There’s nothing quite like the release of a Radiohead album. Music publications across the globe stop what they were doing and pointless “first listen” reviews appear online within hours. When has any Radiohead album properly revealed itself with one listen? (Pablo Honey doesn’t really count). This has especially been the case since they pretty much invented the surprise album release with In Rainbows in 2007. Back then we were given 10 days’ notice of its release. The King of Limbs followed in similar fashion in 2011. Five years later with a measly 2 days’ notice, Radiohead revealed their long awaited ninth album. A Moon Shaped Pool was unleashed on the world with no prior indication of the album title or track list.
Many have long speculated what route the band would chose to go down with LP9. Would it be a return to their rock roots? A continuation of the slightly stale sound of TKOL? A leftfield electronic experiment that pushes the boundaries of what could be defined as music? Turns out it was none of the above. A Moon Shaped Pool is mostly a downtempo, dark and textured work with little in the way of electric guitars or glitchy electronics. The focus is mostly on Thom’s piano and crucially Jonny’s string arrangements which are way more prominent than on any previous release. Where there was once squealing guitars there are now gorgeous strings and consequently AMSP may well be the most beautiful collection of songs the band have ever put to tape.
Opener “Burn the Witch” is unlike anything Radiohead have done previously. The track is driven by chirpy violins and a bassy electronic drone making for an unsettling but darkly brilliant introduction to the album. “Daydreaming” sounds much more familiar. A simple, gentle piano melody becomes shrouded in sparkling electronics and strings all accompanied by Thom Yorke’s voice which has rarely sounded this good. The eerie electronic “Ful Stop” creeps along slowly before building to an almost danceable climax where Yorke repeats: “Truth will mess you up/All the good time”. This is certainly a song you can imagine being kicked up a notch when played live and Yorke’s trademark head wobble going into overdrive.
As is the Radiohead way, several songs on the album have already appeared on the band’s setlists. In fact a recent Pitchfork article entitled “19 Unreleased Radiohead Songs That Could Be on Their Next Album” contained 6 of the tracks on AMSP. One such song was the magnificent “Identikit”, complete with a rather angular guitar solo. Yorke repeats the line “Broken hearts make it rain,” and it would be tempting to link this to the recent dissolution of his long term relationship with the mother of his children, had the song not dated back to 2012. “The Numbers”, a call to arms against climate change, which had previously been played live under the name “Silent Spring” is another standout. Guitars, piano, bass and drums all manoeuvre for position, seemingly competing against one another while the strings bubble under the surface before breaking free for a beautiful finale. While Yorke reminds us: “We are of the Earth/To her we do return/The future is inside us/It’s not somewhere else”.
As mentioned earlier it’s no surprise for Radiohead to pluck unreleased songs from their past for inclusion on albums but the presence of “True Love Waits” on AMSP raised some eyebrows. Initially written in 1994 and usually performed by Thom as a solo acoustic version, it had never been given the proper studio treatment. It was rumoured for inclusion on early albums up until it appeared on the 2001 live album I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings which felt like the band closing the door on the song. Since then it seemed a studio version would never be recorded. But now it has, and the result is one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs in recent memory. Reworked as a twinkling piano version “True Love Waits” is the crowning glory on another brilliant Radiohead album. If this is the bands final album (a recent tweet from Colin Greenwood suggested it might be) then Thom Yorke begging “Just don’t leave” as the song begins to fade out is the perfect farewell.
Release date: 8 May 2016
Rumoured to be the band's last LP, A Heart Shaped Pool sees Radiohead in formidable form. Their last masterpiece?