“As my world comes crashing down / I’ll be dancing / freaking out / deaf, dumb and blind.” Thom Yorke’s charming ability to sing slightly embarrassing lines like this one — in complete confidence — has allowed Radiohead to be perennially unruffled in pace and daring in direction. With the release of the band’s ninth studio album, A Moon Shaped Pool, on Sunday, May 8, Yorke’s untethered vulnerability leads the charge for a tight, passionate addition to the group’s long collection of classics.
It was difficult not to assign contextual significance to A Moon Shaped Pool before diving into its gorgeous 11-track run. The level of hype and anticipation behind this latest release — ushered in by a widely-discussed social media “disappearing act” — was almost too much to bear. The band’s last full-length effort is now over five years past, and following December’s appearance of “Spectre” (an unused Bond-intended ballad delightfully released on Christmas morning) on Soundcloud, most fans expected the band was ready to move on from the sound exhibited in 2011’s ethereally electronic The King of Limbs.
Each of the group’s efforts has taken on its own identity, after all. 1997’s OK Computer was a paranoid, cinematic masterpiece. 2000’s Kid A traced the landscape of the new millennium’s hysterical uncertainties, while the following year’s Amnesiac tore its way into them. Hail to the Thief angrily pulsed against a chaotic, mid-2000’s political climate. Some unique purpose extends to all eight of the band’s previous outputs.
In the midst of it all, A Moon Shaped Pool plays out like a sensitive confessional. Though its opening track, “Burn the Witch,” punches the record out to an urgent, energetic start, the rest of the track list mellows to a downtempo march.
This is not to say that the album fails to be dance-y; on the contrary, there are many songs that could get a fan grooving to Radiohead’s signature, infectious rhythm. For all of its ambient textures, A Moon Shaped Pool is perhaps just as immediate an album as 2007’s In Rainbows — widely considered the group’s most diverse work.
Of course, there is also just enough to edge the band just out of the realm of radio-friendliness yet again. The second track and single, “Daydreaming,” emotes throughout, but avoids any semblance of a hook. “Decks Dark” is the jazziest, perhaps catchiest track on the album (“It was just a laugh / It’s whatever you say it is,” snaps Yorke at one point) but avoids a sing-along refrain. The intense, irresistible change of pace in the middle of the long-awaited “Identikit” may indeed prove jarring to many. Radiohead’s semi-indulgent “weirdness” remains intact.
None of this prevents the album from being a wholly breathtaking experience. “Present Tense” delivers as a flawless track (save for one curious popping sound in the song’s opening moments) and is certainly the best of the record, its acoustic-laced cadence rendering it impossible for one to abide by Yorke’s warning: “Don’t get heavy.”
Meanwhile, Jonny Greenwood’s orchestral influence is a first for a Radiohead album but serves as the record’s core musical driving force. Whenever a song in A Moon Shaped Pool gets lost in its own ambience, the Greenwood-conducted strings push it back into the moment, enveloping any verse with stunning fervor.
The album closes with “True Love Waits,” a song so dear to Radiohead fans that the title might as well have been in reference to them. The band has performed the song live since 1995, back when Thom Yorke’s young voice still championed an astonishing range. Today, Yorke employs that voice much like a weathered instrument — tempered to mostly delicate falsettos rather than the unrestrained vocal reaches of the singer’s early work.
As a result, the song doesn’t feature the same achingly desperate sorrow that it did as a track on the band’s 2001 live album, I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings. Instead, “True Love Waits” is delivered as something else entirely: a powerful epilogue in which an older, more mature Yorke examines the pitfalls of life (“I’m not living / I’m just killing time”) and love (“True love lives / In haunted attics”) with a tone of celestial observance, rather than outright involvement.
The song’s heart-wrenching croon, “Just don’t leave,” feels more fitting now than ever: with a nine-album legacy under its belt, Radiohead seems fully comfortable with where it stands. After receiving an emotionally brilliant album in A Moon Shaped Pool from perhaps the best band of the last quarter-century, the world is not ready for Radiohead to leave any time soon.