Radiohead, sonic transformation and “moon shaped pool” of defeat

Courtesy of WireImage
Courtesy of WireImage

Radiohead fans are weird. As raving, rabid ones ourselves, we can tell you that upon hearing that their website was slowly disappearing, we logged on and watched it disappear in real time over the course of an entire day. Throughout the entire media stunt, where Radiohead methodically erased their online presence, there was a ton of speculation as to what this might augur for their highly anticipated ninth full length LP. However, “A Moon Shaped Pool” was eventually delivered to us the following Sunday.

“A Moon Shaped Pool,” as a record is completely distinct from everything the band has ever released before. Driven by Jonny Greenwood’s lush orchestral arrangements, this album is sonically the most elegant record they have ever made. Songs such as “Daydreaming” and “Glass Eyes” feature gorgeous piano melodies which compliment Thom Yorke’s vocals, pushed into the higher register.

Yet as another development in Radiohead’s artistry, Yorke’s dreamy falsetto transcends beyond a purely sonic inclusion and one which further contributes to the band’s political statement — or, in this case, lack thereof. The album is one laden with defeatist motifs, one which relinquishes Yorke’s well-documented environmentalist ideals — those which truly reached their forefront on his 2006 solo effort, “The Eraser” — and features a lament-ridden Yorke who has succumb to society’s lack of progress in this area. Thom’s falsetto on “Deck’s Dark” are not merely vocal lamentations, but peans to defeat. The gradual build of the lavish strings, pulsating bass, warped backing vocals to close “Daydreaming” accentuate this capitulation. “Deck’s Dark” features Yorke’s lower register and masterful lyricism as he sings, “and so we crumble / Still turning heads, you know where it’s at / This dread still covers us.”

There is a sense that the band is almost in retreat, returning to classical harmonics and melodies because their previous activist efforts proved unsuccessful. This defeatism is a reversal of an epistemology Radiohead has spent the last 25 years creating. This classism feels rooted in an appreciation of beauty in  the environment. The lush instrumentation of tracks such as “Daydreaming” and “Present Tense.”

From cataloguing anxiety about a technology-driven future in “OK Computer,” to commenting on the morbidity of contemporary political issues on “Hail To Thief,” Radiohead have set themselves up as a band that comments on pressing matters. Moreover, Yorke is a vocal critic on issues like climate change and global corporatism. However, “A Moon Shaped Pool” is a set departure from this politically committed stance.

The slow orchestral framework, coupled with lyrical ballads feels far more personal. Thematically, Yorke’s lyrics highlight an existential melancholy instead of a seemingly political angst. For example, on “True Love Waits,” Yorke sings “and true love waits / In haunted attics / and true love lives / on lollipops and crisps.”

To be clear, the political element is not entirely absent. The opening song, “Burn The Witch” is in many ways, a political commentary on nativism which has returned because of the refugee immigration crisis. Yorke sings, “Stay in the shadows/ Cheer at the gallows/This is a round up/ this is a low flying panic attack.” The central image of witch burning is loaded with symbolism, and conjures up the famous play by Arthur Miller, “The Crucible,” which explored themes of paranoia and collective hysteria. However, “A Moon Shaped Pool” takes these political themes and pushes them into the background, foregrounding the record on a deeply personal level. The result is a harrowing journey through political defeatism.

With their new album, Radiohead’s perpetual state of transformation is complete: there is not a single band that has continually reworked their sonic palette, perpetually evolving their sound. Where their sophomore album, “The Bends” was iconic of early 90s grunge rock with gnashing guitar riffs and heavy percussion, “Kid A” was an electronic album more reminiscent of Krautrock. Using synthesizers and innovative sampling techniques, they created a pastiche of sounds for the new millennium. Continuing this trend, “A Moon Shaped Pool” serves as an album which will cement their legacy as the greatest band of all time.

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