Recorded at the historic La Fabrique Studios (a 19th century mill that once produced artistic pigment but is used today by musical icons such Nick Cave and Morrissey), Radiohead’s 9th studio album is full of New Wave funky bass lines, techno beats, classical strings, acid jazz, and blues riffs as gritty as the Delta silt. It’s the band at their most patient, meditative, and tripped out.
From the opening track of A Moon Shaped Pool, the percussive effect of “Burn the Witch” wails, pumps, escalates and crashes into the strings. As Yorke warns of “low flying panic attacks” the drum machine produces marching footsteps and the orchestration mimics the humming of drones. 3:41 into this record and the listener has already been abducted into an altered state of highly cerebral and well justified political anxiety.
In “Daydreaming” the piano notes are barely breathing, yet the song has an ambient momentum that keeps the pace interesting and spontaneous. This track is so atmospheric and stoned that the band achieves that feeling of being suddenly awoken from a deep sleep and thrust into the violent shock of lucidity. Yorke’s announcement that “it’s too late, the damage is done” seems sad but nonthreatening. While other voices emerge sympathetically in the form of cylindrical keyboards and cellos, they zip in and out like pollinating bees- their whipping, whizzing, buzzing sounds gliding creepily into the sensation of revved up stock cars and battery operated police sirens. As Yorke taunts himself with the probability of an eternal return, it is clear that this is one of the band’s most adventurous and cinematic undertakings to date.
With the cellos tuned so low that they create a growling sound, “Deck’s Dark” and “Desert Island Disk” distort our sense of time and space even more. The synthesizers morph into slobbering muffler sounds, and the strings intentionally obscure the more percussive elements. As Yorke quietly twists and turns around these notes of dreary resignation, he croons without subtext that “spacecrafts are blacking out the sky” and “there is no where to hide.” Ominous yet devoid of concern, apathy has proven to be the most powerful form of resistance and the band is no longer interested in protesting without it. These may be “our darkest hours” but what has the light done for us lately?
“Glass Eyes” pays homage to The Bends but without any self indulgence and contrived alienation. Yorke’s fluid vocals make standing next to strangers on a train never feel so utterly human and alien all at once. “Hey it’s me / I just got off the train / A frightening place / Their faces are concrete grey…” Strangers to ourselves in a very strange cosmos, the train moves whether we like it or not. As Yorke’s singular falsetto elevates past all temporal and audio boundaries, he sounds like no one or no-thing else on earth. I want to call him the Ella Fitzgerald of our generation.
The more one absorbs this record, the more it becomes clear that it belongs to Jonny Greenwood as much as it does Tom Yorke. Greenwood’s guitar and string arrangements are daringly executed by the London Contemporary Orchestra. Together, these musicians weave an absolutely stunning Indra’s web of sonic possibility- with each point in Greenwood’s vast network of sound inflecting a peak experience in the band’s career. “Identikit,” for example, would have worked perfectly on OK Computer and Kid A; but here the brooding angst has given way to a more reasonable contract with solitude and uncertainty. The opening jam in this track slides effortlessly into symphonic cadences of rubber band snapping waves of distortion. It’s pure Radiohead magic.
“The Numbers” is more methodical than anything else on OK Computer, yet it could also fit nicely on that genre bending masterpiece. It has a captivating piano solo, psychedelic rock grooves which resemble Jefferson Airplane and The Doors at their most inquisitive, and backing vocals by Ed O’Neil that tantalizingly challenges and accentuates Yorke’s acoustic guitar. It also has a jazzy “Riders on the Storm”sort of aura which anticipates the most climatic ending on the album. Every inch of this track works. (To see “The Numbers” played to perfection, check out the live version in Amsterdam at the Heineken Music Hall 5/20/2016.)
Produced by longtime collaborator Nigel Godrich, A Moon Shaped Pool reaches full potential in “Present Tense.” After working with this song since 2008, it has congealed into a near flawless piece of electronic art rock. Yorke’s vocals are subtle and soft; yet they have a swirling confidence which reverberates in a way that unsettles the listener by comforting them. The Latin shuffle beats play wickedly with the electric blues bass lines, and when Yorke tells us to “keep it moving,” we are obliged to do just that.
This stellar collection ends with the aptly titled “True Love Waits,” which, after more than 20 years in the band’s arsenal, is now enshrined in their official canon. It is an exceptional piece of mood music that has no need for a resolution.
Do not be thrown off by this album’s complex nuances and orchestral tone. The social unrest in this outfit still burns with an unrivaled incandescence on the rock scene today. These songs (or should we think of them as one extended song?) are ethereal and at times spooky; but they are brilliant, fearless, and they generate meaning and contentment out of social and personal dysfunction. A Moon Shaped Pool is not only an expertly crafted experiment in sound; it is an invitation for anyone who believes in the power of creativity to keep moving forward even when it seems pointless to do so.