Radiohead’s ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ May Be the Band’s Fitting Farewell

When Radiohead released the first single from their cryptic, then-unnamed new release, I gave the track, “Burn the Witch,” a quick listen and subsequently prepared myself for disappointment. As with the entirety of their last LP, The King of Limbs, “Burn the Witch” just didn’t immediately grab me upon first listen.

But I had forgotten, Radiohead isn’t a very immediate band, but they are a smart one. Though touted by music critics high and low, their brilliance is a subtle one that can sneak up on you if you only give it the time. The 11 tracks from A Moon Shaped Pool don’t struggle to catch your attention, but rather begin quietly and bloom so naturally you might not even notice their complexity.

“Desert Island Disk” is a great example of the band’s ability to turn a simple acoustic reverie into a lush soundscape, loaded with otherworldly orchestrations that pile on so gradually you might not even notice half of them upon first listen. The band’s kraut rock influences are especially evident in one of the album’s longest tracks “Ful Stop,” a track that also boasts another of Radiohead’s rare strengths–mood. There’s a sinister bass groove, mournful choirs, harmonic guitar, swelling organ, and a whole lot more, all changing ever so slightly and chugging along in conflict. The conflict adds up to an atmosphere and emotion so specific to Radiohead it’s easy to forget it exists before rediscovering their discography once again.

It’s the craftsmanship that’s made the band so quietly influential. So many people try to sound like Radiohead, but no one really sounds like them. Their songs are too seamless and effortless that they seem to belong to another world, or they at least seem to be the product of synthesized studio trickery. I haven’t perused the liner notes, but it sounds to me that very little on A Moon Shaped Pool is anything but live instruments, impeccably layered and cleverly manipulated to sound unlike anything else you’ve heard before — just listen to that strange guitar solo in “Identikit.” How they manage to coordinate all these complex layers together without making the songs feel overstuffed, but rather airy and ethereal, is far beyond me. These songs blend so beautifully and hypnotically, never losing that omnipresent sense of anxiety inherent to any Radiohead song.

Thom Yorke

Thom Yorke | Phil Walter/Getty Images

If anything, the record is even gloomier and more hopeless than earlier Radiohead efforts, existing in a dystopia in the present rather than one looming on the horizon. “The damage is done,” Yorke sings in his trademark reserved croon on “Daydreaming,” a lush swirling of keyboards and orchestrations that also includes the sheep mantra, “We are happy just to serve.” Though most of the lyrics are too elliptical to be easily understood, the band seems to be acknowledging how the paranoid delusions of the digital age from OK Computer have matured into paranoid realities we all blindly accept. It’s easy to forget because of their signature lack of immediacy, but Radiohead had more than a few prophetic ideas about the future of music production, and the future as a whole that ring truer with each passing year.

“Burn the Witch” still ranks among the album’s weakest tracks for me, hewing closer to The King of Limbs in its reliance on mood over melody, offering sinister orchestras and little else. “Ful Stop” just barely escapes the same fate thanks to its shifting textures and fascinating sense of conflict. The album is at its strongest when the tracks can manage both moving melody and effortlessly expanding soundscapes within the same song, as with “Desert Island Disk,” “Decks Dark” or “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief.” Man, that title’s a mouthful.

I wouldn’t rank A Moon Shaped Pool among the band’s best albums, though it certainly beats the comparatively bland alt-rock of their earliest efforts and the unfinished scrawl of empty layers of 2012’s The King of Limbs. It’s a little too reserved to match the urgency of OK Computer or the sheer melodic strength of In Rainbows, and a little too familiar to be as intoxicating a reinvention as Kid A. But without the curse of comparison to Radiohead’s impressive discography, A Moon Shaped Pool is yet another accomplishment from a band so often praised it’s easy to forget the reasons behind all that praise. It doesn’t reinvent the band so much as it does take stock of what made them great in the first place, bearing recognizable hallmarks from just about every one of their previous efforts (save for their weak debut Pablo Honey).

This worthy, haunting summation of their discography fittingly ends with an acoustic rarity and fan favorite repurposed, as Yorke longs to feel loved and less alone on the aching, spare “True Love Waits.” Amid all the mournful end-times imagery and disconnection, this simple desire feels like an appropriate way to end Radiohead’s storied run. If the rumors of their dissolution are indeed true, they’ll be leaving us with yet another high note in a career overrun with them.

Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf

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