Radiohead finds beauty in anxiety with ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’

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A Moon Shaped Pool — Radiohead’s ninth LP — opens with a red herring. The album opener “Burn the Witch” is a concept that has been floating around the band for more than a decade — teased, referenced, but never released in full. It arrives with a flourish of frantic, biting col legno strings orchestrated by Jonny Greenwood. Would orchestral panic be the band’s novel angle on the anxiety ridden despair of existence?

Not at all. When the album released a few days later, we found it shimmering with lush string harmonies, soft piano melodies and vocals from the London Contemporary Orchestra choir. A Moon Shaped Pool is the most beautiful record Radiohead has ever put out; it is cohesively, comprehensibly, intentionally beautiful.

That’s quite a shift. Anxiety, whether it be over technology, social isolation or environmental destruction, doesn’t lend itself well to beauty. It exists in discordance, in undulating, jerky drum tracks and slightly screechy guitars. We get little of that here. “Burn the Witch” is arguably the album’s only tonally anxious track, and even it is beautiful to listen to.

That’s not to say the band hasn’t released beautiful music in the past. But this is the first time it has been a guiding principle for an album. The anxiousness isn’t gone. Thom Yorke still croons lines like “A frightening place / Their faces are concrete grey / And I’m wondering / Should I turn around?” and “When I see you messing me around, / I don’t want to know.” Or, in the heart-wrenching album-closer “True Love Waits,” Yorke scratchily moans the simplest phrase, “Please don’t leave.”

But when blended into the simple, gorgeous instrumentation supplied by Jonny Greenwood — who has recently spent time scoring films such as “There Will Be Blood” and “Inherent Vice” — we feel instead that the band has come to terms with anxiety. The album finds comfort in it.

Though, like every Radiohead release, the album requires some time to get into; this is arguably the most accessible Radiohead record to date. Yorke’s vocals, an instrument as much as the strings or guitars, are uncharacteristically lucid and discernable, and Greenwood’s orchestral parts maintain comfortable harmonious chords. There’s even something resembling a guitar solo in “Identikit.”

For an album comprising a heavy mix of new and old material — several of the songs have appeared in various forms over the years — it feels remarkably cohesive. It plays like an inverted triangle, a funnel that begins with the widest sonic landscape in “Burn the Witch” and ends with the stripped, simple piano riffs of “True Love Waits.”

It’s impossible to ignore the weight carried by each Radiohead release. The band has always tended to split people into two camps: those that think each new album represents a revolution in music and those, such as Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher, who figure, “If Thom Yorke fucking shit into a light bulb … it’d probably get 9/10.”  

Looking back, however, we find the band’s prior release The King of Limbs coasting along with generally favorable reviews but little lasting impression, certainly nowhere near the unanimous, universal acclaim surrounding OK Computer almost two decades ago.

A Moon Shaped Pool is somewhere in between — substantive enough to be challenging and engaging, yet not trying to rewrite the rules of what constitutes alternative music. It’s true to the band’s roots and to the unique lyrical relationship Yorke and Radiohead have developed with anxiety, both as an abstract concept and a very concrete panic. Yet, at the same time, the album is traditional in its instrumentation and structure. It’s approachable. It’s an evolution in sound. And that, in and of itself, is an impressive accomplishment for a band that has been writing and performing for 31 years.

In an era when singles are pumped out at the rate studios can master them, Radiohead is perfectly content to let a song incubate and evolve and be tinkered with for a decade, if that’s what it takes for them to feel comfortable putting it on an album. Their patience, and ours, has paid off.

Imad Pasha covers music. Contact him at [email protected].