With their ninth studio album, Radiohead move beyond the existential angst that made them music’s preeminent doomsayers, pursuing a more personal—and eternal—form of enlightenment.
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Radiohead, who titled their ninth studio album A Moon Shaped Pool, have a unique grasp on how easily profundity can slip into banality. Their music is obsessed with the point where great truths harden into platitudes, where pure signal meets wretched noise. In the past, Thom Yorke has sharply peppered his lyrics with everyday cliches to suggest a mind consumed by meaningless data, but on the new album, he largely moves beyond cynicism. He is now considering simpler truths in a heretofore-unexplored register: wonder and amazement. “This goes beyond me, beyond you,” he sings on “Daydreaming.” “We are just happy to serve you.” There is no concealed razor under Yorke’s tongue as he offers this thought, or in the pearly music that surrounds him. It sounds for all the world like the most cloistered and isolated soul in modern rock music opening up and admitting a helplessness far more personal than he’s ever dared. Yorke has flirted with surrender before, and on A Moon Shaped Pool, that submission feels nearly complete.
The album is framed by two older pieces of music that act as gateways to the darker, unfamiliar waters within. Opener “Burn the Witch” has been floating around, in some form or another, since Kid A. “This is a low-flying panic attack,” Yorke announces, explicitly linking to the bad old days of air crashes, iron lungs, and wolves at doors. (In fact, several of the song’s lyrics—“avoid all eye contact,” “cheer at the gallows”—first appeared in the album art to 2003’s anti-Bush polemic Hail to the Thief.) Meanwhile, Jonny Greenwood’s brittle modernist string arrangement reinforces the angst, turning the orchestra into a giant pair of gnashing teeth. It’s a vintage splash of Radiohead stomach acid, a cloud of gnats unleashed in your cranial nerves.
It also feels like an exorcism for what follows: a plunge into something scarier than the military industrial complex, or the insidious nature of propaganda, or human nature’s disturbing tendency towards unquestioning obedience. Yorke separated from his partner of 23 years and the mother to his two children last August, and on “Identikit,” he sings “Broken hearts make it rain” and “When I see you messin’ me around, I don’t want to know.”
That isn’t to say that this is necessarily a “break-up album.” Separations (particularly those involving children) take place in the harsh light of day, with lawyers’ appointments and checklists and logistical arrangements. Radiohead albums are the stuff of dreams and nightmares, and the band retains a healthy resistance to clarity; their music is a maze of signs you can peer into any way you like. Even so, the impact of trauma, a sort of car crash of the soul, is palpable. The music here feels loose and unknotted, broken open in the way you can only be after a tragedy. “There’s a spacecraft blocking out the sky,” Yorke observes on “Decks Dark,” as choral voices pass overhead. The scene is straight from 1997’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” but here Yorke doesn’t sound “uptight.” He sounds utterly drained, as if impending invasion doesn’t concern him at all.
A song title like “Glass Eyes” hints at many of the band’s longstanding morbid preoccupations—the semblance of humanity in something cold and dead, or the violation of the biological body by foreign objects—but the song is a bloodflow of strings straight into the heart. “Hey it’s me, I just got off the train,” Yorke sings, and it’s a strikingly ordinary image: the Paranoid Android himself, picking up the phone and calling someone to tell them he’s just arrived. “I feel this love turn cold,” he confesses as the ballad draws to a close, the phrasing an echo, subconscious or not, of his Kid Asign-off “I’ll see you in the next life.” A throbbing cello appears like a lump in the throat; the song fades away.
Throughout the album, Yorke’s everyday enlightenment is backed by music of expanse and abandon. The guitars sound like pianos, the pianos sound like guitars, and the mixes breathe with pastoral calm. “The Numbers,” a song about the impending apocalypse brought on by climate change, meanders along, its groove as wide as an ocean. Even the malevolent synth wave that passes through “Ful Stop” sounds like a visitor, a momentary darkness rather than a caged spirit. As the song builds, the band works up a coursing groove that will feel familiar to longtime fans, with its interlocking guitars and an arterial bustle of rhythms serving to launch Yorke’s wordless moan. It’s a sound that Radiohead has spent the last decade honing, but the payoff here is deeper and more gratifying than it has been in a while.
The added dimension comes from Yorke, who pumps fresh oxygen into these songs, many of which have existed in sketch-like forms for years. On the lonely folk hymn “Desert Island Disk,” he sings of an epiphanic experience: “The wind rushing ‘round my open heart/An open ravine/In my spirit white.” As a vision of transformation, it feels like the inverse to Amnesiac’s “Pyramid Song,” where his only companions were the dead; here, he is “totally alive.”
And then there’s “True Love Waits.” It’s an old song, one that has been around in various forms for over two decades, but unlike “Burn the Witch” or the other teased sketches and scraps that Radiohead diehards pick apart on forums, it’s long been a part of their canon. It appeared on the 2001 live album I Might Be Wrong and, dragged into 2016, feels like a relic from a different geological era. “I’ll drown my beliefs,” Yorke sings, “just don’t leave.” It is the message they leave us with, this very open-hearted song that has always felt like an open wound in their discography, a geyser of feeling erupting out of scorched earth. Its very inclusion is a striking moment of transparency.
The version here is just Yorke and a piano, so reverberant and echo-drenched that it feels like we’ve stuck our heads inside it. Yorke croons tenderly, never opening up into his chest voice. It’s sung to one person this time, not crowds. In its mundane visions of “lollipops and crisps,” the lyrics purposefully skirt doggerel, an acknowledgment that cliches can be, in fact, where all the action is. “I’m not living/I’m just killing time,” the 47-year-old admits. You can write a line like that and set it to music; you can perform it for years in front of adoring millions; you can carry the idea around in your heart and mind. But it might take a lifetime for it to strike, as it does here, with a newfound power. The truth, as always, lies in plain sight, right there in the kicking and the squealing, the panic and the vomit. Some truths just take longer to see than others.