNA partly from old Bollywood film scores and partly from the Sun Ra Arkestra; in "Glass Eyes," the strings go Debussy-at-the-movies in a ballad of alienation. (It's in "Glass Eyes," too, that I feel Greenwood's frequent side work as a film composer coming through most thoroughly — and most conventionally.)
But the sophistication of Radiohead's textures on this album aren't limited to classical instrumentation — similar impulses also underpin many, many of A Moon Shaped Pool's studio-produced sounds, like the warping, woozy and thoroughly manipulated vocals on "Daydreaming" and swirling in the panicky undercurrents of "Ful Stop."
Otis Hart: Prior to "Burn The Witch" appearing online last week, Radiohead's last official output was Jamie xx's remix of "Bloom." The track was the final 12" record in a remix series for The King Of Limbs that asked electronic dance producers to position the longtime arbiters of acceptable eccentricity at the forefront of the underground's vanguard. The roster looked like one of Thom Yorke's much ballyhooed DJ sets, full of FACT-tipped emerging talent like Objekt and Anstam, but anchored by indie stalwarts Four Tet, Caribou and the aforementioned Mr. xx. The results bore another similarity to Yorke's solo Serato gigs: this was dance music in theory only. The actual intent (it appeared at the time) was to let this younger generation of creative minds go crazy with the stems and perhaps stumble upon potential new directions for a band that long ago staked its reputation on sonic innovation.
The kids were all right — TKOL RMX 1234567 is arguably the equal of its source material — but it's clear after listening to A Moon Shaped Pool that Radiohead opted to age gracefully. If Yorke, Jonny Greenwood and producer Nigel Godrich took inspiration from any single contemporary electronic artist, it's the medium's elder statesman, Brian Eno. None of Pool's 11 songs hinge on overtly electronic rhythms like Limbs' "Lotus Flower," let alone its remixes. The synths and drum machines that do make an appearance merely color the silence, providing connective tissue between Yorke's subdued voice and all manners of stringed instruments. We may yet see a remix project of A Moon Shaped Pool, but for now, its electronic production is a subtle success on an album surprisingly full of them.
Ann Powers: Here's the dream I had after falling asleep to A Moon Shaped Pool: I was in a Western desert canyon, perched on a cliff protrusion not far above a river raging with foam. In the water, my companion (he looked a lot like Bucky, the Winter Soldier from the Avengers, my Mothers' Day consumer treat) struggled to pry something from the hands of a shadowy pursuer. I leapt into the water and we swam against the stream. I thought we'd broken free. But we got caught in a circular current; suddenly I remembered what a weak swimmer I am. Our enemy was on our soggy heels. We weren't going to make it, I knew. And yet — all that absorbed me was the glint of light on the water, the soft reds in the rock above us, the streak of a cloud across the pale blue sky. This was one of the most peaceful anxiety dreams I've ever had, a surfacing from the pitching fear of annihilation, into grace.
Radiohead has been refining an aesthetics of anxiety since Thom Yorke first displayed his many nervous tics on MTV with "Creep." Nearly every already-published review of A Moon Shaped Pool dwells on the album's balance of beauty and dread: In songs like the impressionistic, Brian Eno-esque "Glass Eyes" and the bossa nova-tinged "Present Tense," band connects these two supposedly conflicting elements with more ease than ever before. Radiohead's allure has always been connected to its focus on the rapturous aspect of apocalypse (whether personal, as in mental breakdown, or global, expressing specific views of impending ecological doom). This is the band's great moral dilemma: Is it participating in the rise of formally exquisite end-times depictions — from The Walking Dead to the glut of dystopian teen-fantasy franchises — that may be not merely helping people cope with anxiety but accept it even when it signals larger issues against which we should act?
A Moon Shaped Pool, one of Radiohead's most accessible and indeed beautiful works, could be heard as this kind of vehicle for complacency, or at least acceptance. Yet there's another way of understanding anxiety — not via depictions of jarring panic attacks, as band's last album, The King of Limbs, offered on tracks like "Feral" — but in capturing the individual give and take of coping, of feeling the preciousness of the world fully interconnected with its fragility, of knowing the truth that love arises inseparable from the knowledge that it can be — will be, eventually, mortally — lost. Longtime Radiohead fans have found this more subtle exploration of anxiety within the band's music for a while. I think A Moon Shaped Pool reckons with it fully. That may make it a "mature" work, or for some, one that is not wide-ranging enough. But it takes me to the place where my dreams challenge me most — where I have to live, for better or worse — and helps me abide there.