TRAVIS NEWTON: After 2011’s uneven and sample-heavy The King of Limbs and the ensuing tour, Radiohead went on another one of their patented hiatuses. They went their separate ways to work on side projects, experimental apps, art installations, and film scores. Then, in September 2014, they began to reconvene to work on what became A Moon Shaped Pool. It’s an album of new songs and old, the oldest of which (“True Love Waits”) dates back to 1995. But does the album come together as a cohesive work, or is it a mismatched compilation of new work and dusty b-sides?
ANDREW HAWKINS: In a way, I think A Moon Shaped Pool is a brilliantly assembled album. There seems to be a narrative that flows through the record. Songs like “Daydreaming” and “True Love Waits” in a way seem to bookend a theme that starts immediately after “Burn the Witch” kicks things off with a high-energy impact. Radiohead is working together as a team of virtuosos guiding us through beautiful and somber soundscapes here. Pool is more than just a record; it’s an experience.
HAWKINS: When I saw that Radiohead had released a new video, it was right after news reports headlined with the band completely vanishing off social media. “Burn the Witch” made me smile, but it wasn’t until I heard the track on its own that I appreciated it. The video is fantastic with its influence lifted directly from The Wicker Man, and the pagan ritual scene is a fun bit of unexpected intensity amongst the animated children’s toys. What really blew me away was watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s video for “Daydreaming” after hearing the song without the visual. That video is a captivating piece of art and the final seconds draw you in. It’s fascinating stuff.
NEWTON: That “Burn the Witch” video is a masterwork of old school stop motion animation. It’s nice to see director Chris Hopewell (A Fantastic Fear of Everything) and Radiohead keeping English folk horror alive in contemporary pop culture. There’s also a great reference to Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, which has a similar small town paranoia feel but without the pagan themes. Anderson’s “Daydreaming” video is still something I’m trying to get into. I’m not a huge fan of that song (yet), but the video looks incredible. The steadicam floats along with Thom Yorke as he moves through various interiors and exteriors, all beautifully lit. It occupies an unnamed, timeless zone between dreaming and feeling like you’re there, feet on the ground. It reminds me a lot of Punch-Drunk Love in that way.
NEWTON: “Burn the Witch” is one hell of a way to start an album, but that track’s an outlier. Nothing on the rest of the album has its sheer energy. But the driving strings (violin, viola, cello, bass, etc.) set a precedent that this is going to be a fairly string-heavy album. And it is. It just happens to sound a lot more like “Pyramid Song” or “Spectre”. It’s piano-driven, symphonic art rock.
HAWKINS: The piano sections are excellent. Every time we hear those dreamlike melodies, they tie the album together, thematically. A Moon Shaped Pool is a blue room album, and what I mean by that is how the feeling of sorrow and deep thought persists deep into each aspect of the work. The way this record is composed is very emotional and visceral, and the music is almost transportive. The synths work perfectly to add layered depth to the organic and classical instruments. When standard rock kits are in place, they work well. It’s a blend of influences, and it works incredibly well.
Vocals and Lyrics
NEWTON: Thom Yorke will never not sing like Thom Yorke. His loose warbling has only gotten looser with time, but I think the more contemplative sound on this record suits his voice. “True Love Waits” doesn’t pack the angsty 90’s wail it used to, and I think that’s a good thing. It makes more sense as a fragile, delicate goodbye. That song’s also got my favorite lyric on the album: “True love waits in haunted attics, and true love lives on lollipops and crisps.”
HAWKINS: What I love about this album is how the vocals are an instrument and not just a conduit for the lyrics. Some of the voice samples remind me of horror film stingers from films like Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And, oddly, the House on Haunted Hill remake, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The messages Yorke conveys on “The Numbers”: “Future is inside us” and “One day at a time” are my favorite of the record. But the complexity of the narrative is so dense that multiple listens are mandatory to grasp it all.
HAWKINS: A Moon Shaped Pool may be Radiohead’s masterpiece. I haven’t heard a record this good yet in 2016, and I think this may go down as one of the best albums of the decade. This album is a major feat for the group, and I haven’t been this excited about Radiohead since OK Computer. My top tracks here are “The Numbers”, “Daydreaming”, “Burn the Witch”, “Ful Stop”, and the wonderfully titled “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief”. A Moon Shaped Pool is a work of art that demands over exposure and study. It’s the band’s absolute best to date.
NEWTON: I’m not quite comfortable with the album enough to call it their masterpiece, especially when OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac, and In Rainbows have all aged like good whiskey. But I do think A Moon Shaped Pool is an incredible piece of work. I tend to view their discography a lot like Pink Floyd’s, appreciating the up and downs, and respecting each album’s different approach. I look at A Moon Shaped Pool as their big symphonic work. They’re no strangers to piano-driven songs with rich orchestration, of course, but I feel that’s the real backbone of this album. And it’s a strong, strong backbone. My top tracks include Burn “The Witch”, “Decks Dark”, “Glass Eyes”, and “True Love Waits.”