Radiohead are the sort of band that render an introductory paragraph virtually redundant. Particularly with the hype surrounding their ninth studio album, A Moon Shaped Pool, being quite inescapable. Of course this hype is deserved, in part due to their infamous knack for covert marketing campaigns, but more so thanks to their legendary status as a rock band. After a string of shows at London’s Roundhouse, where tickets were pure gold dust, the five-year wait for a Radiohead album is ended with a kaleidoscopic, contemporary classical inspired collection of songs.
It will surprise no one that A Moon Shaped Pool is experimental by nature. However, the most noteworthy addition to the Radiohead sound comes in the shape of the London Contemporary Orchestra, whose work on this album sees them resuming their partnership with lead guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, after together scoring the 2012 film,The Master. Rather than being merely an addition, Greenwood’s recent foray into film scoring, and his composer residency with the BBC Concert Orchestra, is a massive influence on this record.
Greenwood’s string arrangements open the album with lead single, Burn the Witch – the guitarist and composer has the string section strike their instruments with the stick of their bow rather than the bow itself, creating the attacking, percussive effect. It’s only the first example of Radiohead’s eagle-eyed attention to detail, creating magnificent results on this album. The violins and cellos interweave with Thom Yorke’s aching falsetto, the bass and electronic drum beat with staggering fluidity.
Daydreaming¸ by contrast, takes us away from orchestral pop territory to a starkly more minimal, electronic place. It’s just Yorke and a richly dark piano, against a backdrop of organically sourced ambience. The interjecting samples of the lead singer’s voice are borderline disturbing, but the later addition of strings and synths culminates in a second single that is both fascinating and brilliant. The tour of influences and genres continues in Desert Island Disk, led by a folky acoustic guitar lick, and Ful Stop with its heavily effected guitars, and a beat verging on drum and bass.
Glass Eyes, the album’s half-way point and orchestral intermission, is nothing short of visionary; the production on the piano is genius, and Greenwood’s abilities with the orchestra are one of the greatest things to come from Radiohead yet. Meanwhile, Identikit is the first ‘rock band’ style song on the album - seven tracks in - and yet sounds as unique as the rest of it. Colin Greenwood’s bass guitar dances all over the place, his brother Jonny reminds us of his dazzling ability on the lead, while Yorke croons, “broken hearts, make it rain”, in his trademark otherworldly manner.
We’ve known for some time that Radiohead can seamlessly integrate styles, influences, and genres. A Moon Shaped Pool is further evidence of that, as we suddenly find ourselves in bossa nova song, Present Tense, somehow followed by the Massive Attack-esque Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief (I will happily admit I had to copy and paste that song title), one of the darkest moments here (and that’s saying something), and nonetheless a five-minute masterclass of its own.
We close with True Love Waits, a song the band wrote 20 years ago, with Yorke purportedly only feeling the song has validation now. It’s an ending note that couldn’t be stronger.
Radiohead stepping up the orchestral element of their sound is something to be celebrated, with Jonny Greenwood’s new contribution to the band being an absolute revelation. A Moon Shaped Pool is somehow dark and joyous in equal measure, and their ability to draw on so many elements from the world of music places them still light-years ahead of most other bands. It’s good to have you back, Radiohead.
Listen to: Burn the Witch, Daydreaming, Glass Eyes, Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief
Review by Adam Protz