Radiohead give us one of their most musically and emotionally arresting albums, full of flow-flying panic attacks and gorgeous orchestration.
For a Radiohead record, everything about the journalistic rush to judgment dictated by short-notice releases in our shoot-first media economy feels wrong, corrupt, diseased. That’s especially true for A Moon Shaped Pool, whose launch – that goofy word, as if LPs were space ships! – began with the band circulating snail mail, erasing its Facebook and Twitter histories, and issuing a song led by orchestral musicians whacking out beats on wooden instruments. Welcome to the new artisanal Radiohead: provisionally unplugged, old-worldly, and mass-produced with small-batch aesthetics as an antidote to low-flying panic attacks, if we could only slow the fuck down and savor it.
The idea isn’t just about art consumption, it seems, but about how to stay human. The band begins their first proper LP since The King Of Limbs – which occasioned the millennium’s inaugural surprise-release media frenzy in 2011 – with a song about lynch mobbing. “Burn The Witch” fits many scenarios: pile-on internet shaming, anti-immigration brutality, North Carolina bathroom hysteria. “Sing the song on the jukebox that goes/burn the witch” instructs Thom Yorke wryly, conjuring a falsetto Rudee Vallee crooning through a 21st-century Leni Reifenstahl reel. (The song’s video, animated in 20th-century stop-motion, in fact nods to the 1973 film The Wicker Man, where off-the-grid-leaning pagans have the fiery final word). Dude remains a locus for the collective fears and nightsweats of a generation of rock fans; the fact that the rock genre itself is verging on artisanal anti-pop only makes his work seem more vital.
If Radiohead have made the dehumanizing effects of technology their great theme, A Moon Shaped Pool is the first record in which, musically, they kick their way out of the machine, or at least make their cyborg soul more vestigial. Where Kid A and Amnesiac were defined by electronic music vernacular, this record is defined by its orchestral arrangements. The lion’s share of credit for these, presumably, goes to Jonny Greenwood, whose dystopian-romantic soundtracks (There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice) get taken seriously in classical music circles; they’re the work of no dilettante. That music is echoed here profoundly, and not gratuitously. The percussive col legno effects and dissonant harmonics on “Burn The Witch,” the piercing high choral voices on “Decks Dark” and “Present Tense,” are so integral to the songs they feel like instant Radiohead signatures. Pop history is short on truly great orchestral synthesis: Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle, the Beatles and George Martin, Nick Drake’s work with Harry Robinson and Robert Kirby. For now, let’s just say this is tremendously well done.
Electronics haven’t been abandoned, and the orchestrations, like the band’s “rock,” often seem shaped by techno and its kin. But the magic is in the blending. Greenwood is obsessed with dub reggae, the 20th century’s most soulful meeting of human instrumentation and technological disruption (see the excellent 2007 Jonny Greenwood is The Controller compilation). You hear its influence on “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief,” with Yorke’s voice moving in and out of the reverb pit, percussion shifting from electronic to acoustic, and a huge string coda receding over static; similar effects turn up elsewhere. The chattering ghost voices on “The Numbers,” a sort of cosmic folk-jazz jam, are straight out of Lee Perry. “Identikit” unspools like the downtempo b-side of some 1982 post-punk 12″, Yorke’s voice split into multiples, singing of broken hearts that make it rain over bass, drums, and a gorgeous staccato guitar outburst so dry and straightforward, it feels positively strange on a Radiohead record.
As always, it’s Yorke’s voice that holds the emotional center, and it’s never been more affecting. Credit both his delivery and the production clarity, a statement in and of itself. His falsetto scat on “Present Tense,” delivered over a bossa nova-style acoustic guitar, recalls the angelic earthiness of Brazil’s Milton Nascimento amidst greenhouse-gas ambience. “Desert Island Disk,” which Yorke premiered solo last December in Paris, is a folk song that conjures Nick Drake but, perhaps, for its ecstatic joy: “the wind rushing around my open heart,” Yorke sings with uncharacteristic bliss, “totally alive!”
The record’s most emblematic and powerful piece, however, might be it’s slightest. “Glass Eyes” is a chamber music miniature, almost a fragment, a piano plea wrapped in strings rising to the surface of digital sea. “Hey it’s me/I just got off the train/A frightening place… faces are concrete grey,” Yorke begins, like a cel phone call from an empty station stop. He admits a panic attack coming on (again). The masculine vulnerability is remarkable – it’s a song you want to hear Frank Ocean sing. But it’s a quintessential Radiohead moment, one character’s loneliness transmitting an overwhelming sort of collective empathy. The song ends as diaphanously as it begins, Yorke’s voice disappearing behind a veil of violins and violas like celestial static, a dangling conversation. You want to stop what you’re doing to hear it again, and again, to get to the bottom of it and simply savor its hand-cobbled beauty; to reestablish the human connection, or at least the model of one. The entire record—which might prove the most listenable in the band’s catalog—is like that; it seems to be the point, in fact. And after I hear it a few dozen more times, something I look forward to, I’ll see if I’m correct.