It’s finally been done. Everything is in its right place. At least that’s the perception I had after spending a full day with Radiohead’s new album A Moon Shaped Pool. Announced only a couple days prior, speculation ramped up over the weekend, as fans of the band rushed to various corners of the internet to determine the tracklist, album title, etc. Even the most accurate predictions couldn’t have known the band would put not only “Ful Stop,” but “Identikit” and “True Love Waits” on the album, too. The closing track’s insertion into Pool is as shocking as it is welcome. That’s perhaps why it’s so shocking; we aren’t used to Radiohead being a “welcoming” band. And here, the song sounds just as creaky and sparse as the room love waits for you in. It’s a devastating, tear-inducing track, one that will swallow you whole if you let your guard down.
During my first play of A Moon Shaped Pool, I quickly texted by best friend since high school during “Desks Dark” that the album sounded like some lost album between the OK Computer and Kid A eras. The album brilliantly shifts from the guitar-driven Computer to the bluesy, somber electronica of Kid A/Amnesiac. But while Pool does share some similarities to the band’s peak work, it is so much more than that. While hinted at on one-off singles such as “Harry Patch,” orchestral strings have never had much place in a Radiohead album. That changes significantly on this album, with many of the most affecting moments coming from Jonny Greenwood’s incredible string sections. “The Numbers” – formerly known as “Silent Spring” – begins centered around an acoustic guitar strum before giving way to a swell of strings in a moment of indescribable beauty.
Radiohead has always been great at doing that – leaving me speechless, wondering how is this possible??? – but it’s been a while since an album has done that for me. “Identikit”, in particular, is a song that hardly seems possible. Thom Yorke’s vocals are pushed so far out of center at the beginning, he’s indecipherable, with the Greenwood’s and Phil Selway anchoring the song with a strong backbone. It’s one of the clearest moments on an otherwise abstract album – “Broken hearts make it rain” is as precise a statement we’ve heard from the band since “I don’t want to be your friend, I just want to be your lover” – and is made only better with Jonny Greenwood having the freedom to go off during the final half-minute of the song. We hardly ever get to hear Greenwood solo on electric guitar in this band anymore, but his solo at the end of “Identikit” is already one of the band’s best.
A Moon Shaped Pool is already being discussed among the band’s greatest albums. Whereas the band’s previous albums took days, months to fully love, this one is generating an instant attraction the band hasn’t felt in some time. Certain aspects of the album represent exciting new directions for the band, while many others feel like refreshing callbacks to previous eras. Perhaps the most significant change of all is the muscularity of the music. Every drum snare, slap of the bass, shred of the guitar, use of falsetto is purposeful, done in harmony. While their music has quite often been infallible, nothing else from the band has ever felt quite so assured. I’m not sure where A Moon Shaped Pool lands in the pantheon of great Radiohead albums, and I’m not sure I really care to make that distinction. All I do know is the band is still capable of making some of the greatest, most essential music of the times, still capable of leaving us moon shaped pools to wade through. We’ll be swimming in these waters for years to come.
A Moon Shaped Pool is out now.