Aural Impressions: Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool

Radiohead is one of those bands for me.  I came upon them relatively late into their established domination, having already released six albums, switched genres about four times, and spawned numerous pretenders and copycats.  Not at all ironically, I was led to Radiohead years ago by those very groups, having found myself enamored with the piano-rock of early Coldplay, and the classical/rock hybrid stylings of slightly-more-established Muse.  In the interim since I started this blog, both of the aforementioned groups have released two albums each, while Radiohead had been curiously silent.  A few weeks ago, they took that silence to the extreme, deleting everything off of their website, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms before slowly, metaphorically fading back in with several video releases and a digital download of their newest album, the ninth in their expansive collection, A Moon Shaped Pool.  It had been five years and change since their last release.  Before that, it was another three and a half.  In fact, In Rainbows was released six weeks into my college career, while A King of Limbs came out about three months before graduation, a sort of bookend to easily one of the best phases of my life.  Now, my life is once again completely different.  I was in Japan having a real, grown-up, out-of-country vacation when the A Moon Shaped Pool dropped.  Luckily, internet there is pretty good and I wound up with a copy to listen to — which I did, several times, starting at a tranquil lake at dusk, watching rain fall at a train station, in a vast, sparsely populated airport at midnight — and I, to be honest, have mixed emotions.  I’ll save my conclusions for the end where they belong; first, each track and my thoughts, one by one:

  1. Burn The Witch:  No time is wasted getting into this album, with a flurry of sharp, percussively bowed strings.  Radiohead is no stranger to different styles of orchestral arrangements (see: Climbing Up The Walls, How To Disappear Completely, etc.), and this one feels completely new.  The progression is a simple up and down two-chorder, leading shortly into thick fuzzy bass and electronic percussion.  Thom Yorke’s vocals are crystal clear and soft.  At the chorus, the walls suddenly close in with deep strings and an encompassing bass, countered with a light falsetto vocal echoing the track’s title.  The strings soften in a pretty, though sometimes dissonant interlude post-chorus, including a hair-raising progression downward before retreating to the pre-chorus sound.  An added major third at the end of the second chorus continues the frisson, as the strings build and build and build, growing chaotic and strong until the resolution chord, where they ultimately flip to screeching, atonal impacts until the end.  This was the first foray into the LP9 sound, out on the internet a week before the album.  I had this song stuck in my head nearly every day for two weeks pre- and post-release.  Definitely one of the best of the album; understandable as it’s been one of those tracks Radiohead’s been tweaking forever.
  2. Daydreaming:  Warbled, pitching sounds begin the next track, like an old video cassette through an antique projector.  It’s Kid A, having been left out in the sun.  This ambiance makes way for a solo arpeggiated piano, slowly playing in light circles.  Nearly a minute and a half before the vocals come in, it’s contemplative, sorrowful, and quiet.  Flashes of reversed vocals pop in and out above the main track, until at the chorus things break open, the piano quickens and swirls, guitar effects shimmer, and bass begins to push.  The progression is lovely, but dark.  Simple, but voluminous.  The chorus dies with a whimper, shifting us back to the piano of the verse, this time buried under a synthesizer playing the same notes.  At the second chorus, a crescendo, raising the ambiance in the mix, while a low acoustic bass slithers underneath.  Chimes ring out while swiftly sharp strings slice in and annihilate themselves.  As the ordered chaos fades, we’re left with only the acoustic bass, struggling to breathe.
  3. Decks Dark:  Jingling piano and a simple electric beat begin this one, another mellow sound on what seems to be a sullen, introspective, yet beautiful album.  When the lead piano enters with Thom’s vocal, we’re treated to some of the most lovely sound heard on a Radiohead record.  Separated, downwardly arpeggiated chords, shimmering like waves on a moonlit pool (ding!).  When the bass comes, the song shifts — the song takes a decidedly Hail to the Thief turn, and (for the first time?) we’re treated to what sounds like female background vocals.  They float over a very mid-2000s piano-driven chorus, complete with dissonant changes and dark overtones.  The verse returns, which is awesome, especially now with a meandering bassline beneath it and strummed guitar.  Alone, this is my favorite sound on the entire album.  The track, however, ends with an outro full of heavy, low piano, percussive guitar sounds, and the ever jangling piano.  It’s alright, but it goes on a bit too long.  It fades into the next track…
  4. Desert Island Disk:  …where an acoustic guitar enters, playing a jaunty, slightly arrhythmic riff, almost like if the pauses between the notes of “Give Up The Ghost” were filled in.  It’s a warmer sound as the melody wavers in a major key.  Radiohead throw in their typical derailing of good feelings, little more than half way through, as drums suddenly come in and the guitar flares in dissonance, though it’s only a moment before they return back on track, with softly chiming guitar helping it along.  The outro finds a low chord begging for resolution, shortly thereafter finding it in the form of the regular riff.  Like “Faust Arp” on In Rainbows, this is the kind of song I would expect further along in the tracklist.  Who am I to judge Radiohead’s ordering skills though? (Aside: as if they even tried — these songs are in alphabetical order…)
  5. Ful Stop:  Quick buried drums in a low-pass world push into a fuzzy bass synth, warbling one note up and down a half-step.  Suddenly a cascade of guitars, a growing synth pad, and a little more clarity.  It’s a little bit like “The National Anthem,” sans overwhelming chaos.  Replace the pad with the Ondes Martenot and you’re there, more or less.  Three minutes in, the flavor changes, adding a pair of clean guitars and an interweaved accompaniment.  Thom begins a chant as another overdubbed Thom falsetto wails.  The urgency fades while the guitars return to the dirt of the fuzz bass.  The cascade still flows occasionally, with the steady quick drums doing much the same at their own shifted period.  It’s a very strange song, with many elements overlaid but seemingly not played together, if that makes any sense.  It’s long and enters with more energy than the previous three songs combined.  I wasn’t a fan on first listen, but I think it might just be the centerpiece this album needs.
  6. Glass Eyes: More low pass effects, this time on a piano playing ascending steps followed by its own echo.  Steady strings flourish in the back.  Thom’s vocals are upfront and crystal clear with a sad melody (of course).  It’s a minor key song, playing precious few major chords, but they’re implemented expertly.  The strings cry and rumble, bringing the bass when they want to be ominous and the treble when they’re feeling free and light.  While we’re making Kid A comparisons, the ending here reminds me most of “Motion Picture Soundtrack.”  Upward, slightly cheesy, and vulnerable.
  7. Identikit:  Acoustic drums and a stuttering multi-tracked guitar lead us into a realm of unintelligible, reverberating vocals.  Toms rumble and shake.  A clearer lead vocal comes in, playing off the background and forming spots of dissonance, as is tradition.  A few “la la la”s appear right up in the foreground, and then suddenly, the guitars get reverby too, the bass jumps and flutters, and the toms continue to rumble.  Then another shakeup in instrumentation, with synth chords and falsetto, all while the ground continues to quake from my speakers.  When the third repetition of the verse comes, the real star goes to the lead guitar, which plays in a way that would go unnoticed for one concentrated on the vocals, but makes itself large and obvious once those disappear.  It’s jaggy, still stuttering, and now with an echo of its own.  A solo ends the track suddenly.  This is perhaps the most upbeatedly chill song on the album, constant melancholy included.
  8. The Numbers:  For the second time on A Moon Shaped Pool, a track begins with a disorganized flurry of piano sounds.  It’s very jazzy and seemingly improvised, until a guitar comes in a brings direction.  The first chord progression isn’t even over an a brushed drum kit enters.  We’re solidly in Kid A territory here — the progression is akin to “Optimistic,” while the instrumentation recalls a less dreary “How to Disappear Completely.”  Bass bounces and scuttles beneath.  These things along make “The Numbers” one of my easy favorites of the album right off the bat.  Thom’s vocals flip between standing out and blending into the acoustic bliss going on around him.  Halfway through we cross a bridge, one that changes the sound significantly, adding falsetto, feminine-sounding accompaniment, and a major key piano three chord progression — which is then suddenly silenced and sliced by aggressive strings.  The orchestra brings its dark magic to the initial verse structure, cementing this song’s favorite status.  The outro is a repeat of the bridge, crescendoing to a sudden conclusion at a single bowed bass note.  The piano jingles away into oblivion.
  9. Present Tense:  A galloping drum beat, an acoustic guitar playing an aurally awkward progession, and a chorus of Thom’s humming in falsetto make this a unique, if obviously Radiohead, type of song.  It reminds me of a mix between Kid A and In Rainbows, without sounding particularly like anything on either.  Echoed, vocodered vox come into assist the lead, building up to swallow it for short times.  The song grows warmer with the addition of clean guitars to the acoustics, after which it mellows into a major progression, featuring an particularly notable step up by a major sixth.  The more comfortable bridge returns down to the verse, this time swirling and enveloped with falsetto and vocoders.  I can’t get over how weird this chord progression is.  I’m not convinced it works, but I have yet to figure it out for myself.  The song closes with a repeat of the bridge, then a final verse, bass, and an ultimate galloping drum.
  10. Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief:  A constant bass note with a white noise fuzz — where have I heard that before in Radiohead’s repertoire?  One answer is “The Gloaming,” easily my least favorite from Hail to the Thief.  Let’s see where this goes.  There are already muted piano notes to begin; they unmute and play a familiar sounding, stutter-step progression, jumping up and down in syncopation.  Thom wails gently.  Another cascade of guitars, reverberating and chiming make a brief stop-by.  Bass, drums, and a deep piano come in together to drown out the vocals.  I like where this is headed.  The album’s ubiquitous string orchestra makes an appearance at the second chorus, bringing its trademark light sadness.  The post-chorus bridge is where they really shine, bringing “Tinker etc.” firmly into the Amnesiac sound, halfway between “Pyramid Song” and the second half of “Dollars and Cents.” For a five-minute song, it really doesn’t feel its length, however it closes with thirty seconds of noise and popping sounds, which fade directly into…
  11. True Love Waits:  !!! After years of waiting, something came!  I can’t believe after all this time, Radiohead finally decided upon a studio version they liked.  Compared to the live version on I Might Be Wrong, the only thing that’s left over is the melody and lyrics.  Instead of an acoustic guitar, we’ve got a syncopated piano riff… and that’s it.  It fits the overall tone of the album perfectly.  That is to say, for a song that’s been heard in a powerfully sung and upbeat way for years and years, the latent unease and sorrowful desperation that’s contained in the lyrics is nearly enough to depress me in this new context.  As Thom croons and cracks over the void, another piano joins to play a high mess of notes once again.  Deeper into the song, bass comes in with such a soft attack it’s hard to tell when the notes begin.  Compared to some of the other tracks on A Moon Shaped Pool, it’s easy to hear that this one in particular has been polished and perfected over the years.  It’s an outstanding rendition, I suppose the definitive one now, and it’s a fitting, hopeful from a certain point of view, conclusion to the album.

It’s hard to fathom just how it’s possible, but Radiohead did it again.  A Moon Shaped Pool is an album largely built on and/or supported by an orchestra, incorporating its strings into just about every song in one way or another.  For a band that’s continually modified its sound, there are a lot of retreads to the early days of their electronic shift, but with an updated feel and new additions to make it fresh.  There is an awful lot of piano here, which I love, as well as a great quantity of solid bass lines and guitar work.  What’s missing in my opinion is a really great drum track, with Phil Selway’s work being split between programming and simple accompaniment.  However, what makes Radiohead so great on this album, and is in direct conflict with the previous statement, is the lack of a standout superstar — each track is blended and each instrument integrated so masterfully that they become great together.  My mixed feelings about A Moon Shaped Pool stem from my relatively low number of favorite tracks and in my opinion a few too much filler.  Upon first listen, I recalled loving four tracks; the rest I had no memory of.  After about eight complete listens, I still can’t immediately recall melodies or progressions from nearly half of the songs.  I suppose that’s my fault and more listens will help, but this is my impression, after all.  There is, of course, a solution to this — to listen more and more until each song finds a home for me within Radiohead’s broader catalog.  With luck (and planning), I’ve already got some wonderful memories embedded into it, so it’s sure to stick around.  Hopefully I’ll see you in August, Radiohead!  Or, hear you from afar, as it were.

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