Despite their grumpy stance on streaming and spare release schedule, Radiohead is a generous band. Its members care deeply about music, and they want to share it with people with minimal interference. They aren’t shy with beauty. There’s a line that sticks out in the middle of “Daydreaming,” the gentle waltz released as a single a few days before the band’s new album was made available in full: “We are just happy to serve you.” Thom Yorke sings it and finds himself swept away by strings and piano; snippets of his voice materialize and flutter as if buffeted by gusts of wind. It sounds like the world’s most fussed-over supermarket commercial, the kind of moment that’d soundtrack a meeting in the aisle as a camera pulls away and pans over rows of gleaming shelves.
I keep returning to this line while spending time with A Moon Shaped Pool, the band’s ninth LP and first in five years. This is music made with service in mind: stewardship over the planet, the accommodation of emotional needs, even straightforward fan service. The writing and melodies are direct, even as the album largely eschews traditional verse-chorus structure, and the tone is conciliatory. There’s something for everyone: orchestral enthusiasts, jazz freaks, rock diehards, conspiracy theorists, people who just want to get swept away by a wicked crescendo or two. The album glows with benevolence.
A Moon Shaped Pool has roots in every part of Radiohead’s discography, a quality you can chalk up to the age of its constituent parts. Many of its songs have been floating around for years, even decades; “True Love Waits” is probably older than a decent chunk of the band’s fans. Songs like “Burn the Witch,” “Identikit,” and “Present Tense” aren’t as long in the tooth, but they’re the product of prolonged tinkering rather than fresh bursts of compositional inspiration. The result is an album with room for full-band explosions, honest-to-God guitar solos, Latin warmth, and symphonic grandeur. And while its closest antecedent is In Rainbows on beauty alone, A Moon Shaped Pool trades that album’s sensuality and structural rigor for big, cinematic moments.
“Cinematic” is a descriptor you have to treat with care, especially when you’re talking about Radiohead. Their discography is littered with songs that bloom and unfurl like movies in miniature: “The Tourist,” “How to Disappear Completely,” “Weird Fishes / Arpeggi.” They’ve written songs called “Exit Music (For a Film)” and “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” The bar’s been set high, and A Moon Shaped Pool clears it with the most consistently dramatic music of the band’s career.
The most consistently dramatic music of the band’s career
The bulk of that drama is generated by Jonny Greenwood’s arrangement, much of it brought to life by the London Contemporary Orchestra. (If you needed proof that his refinement as a composer could pay dividends in a more traditional context, this album provides it in spades.) Lead single “Burn the Witch” would fall apart without its prim, uneasy strings; “Decks Dark” is given color by an amorphous chorus lurking behind Yorke’s lead vocal; “Glass Eyes” feels like the opening scene from a retelling of Walden, one in which Yorke turns to the wilderness to escape his anxiety. “Daydreaming” and “True Love Waits” ripple and twinkle at their edges, completely different songs unfolding just beyond the veil. And there’s nothing more breathtaking than the second half of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief,” a song that earns its mouthful of a title with two minutes of Bond-worthy brilliance. (It’s good enough to make you forget the band already recorded a would-be Spectre theme song.)
“Glass Eyes” is just the most direct expression of anxiety on a thoroughly anxious album. Unease snakes through the album like fat through a steak, taking different forms; Yorke & co. worry about the state of the world, the state of their relationships, the sensation of having lost control. “Burn the Witch” cracks the album open by announcing “this is a low-flying panic attack.” A single mistake festers and rots at the core of “Ful Stop” — “you really messed up everything” — until it erupts into the album’s most exciting band-driven sequence. “Identikit” supplies the closest thing to a sing-along moment, and it’s not exactly cheery: “Broken hearts make it rain! Broken hearts make it rain!”
“Different types of love are possible”
All of this discomfort makes the album’s moments of light that much more meaningful. The words and images that tend to linger are natural and reflective; they’re not exactly hopeful, but at the very least they’re acquiescent. The world around us serves as a recurring source of comfort: the sun shining through a window on “Daydreaming,” a ravine and a light breeze on “Desert Island Disk,” a mysterious path on “Glass Eyes,” an intangible lightness on “Present Tense.” “Decks Dark” finds Yorke imagining death as a giant spaceship, a devouring force none of us can escape. But the music isn’t sour or angry — instead, it radiates a mellow sort of acceptance. Yorke puts it best on the pastoral “Desert Island Disk,” closing the song with a single repeated line: “Different types of love are possible.”
This is A Moon Shaped Pool’s most unexpected virtue: its emotional magnanimity. It’s an album that suggests certain kinds of pain and suffering are inevitable. We can’t seem to keep ourselves from pushing the world to its environmental limits; we’re bound to hurt each other; we can’t cheat death. But you can concern yourself with the state of the world on a daily basis while still recognizing its beauty, and you can move forward with an open heart even if it’s been broken before.
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