In Pitchfork’s list of the top 50 albums of 2016, contributor Jeremy D. Larson wrote,”After eight albums of labyrinths and paranoia and rabbit holes, Radiohead finally let us in.”
That pretty much sums up my experience of A Moon Shaped Pool. I think this is quite possibly Radiohead’s best album (I say “quite possibly” only because of the diversity and strength of their back catalog). In my opinion, the album’s success is due in large part to Thom Yorke’s refusal, for the first time ever, to couch his pain and vulnerability in esoteric lyrics.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind a few months.
I’ll admit that I got completely caught up in the theatrical promotional cycle that preceded the album’s release in May. It was the most exciting roll-out since Arcade Fire teased Reflektor back in 2013 with secret shows and mysterious logos. (Evidently, I have a weak spot for elaborate album releases, though some find them pretentious.) Radiohead’s claymation Instagram teasers, the riveting and sinister video for “Burn the Witch,” the fever dream that was the “Daydreaming” video, the sudden social media whiteout — it was all a lot of fun that made it hard to concentrate on studying critical theory and writing term papers.
Still, my anticipation was coloured with restraint. Whatever you thought of The King of Limbs, it was no one’s favourite Radiohead album, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the five-year gap between A Moon Shaped Pool and The King of Limbs was a signal that Radiohead, like post-2004 U2, was struggling to muster more magic. Maybe the well had gone dry, or Yorke had poured the lion’s share of his creativity into DJing and solo projects. On top of that, Radiohead’s genius has always been slightly elusive. I loved their back catalog intellectually, but that same cerebral quality meant that I seldom longed to hear one of their older albums.
Then, suddenly, A Moon Shaped Pool was upon us, released simultaneously around the world. Somehow, remarkably, the music lived up to the hype, and even surpassed it. A Moon Shaped Pool was the album that really made Radiohead click for me. Here, Yorke had laid bare so much emotion. Consider the opening line of “Glass Eyes”: “Hey it’s me, I just got off the train.” That is a Radiohead lyric that would have been unthinkable fifteen years ago.
After two listens, I knew this was my album of the year. It’s because of a thousand little things. The way the coiled, tense, yet delicate “Decks Dark” builds then evaporates into the hushed “Desert Island Disk,” each strum of that acoustic guitar sounding like a heart breaking. The textured percussion on “Present Tense.” The unhurried, jazzy, intricate drumming of Philip Selway, with its pattering snare and chiming ride cymbal, each fill perfectly placed. Colin Greenwood’s brooding basslines, snaking around his brother Jonny’s beautiful yet dissonant string arrangements. The perfect layering, the tinkling sound effects, the genius loops. And, bringing it all to a close, the twenty-year heartbreak of “True Love Waits,” which gradually accumulated meaning over the years, then let it all spill out onto the keys of Yorke’s piano. All of the songs work, and they work perfectly, whether stripped down or layered up.
This is the album of the year, and it taught us all a lesson: don’t underestimate great bands, even when they’ve been around for awhile.