Published May 10, 2016Just over a decade ago, the going line about Radiohead was that the English band could "release an album of its members farting into a paper bag and still be called geniuses." That seems like centuries ago now; in the following years — and particularly following the release of the hyper-divisive The King of Limbs in 2011 — the band have become something of a punch line themselves, a go-to symbol for the kind of self-serious music snobbery that's fallen out of fashion in the Age of Poptimism.
But for an album that features the London Contemporary Orchestra's string ensemble and choir on all but two of its 11 tracks, A Moon Shaped Pool hardly feels like the work of a band taking themselves too seriously; if anything, Radiohead's ninth album is their most effortlessly languid yet, a record that stretches out and unfolds gently, warmly. It isn't their most ambitious album — which will surely be alarming to some fans, given the band's beloved penchant for tearing everything down and building again with each record — but it's almost certainly their prettiest.
The album's first single and opening song, "Burn the Witch," is something of a red herring — unlike the rest of the album, it employs the strings to create tension, using staccato notes to create an urgency that builds to the song's climactic finale — but from there, a sense of unhurried grace permeates A Moon Shaped Pool. "Daydreaming," easily the best song here, starts with repeating piano chords that slowly allow electronic elements, like haunting snippets of Thom Yorke's chopped and reversed voice, and a woozy, aquatic keyboard line, to seep into the mix. By the fourth minute, the string ensemble has swept the whole thing off its feet, only to set it down again six minutes in.
The choir are employed frequently but understatedly here: on "Decks Dark," they lay a soft bed of harmony that allows sparkling piano chords to shine brightly overtop; on "Identikit," they provide a subtle melodic counterpoint to Yorke as a deep bass drum and hollow-sounding snare pulse tautly along underneath, then take over from the increasingly frantic singer, almost as if to soothe him, around the song's "Broken hearts make it rain" refrain; and they lend a fluid, kinetic beauty to the shuffling "Present Tense."
The strings are used similarly, if more strikingly, providing swells that buoy the climaxes of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief" and the luminous "Glass Eyes," which begins with a bubbling synth line that pans deliciously from left to right. The expansiveness of it all is a relief after the jittery, claustrophobic The King of Limbs, but it also shares a crucial trait with that album: a lack of urgency.
Radiohead built their empire on tension, a bottled up anger that would resolve itself, in their best work, with an outburst: the buzz-saw bass in the wailing climax of "Exit Music (For a Film)"; the piano chords that stomp through the second half of "You and Whose Army?"; the "You have not been paying attention!" explosion that blows "2+2=5" wide open. Even the more uptempo numbers here — the throbbing groove of "Ful Stop," with propulsive guitars reminiscent of "Jigsaw Falling Into Place," and the aforementioned "Identikit" — are softer than their antecedents. But that's not the problem here; masterpieces like "The Gloaming," "How to Disappear Completely" and "Like Spinning Plates" conveyed fear, isolation and bitterness, respectively, not though distortion but through expert songcraft and nuanced arrangement.
That lack of tension and urgency throughout stops A Moon Shaped Pool from being a classic on par with Radiohead's best work, but then, perhaps that's the wrong standard to reasonably hold an album that trades the band's trademark anxiety for acceptance, their experimentalism for elegance. Throughout, but particularly on album closer "True Love Waits," which finds new, spacious life here after being immortalized on Radiohead's 2001 live album I Might Be Wrong, the band take moments from their past and reconfigure them with lush, dignified arrangements that recognize the beauty in peace.
As a result, A Moon Shaped Pool is a gorgeous, sweeping record whose best moments — the stirring string parts of "The Numbers," the gentle lilt of "Glass Eyes" and all six magnificent minutes of "Daydreaming" — find Radiohead at their dazzling best, reflecting something of their past while stretching forward, too. And really, what more can you ask of a band 25 years into their career? (Dawn Chorus LLP/XL Recordings)