Radiohead are a band that, at this point in their 30+ year career, need little introduction. They’ve been known throughout the years for, among other things, the sheer unpredictability of their sonic evolution. So when word came that a new Radiohead album was to be released in 2016, there was excitement as well as uncertainty. Would this new album be a return to the guitar heroics of old, or perhaps a further expansion of the skittering electronica of 2011’s The King of Limbs, or perhaps something else entirely? The answer, as has always been the case with Radiohead, was none of the above. Their newest album, titled A Moon Shaped Pool, at once draws from seemingly every Radiohead era without sounding like any of their prior releases, making for a truly remarkable listen.
The most obvious aspect of Radiohead’s recent sound shift lies in the newfound prominence of a string section. Album opener and promotional single “Burn the Witch,” with its col legno strings is the most immediate example of this orchestral flavor, but the London Contemporary Orchestra is used frequently throughout A Moon Shaped Pool, always to great effect. For instance, in “The Numbers,” the orchestra pops up as Thom Yorke “call[s] upon the people” to “take back what is ours,” giving the lyrics a grandiose, theatrical sense of power, while in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” (a ridiculous title if ever there was one), the orchestra counterbalances subdued electronics with a strong primary melody the grows only richer as the song plays on. The overall effect never comes off as cheesy exhibition, instead serving as a way to legitimately enhance the music.
Orchestral flourishes are not all that’s new to Radiohead’s sound, though. A Moon Shaped Pool features a subdued but nevertheless stirring blend of genres. Take for instance “Desert Island Disk” which starts off as gentle British folk before seamlessly transitioning to smoky jazz, while Yorke pleads for understanding. Or take “Identikit,” which begins with a groovy Colin Greenwood bassline and a plaintive Yorke vocal and ends with a jagged math rock guitar solo. The variation on display is never ostentatious, and the songs all largely maintain a similar tone, but from a musical standpoint the album has enough going on to always be interesting to an observant listener, a fact helped in large part by the pitch perfect production of Nigel Godrich.
Much has been made of the perceived darkness of Radiohead’s music over the years, with many focusing on recurring themes of alienation and paranoia in Yorke’s lyrics. And indeed, A Moon Shaped Pool continues this trend, with songs that are off-putting even at their brightest and are utterly devastating at their darkest. The songs here speak of encroaching shadows, of corrupt global powers, and, perhaps, of the disintegration of Yorke’s 23-year relationship. And yet despite the darkness on display, A Moon Shaped Pool is no dour slog, instead serving as a unique shining gem in Radiohead’s already sterling catalog.