Radiohead’s music has historically been about feeling bad, but listening to Radiohead’s music has, on some level, usually felt good. To wail along with Thom Yorke, to nod to Phil Selway’s and Colin Greenwood’s grooves, and to hum Ed O’Brien’s and Jonny Greenwood’s guitar lines (or ondes Martenot lines, or synthesizer lines, or what have you), is to experience joy—even if that joy is minuscule in comparison to the grinding oppression, spiritual emptiness, and impending doom that Yorke likes to sing about. Radiohead fans are fans, foremost, for the thrill of catharsis.
This seeming contradiction between message and medium isn’t unique to the band. Pop music can be placed next to the momentarily reassuring human inventions—movies, monarchy, vehicular safety features—that OK Computer dramatized and sneered at. Which means, at base level, it’s a tricky format for fully expressing antisocial emotions or radical critiques. Kurt Cobain wasn’t able to mock away the ones singing all the pretty songs; Beyoncé hasn’t been able to escape bell hooks’s critique that she’s queen only of an exploitative system; Yorke and his band have remained on stage at the idioteque.
Radiohead have, again and again, addressed this tension. Listening to 1995’s The Bends today can be shocking because of the brightness of the guitar music next to some of the dourest lyrics Yorke would ever sing. Since then, they’ve moved away from rock and its ability to induce fist pumping, though the band’s crystalline songwriting has shone through every time—even through the drabbest arrangements of their career on 2011’s lukewarmly received King of Limbs. Radiohead’s brilliance has been in pushing everything about the music to as strange a place as it can go without breaking the underlying songs.
It takes a while—longer than ever before—to locate the underlying songs on A Moon Shaped Pool. The leap the band has made for this album initially might seem small but actually is profound: less a shift in instrumentation than in outlook, structure, and the intended sources of gratification from the music. By deleting their Internet presence before its release, Radiohead may have been suggesting a new era, and indeed, this is the first album of theirs that suggests a post-pop world. Accordingly, A Moon Shaped Pool delivers little joy but a whole lot of beauty.
The band arrives at this new paradigm gradually over the course of the album, with the first two songs (also the first two singles) making clear they could record another “classic” Radiohead album if they wanted to. The main innovation of the opening tracks is a lushness that partly reflects Greenwood’s recent work in the classical-music world. “Burn the Witch” uses strings as diesel for the band to vroom along the familiar turns of verse/chorus/verse/chorus, a format whose manipulative power is deployed sarcastically here (as it has frequently been for protest singers). “Sing a song on the jukebox that goes ‘burn the witch,’” Yorke squeals, a quick dig at catchiness itself.
Then comes “Daydreaming,” a delicate waltz whose swirling pianos and lilting vocals are flecked with little bursts of sound that resemble rewinding tape. Yorke sings about having crossed a point of no return, and by the end of the song, noise has replaced prettiness. The amusical rumble of a backmasked, pitch-shifted Yorke saying “half my life” may be a reference to him having recently split with the woman he’s been dating for, yes, half his life.
Stipulated: If it was controversial to see Lemonade as Beyoncé’s autobiography, it’s probably criminal to go around talking about A Moon Shaped Pool as a breakup album for Yorke, who, the legend goes, wrote parts of Kid A off of phrases pulled from a hat. Nevertheless, this album makes the most sense when heard as a document of a wrenching chapter for one human being. Of course, there are larger apocalyptic themes here too; “The Numbers,” formerly entitled “Silent Spring,” pretty clearly asks the world to not give up on reversing climate change. But no longer is Yorke’s music mostly about dread—it’s about what happens after the dreadful and inevitable has arrived. The video for “Daydreaming” is instructive as to the answer: Yorke is in a daze, wandering through brief visions of alternate realities and lives, alienated from the notion of existence as a linear narrative.
The real source of the album’s triumphs and frustrations is the production. In nearly every bar of music, Nigel Godrich (who has said he channeled his father’s death into the making of A Moon Shaped Pool) adds in panning and zipping sounds, or suddenly replaces one instrument with another, or manipulates reverb into new shapes. It’s not that the music’s crowded—the sound here is somehow roomier, airier than ever—but that so many elements are continually mutating in unusual ways. In the micro, the change is fascinating; in the macro, disorienting. Maybe that’s part of why the band opted for mostly slower material: to let the textures become the main event. These are sculptures before they’re songs.
A “jam” here might qualify as “Decks Dark,” where a metronome’s overtaken by a live drum kit, a fleet of trilling pianos make melody and chaos, and choral moaning accompanies Yorke spinning a prophecy about a spaceship coming to block out all light. It’s sung in the second-person, with the strongest emotion conveyed being a slight sinking feeling toward the middle of the song. “You gotta be kidding me,” Yorke says, perhaps to death itself.
Some of the tracks seem to address the music’s relationship to emotion. The big example is “Identikit,” which I’ve convinced myself is Radiohead’s final kiss-off to pop. In a middle portion that sounds like it could have been a chorus on an earlier Radiohead album, Yorke sings, “Broken hearts make it rain,” before a group of backing singers take over the refrain and carry it into the distance as the song moves on. Maybe it’s a passage about global warming, maybe it’s about Yorke’s breakup, but maybe it’s using slang to talk about turning pain into sellable sap, something the album steadfastly refuses to do.
Similarly, “Present Tense” brings bossa nova into Radiohead’s portfolio as Yorke sings remarkably straightforward lyrics about dancing as escape from the thought of having spent love in vain. But you can’t really envision anyone moving to the tune with the abandon of, say, Yorke in the “Lotus Flower” video. There’s another would-be rave about regret via the six-minute krautrock workout “Full Stop,” but it’s hard to locate yourself in the song; Yorke’s singing is often swallowed up by the mix.
Most ambitious is “The Numbers,” which fuses classic-rock elements and film-score strings on an epic scale even while adhering to the album’s ever-liquefying mentality. The guitars on the song recall Neil Young’s “Old Man,” offering perhaps coincidental support for the idea that A Moon Shaped Pool is about seeing the world through the specific lens of age. Yorke in the “Daydreaming” video looks so grizzled and unshowered that it feels like provocation—it certainly doesn’t mean that much to him, at this point in this life, to mean that much to you.
The image of a greying Yorke comes to mind again in the fantastic troll of a closer, “True Love Waits.” The song has been an unreleased fan favorite in Radiohead’s live catalogue for two decades, a rare example of warm acoustic guitar and seemingly mushy lyrics. Pool’s studio version extinguishes the campfire to throw a funeral. As a piano chords ring out in slow, uneasy phrasings, it becomes obvious how ambivalent the song’s meaning has been all along. True love feels as though it’s being sung about in airquotes; it’s a construct that can erase individuality, a myth that the singer believed in until he didn’t. You can admire the song, but, finally, you can’t feel good about it.