Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool – Classic Music Review

If you’re not in the mood for melancholy, you may want to skip A Moon Shaped Pool.

Themes include societal repression, failed idealism, dread, separation, regret, panic, emptiness, global warming, love in vain, abandonment and, above all, various manifestations of loss. It also features Radiohead’s saddest song, as determined by a data scientist whose findings were published in NME. No doubt troubled by the end of his 23-year relationship with life-partner Rachel Owen, Thom Yorke delivers his vocals in a somewhat detached and comparatively subdued manner. As Mike Diver pointed out in his review of the album on The Quietus, the album clearly lacks “something to grab hold of that has that same roughness, that singular feel, of this band at its best.” Electric guitar takes more than a back seat—it’s stuck way up in the balcony, replaced by Jonny Greenwood’s orchestral arrangements. While The King of Limbs was relatively low-burner in comparison to In Rainbows, Radiohead shuts the burner off entirely on A Moon Shaped Pool, leaving what Diver called “barely glowing embers.”

It’s also harder to listen to A Moon Shaped Pool today than it was at the time of its release. Unintentionally, A Moon Shaped Pool reflects the generally down mood felt today by people all over the world as they see hatred on the rise and any past progress in the direction of greater world unity obliterated in an atmosphere of distrust, paranoia and sickening greed. Since November 8, 2016, there hasn’t been a single day when I haven’t felt a sinking feeling that something is terribly and possibly irreversibly wrong with the world, and I ache for music that is uplifting, energetic and confident about the future. When I reach for my headphones, I want a break from Trump, Brexit, the Front National and all the awful shit I read in the news today. A Moon Shaped Pool is not the place to go if you’re seeking temporary relief from worldwide insanity.

Still, it wouldn’t be fair to judge A Moon Shaped Pool based on its accidental proximity to an era of human madness, and the album has much to recommend it. First and foremost to my ears, the melodies are exceptionally strong throughout and stick in your head for days, weeks, months. While many of the songs are sad, those sad songs are particularly beautiful and emotive. Jonny Greenwood’s orchestral and vocal arrangements are superb (and if you really want to hear Jonny at his best, listen to the soundtrack of Phantom Thread and skip the movie). In the context of the entire catalogue, A Moon Shaped Pool is clearly unique, but hardly surprising: Radiohead simply had to produce a more orchestrally-oriented album someday, given their musical aspirations and Jonny’s exceptional talent.

So, while I think Mr. Diver makes some fair points in his less-than-positive review, it’s pretty obvious that his expectations interfered with the evaluation. This is a common and very human error in criticism, and particularly dangerous when it comes to Radiohead, a band with a wide playing field and a long track record of defying expectations. Nobody expected OK Computer, and nobody expected they would completely abandon the guitar-heavy emphasis on that extraordinarily popular album in favor of the electronic instrumentation that dominates Kid A. After the more introverted The King of Limbs, I’m sure that most people thought that Radiohead would kick some ass on the next album; instead, A Moon Shaped Pool doubles down on the introversion, creating a mournful yet often beautiful series of introspective soundscapes. While not immune to commercial considerations, Radiohead is more willing than most artists to abandon formulas and follow their artistic instincts. Radiohead albums nearly always reflect what is happening with the band members in the present tense, when new and old songs yet to find a home meld together around an organizing principle or theme. At this moment in time, Thom Yorke was reflecting on loss and change while Jonny Greenwood was blossoming into a terrific composer and arranger. A Moon Shaped Pool is an album that manages to resolve the opposing forces of retreat and growth, resulting in a work that may not be for everyone or for every mood but deals with very real and essential aspects of the human experience.

And yeah, sometimes it sucks being human.

The album opens with Jonny Greenwood front-and-center with the attention-grabbing string arrangement that introduces “Burn the Witch.” The technique used for the violins has been inaccurately labeled col legno, where the violinists strike the strings with the stick on the bow; instead, Jonny gets even greater intensity by having the players use guitar picks. The deep growl that provides the bottom for the arrangement provides ominous, contrasting color to the bright tone of the violins, a mood further intensified by the dark opening verse:

Stay in the shadows
Cheer at the gallows
This is a round-up
This is a low-flying panic attack
Sing a song on the jukebox that goes
Burn the witch
Burn the witch
We know where you live

Societies have created witches and heretics for centuries as a means of oppressing those who think different, look different or happen to be saddled with vaginas. Accusations of witchcraft have proven to be effective tools for the elites to redirect the frustration of the lower classes away from them and towards those who dare to be different. The consensus view is that the “witches” in this song are the Muslim immigrants who fled their war-torn homes for the alleged safety of the territories in the European Union; the historical effectiveness of the demonization strategy manifested itself in Brexit and the election of Trump (but thankfully came up a cropper in France). The music dominating the intro and the first verse reflect this boiling, burning tension. Just before the second verse, the higher strings shift to a descending legato, more important for the descent than the continuity associated with that musical form. In that second verse we see humanity descending into fearful isolation, secretly ashamed of their enabling behaviors but lacking the guts to do anything to defend the demonized, instead treating information that contradicts the rationale for hatred as “fake news”:

Red crosses on wooden doors
And if you float you burn
Loose talk around tables
Abandon all reason
Avoid all eye contact
Do not react
Shoot the messengers
This is a low flying panic attack

Thom Yorke’s understated vocal works exceptionally well in this piece, achieving a sotto voce effect that simultaneously draws our attention to his voice while reflecting the near-whispers that comprise conversation in a paranoid society. The terrifying ending is achieved through a combination of increased intensity from the strings, dissonant figures in the background and the bottom literally dropping out until the sudden demise. “Burn the Witch” is a marvelously structured piece, and while it serves as a reminder that we’re in the fight of our lives against fear and ignorance, it’s a problem that humanity has had to deal with for centuries . . . and perhaps this too shall pass . . . or maybe not.

The “maybe not” caution comes from the first verse of “Daydreamers,” reminding us that the endless pursuit of perfection that is part of the human psyche can also be a psychological trap.

Dreamers
They never learn
They never learn
Beyond, beyond the point
Of no return
Of no return
And it’s too late
The damage is done
The damage is done

”I fear those big words,” Stephen answers, ”which make us so unhappy.” That line spoken by Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses illuminates the downside of the pursuit of perfection: it is unachievable, and the failure to achieve it frustrates and damages the spirit. Ironically, religions have found a more practical way of dealing with the urge: perfection will never happen here, but in the hereafter. Total bullshit, of course, but such a notion has allowed many stupid people to feel comfortable with existence while absolving themselves of any responsibility to their fellow human beings in the here-and-now.

Emerging from a warped tape that transitions to the sound of soft chimes, the music of “Daydreaming” is based on a simple piano three-note pattern in waltz time. Thom Yorke’s voice is attenuated to express the fragile nature of human striving and the inevitable search for some sense of security in an insecure world, often found through the higher urge to serve others—an urge that can manifest itself as either sincere devotion or crass submission:

This goes
Beyond me
Beyond you
The white room
By a window
Where the sun comes
Through
We are
Just happy to serve
Just happy to serve
You

It has been suggested that the white room by the window could be a reference to a hospital room, possibly the room where Rachel Owen recovered from cancer treatments during the period when A Moon Shaped Pool was recorded. It’s possible, but the talent of any poet or author lies in the ability to turn a personal experience into a universal experience the rest of us can appreciate. What I get from this verse is a series of gestalts: vulnerability, life beyond the day-to-day, essence. Thom Yorke’s faint, fragmented background vocals add to the sense of fragility—the fragility of the quest for perfection, the fragility of life itself.

The music that follows the verse is a wondrous melange that carries forward the vocal fragments and blends them with other vocal layers to create a choral effect, mixing those voices with ambient electronic and orchestral effects and detuned cellos. Oliver Coats’ sudden, swooping cello figures dominate the second half of the passage . . . a sound that feels like . . . uncertainty . . . a combination of strength and tentativeness . . . Sisyphus and the boulder . . .  It’s a fantastic, rich sound, and “Daydreaming” is a fantastic piece of work.

From a lyrical standpoint, “Decks Dark” is much more elusive, highly symbolic, or simply insane—take your pick. “And in your life there comes a darkness/There’s a spacecraft blocking out the sky.” I’ve had a lot of weird shit happen to me but a spacecraft has yet to darken my day. Perhaps the song is about people obsessed with conspiracy theories or with evil aliens; most likely it’s metaphoric for the strange but general anxiety that exists in the wealthier countries on the planet. Though I have no idea what the hell Thom is talking about, the music is fantastic, combining a highly active melody with exceptionally strong rhythms and as diverse and complementary a set of fills you’ll find in any Radiohead song. Sometimes there are dueling pianos in opposite channels, one reflecting the melody, the other tinkling at a high pitch and speed, contradicting the more soothing runs on the other channel. Ambient choral sounds add to the other-worldliness of the piece, while the fade is a seriously sexy set of vocal, piano and guitar riffs that lighten the overall darkness.

Songfacts has a brief entry on “Desert Island Disk” where they make a completely unfounded and highly misleading conclusion: “The song finds Thom Yorke reflecting on his break-up from Rachel Owen. Now the couple are going their separate ways, the Radiohead frontman feels ‘totally released’ as he can now love Rachel with a different type of love.”

 C-R-A-P!

The link above does not take you to the source for the interpretation, as one might assume, but sends you instead to the Daily Mail (!) story of their break-up. There you can find Thom’s brief, fuck you, stay-out-of-my-private-life press release: “After 23 highly creative and happy years, for various reasons we have gone our separate ways. It’s perfectly amicable.” Hmm. Why would Thom feel “totally released” after twenty-three HAPPY YEARS? If those years were indeed happy, why would he sing, “Waking, waking up from shutdown/From a thousand years of sleep?” I realize Thom Yorke tends to the morose with greater frequency than your average bloke, but are you actually trying to tell me he’s chosen to seek a relationship more on the miserable side? Shame on Songfacts for spreading rock-star gossip instead of providing song FACTS.

Har-fucking-rumph!

In truth, people can actually grow, change and have major life breakthroughs within a relationship, and the lyrics are much more supportive of that possibility. Healthy relationships leave room for spaces, where each party allows the other to get away for a while to recalibrate and rebalance. Those separations may lead to a reconfiguration of the existing arrangement or it may lead to even greater closeness. What I read in the lyrics is the story of a person who simply has to split for a few days or weeks, does so, has a few revelations about self-and-other and returns embracing new possibilities within the relationship:

Waking, waking up from shutdown
From a thousand years of sleep
Yeah you, you know what I mean
You know what I mean
You know what I mean

Standing on the edge of you
You know what I mean
You know what I mean
You know what I mean

Different types of love
Different types of love
Different types of love

It sounds to me like the narrator flew the coop believing “you’ll never understand me” and arrives at the revelation that the other understands them perfectly. If that results in a “different kind of love,” so be it. Maybe it’s about Thom and Rachel, maybe not— but you’re going to get a lot more out of the lyrics if you relate the experience TO YOURSELF AND NOT YOUR FAVORITE ROCK IDOL. “Desert Island Disk” is also a mesmerizing, sweet-flowing song built around Spanish guitar tropes with gentle ambient sounds sweeping through the left channel. After a few guitar-synth teases from the right channel, the song goes full stereo at the revelatory moment (“You know what I mean”), fading to Thom-only on guitar and verse until the final repetitions of “are possible,” when the left channel ambience gently returns. Just enough, not too much—my Count Basie Theory lives on—in a Radiohead song, of all places.

The first half of “Ful Stop” is like . . . well, imagine two trains running on parallel tracks. The first train is driven by an electronic beat-bass synth combination that mimics a chugging train and eventually forms the foundation for the vocal; the second train is a mix of what sounds like flugelhorns and phased guitars organized around a musical theme that contradicts the melody we hear from train #1. Oh no! The tracks are merging up ahead! The trains are going to collide! [Screams!] [Close up of panicked faces.][Man with a mustache desperately reaches for the emergency cord, has a heart attack and croaks.] and then . . . NOTHING HAPPENS. Just like in a Monty Python skit! The molecules of the trains have magically merged together on contact! At the quantum level! Just like in Star Trek! Wow! This sounds fucking great!

Too bad about the dead guy.

The second half of “Ful Stop” is a rhythmic delight, featuring a persistent pulsating beat accented by (yay!) layers of electric guitar counterpoint and Thom’s myriad vocal contributions. Even when they take it down a notch, the pulse remains strong, guiding us through the final build and fade. The lyrics are a pretty straightforward accounting of those grungy moments when you’ve said or done something stupid that has put your relationship at risk. Your partner has made it clear that the conversation is over and all you have left is the “but, but, but” of a side of the story destined to remain unheard for all eternity. The mood you’re in after your failure is the music you hear in “Ful Stop”: agitated, grumbling, helpless, lost, hopelessly defensive.

This is a good time to introduce one of the more curious aspects of A Moon Shaped Pool: the tracks are arranged in alphabetical order. According to a Reddit post, Jonny Greenwood allegedly attributed this phenomenon to “too many arguments over what should go where,” adding “and when it was in alphabetical order it just worked fine.” Given Radiohead’s penchant for intense debate, the explanation rings true, though I find it incredible luck that “Burn the Witch” is a killer opener and “True Love Waits” the ultimate closing track. I find the story even more incredible when considering the juxtaposition of “Ful Stop” and “Glass Eyes,” which to my ears form a cohesive narrative. In “Ful Stop,” our hero is immersed in internal dialogue oscillating between blaming other and blaming self; in “Glass Eyes,” he gets off the train (literally) and makes an awkward move in the direction of reconciliation, largely by ignoring the original conflict:

Hey it’s me
I just got off the train
A frightening place
Their faces are concrete grey
And I’m wondering, should I turn around?
Buy another ticket
Panic is coming on strong
So cold, from the inside out
No great job, no message coming in
And you’re so small
Glassy eyed light of day
Glassy eyed light of day

He abandons the conversation for a stroll through nature, but this side trip without direction doesn’t amount to much. The music supporting this sad story is a lovely arrangement of gentle romantic strings, an occasional drone from bass or detuned cello and warm patterns of keyboard and synth. The shortest song on the album, “Glass Eyes” is an incredibly beautiful piece, a subtle yet impactful demonstration of Jonny Greenwood’s gift for arrangement.

“Identikit” begins with distant vocals that will soon compete with the main vocal line for the listener’s attention, and while that may sound like musical chaos, it actually works well with the concept of an identikit: a face of a suspect constructed from the differing perceptions of the purported witnesses. The electronic beats have a pleasant Latin flavor and I find the unusual mix rather intriguing. Unfortunately, Radiohead shifts to what sounds like another song entirely, a song based on one line repeated seventeen-and-one-half times (“Broken hearts make it rain”), delivered in the second go-round by a choir in a performance that defines the word “overdramatic.” By the time they return to the original theme, they’ve lost me entirely. “I have no idea what it means, or what it’s about, or anything like that,” said Thom Yorke about “Identikit,” and honey, that makes two of us.

I’m even less fond of “The Numbers,” a global warming protest song saddled with weighty instrumentation far beyond its inherent capabilities. This is the one song where I think Jonny’s arrangement qualifies as a poor fit, but I don’t think the song works as an acoustic number either, as demonstrated by Thom’s performance of what was then called “Silent Spring” at Le Trianon in Paris. The best protest songs avoid excessive abstraction and keep symbols and metaphors fairly simple, and I guarantee that if you played this song for a random sample of people and asked them what it was about, I don’t think “global warming” would be the first words out of their mouths.

Things get back on track with the bossa nova “Present Tense” and its superb use of background vocal loops that support rather than compete with the primary vocal. The guitar duet with Thom and Johnny is a magical display of finger picking and tight rhythm; the high-pitched background vocals that enter the soundscape just before the melodic shift of “In you I’m lost” blend beautifully with the supporting ambient music. The arrangement is rich without becoming too busy, and there are dozens of tiny moments that spark delight. The song is a melancholy account of how we get locked in a pattern of self-defense about past slights that have nothing to do with the here-and-now, a pattern that invokes the terror of losing a relationship that has become essential to our sense of identity:

As my world
Comes crashing down
I’m dancing
Freaking out
Deaf, dumb, and blind

In you I’m lost
In you I’m lost
I won’t turn around when the penny drops
I won’t stop now
I won’t slack off
Or all this love
Will be in vain

On an album with more than its fair share of beautiful songs, “Present Tense” is an exceptionally moving and memorable piece, even when heard in a cleaner, guitar-dominated arrangement, as demonstrated in the video below:

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” has more to do with the children’s counting game than with the shorter-titled film, though no one gets tagged as “it.” The lyrics seem to describe a seduction, but the ponderous music portends a really slow, boring fuck by a guy who has had way too much weed to do much of interest. The best part of the piece is clearly Jonny Greenwood’s cinematic string arrangement, and I’d much rather see that movie than listen to this song again.

A Moon Shaped Pool ends with another song that waited a long time to come to fruition (twenty-one years, no less), the heart-ripping “True Love Waits.” The original 1995 version is dominated by guitar strummed at high speed, slowed by long gaps between chord changes and the underlying rhythm. Here the guitar is a distant memory, replaced by a dominant four-note motif on piano that is eventually supported by multiple pianos riffing off the main theme, creating a polyrhythmic fragility that accentuates the fragility expressed in the lyrics. I find it fascinating that after twenty-one years the lyrics hadn’t changed at all except for the flip of the second and third verses. That tells me that Thom Yorke knew he had captured something essential and timeless about human nature and was therefore willing to wait as long as it took to find the right arrangement.

Simply put, “True Love Waits” deals with the human dread of loneliness. What separates it from the thousands of other “don’t leave me” songs are the vignettes he uses to demonstrate the soul-twisting power of that fear. In the first verse, we find a woman willing to sacrifice beliefs and body and trade her adulthood for child-like devotion, all to avoid abandonment:

I’ll drown my beliefs
To have your babies
I’ll dress like your niece
And wash your swollen feet
Just don’t leave
Don’t leave

The second vignette could describe one of two situations: the male perspective on the relationship described in vignette #1 or a different relationship of convenience, where the man settles for a woman who transforms herself into a kitten, playing to the libido while failing to engage the soul:

I’m not living
I’m just killing time
Your tiny hands
Your crazy kitten smile
Just don’t leave
Don’t leave

We’ve now had two tales of adults locked in self-and-other denial in their quest for what can only create a superficial sense of security—the mere presence of another human being. Both situations demonstrate how the fear of abandonment can twist our personalities and turn us into practitioners of deceit. The last tale takes abandonment to another level, where parents abandon a child. Thom Yorke had read a news story about parents who had left their kid alone for days; the kid managed to survive the physiological aspects of abandonment by filling himself with junk food. That junk food was as empty as the experiences described in the first two vignettes—we can never nourish the soul by engaging in relationships built on pretense and insecurity. The child’s needs, however, are less complex and more innocent:

And true love waits
In haunted attics
And true love lives
On lollipops and crisps
Just don’t leave
Don’t leave

Oh, how that last verse breaks my heart. Children come into the world trusting that mother and father will care for them, provide for their needs and teach them things they need to know. I don’t know how any parent can abandon a child, forget about a child, or traumatize a child, and this round of “Just don’t leave/Don’t leave” hits me in the gut every time I hear it. It is the sound of shattering the most essential bond of life, the bond between parent and child . . . there simply are no words for the anguish I feel when I listen to this terribly beautiful song.

*****

By all accounts, the recording of A Moon Shaped Pool was an arduous process. The band wasn’t sure they were ready to record or what they wanted to record, and while Thom Yorke was dealing with his loss, producer Nigel Godrich lost his father. There were no rehearsals, and progress was made in “fits and starts.” Radiohead did not tour immediately after the release, and no one in the band had much to say about it. Some time later, Ed O’Brien told the NME, “We weren’t in a position to really talk about it when it came out. We didn’t want to talk about it being quite hard to make. We were quite fragile, and we needed to find our feet.” He went on to add: “I don’t want to talk about it anymore, if that’s all right. I feel like the dust hasn’t settled. It was a hard time.”

There are as many tales of awful recording experiences that produced masterpieces as there are of pleasant recording sessions that resulted in garbage. A Moon Shaped Pool is as difficult for the listener as it was for those who created it, but difficulty is a removable obstacle. Radiohead obviously overcame the challenges of A Moon Shaped Pool through dedication and professionalism, and listeners can overcome the natural tendency to avoid unpleasantness and use the opportunity provided by A Moon Shaped Pool to expand heart and soul to encompass aspects of human experience that are often trivialized by daily existence.

Truth, after all, is beauty, no matter how painful, no matter how frightening, no matter how real.

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