It’s official: we have a new Radiohead record! The band released its ninth studio album, A Moon Shaped Pool, on Sunday, making fans everywhere desperate for a little bit of privacy so they could sit down and soak the whole thing in without being interrupted.
Whenever Radiohead drops a new record, it always feels like an event. Heck, I can still remember skipping out on football practice the day Kid A came out in 2000 (in hindsight, this was a gift to the rest of the team; I was really bad) so I could get to Best Buy as fast as humanly possible.
The release of A Moon Shaped Pool is such an event that I wanted to try something a little different for my review. Instead of listening obsessively for the next week, reading a ton of other opinions online, and then trying to sit down and type out a few paragraphs, I thought I’d just give it two close listens and then share my initial reactions.
I asked two other lifetime Radiohead fans to do the same thing: sit down, listen, and then write out their most immediate thoughts. With a band as huge as Radiohead, it’s not really a matter of, “Is this good or bad?” Of course it’s good; these guys have never been flat-out bad, and I don’t imagine they’re going to start this far into their career. It’s more interesting, at least to me, to discuss the album with fellow fanatics. “What do you think? Did you make the same connection to an earlier album that I did? Do you like this more than their last one?”
So, here we go. Three huge fans sharing their initial reactions to A Moon Shaped Pool. We all reserve the right to completely change our mind by tomorrow. In fact, we probably will. But that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?
Your 3 Radiohead fans are …
Michael: That’s me! I still worship at the altar of Kid A, and I liked The King of Limbs more than most.
Matt: He knows every last Radiohead b-side inside and out. He also disliked The King of Limbs more than anyone I know.
Evan: He rates Kid A and Amnesiac above the rest.
Thoughts before listening:
Michael: Based on “Burn the Witch” and “Daydreaming,” I’m expecting a slight return to the bigger, more cinematic sound the band had from OK Computer through Hail to the Thief. In Rainbows and The King of Limbs had a looser, more straightforward vibe; I’m curious if “Burn the Witch” and “Daydreaming” are outliers or if the band truly has gone back to that older sound.
Matt: I’m trying my hardest to curb my enthusiasm since The King of Limbs was a bit of a disappointment for me. I’ve already heard “Burn the Witch” and “Daydreaming”, and quite liked both of them, so it’s hard to keep my guard up. But I keep remembering when all I had heard from The King of Limbs was “Lotus Flower,” and it ended up being one of the only tracks I liked.
Then again, I snuck a glance at the track listing when I was ordering the digital copy and couldn’t help but see “True Love Waits,” a fan favorite for decades, so if nothing else, I’m excited about that. I also know that Radiohead has never released an LP that sounded much like any of their previous LPs, so the only thing I can really expect is the unexpected.
I’m sitting in my bedroom, in the most comfortable chair in my house, with my most comfortable pair of headphones, the soft light of the pre-dusk sun coming in through the blinds, and a mint julep in my hand. Because yesterday was the Kentucky Derby, which to me is nothing but a convenient excuse to drink mint juleps. Okay, here it goes …
Evan: Okay, so, pre-listen, what are my thoughts? Well, I loved both of the singles released over the last week. They got me more hyped than I thought I’d be for the new album. I’ve found my enjoyment of a new Radiohead album is greatly increased by coming to terms with the fact they will never make anything as perfect as “The National Anthem” into “How to Disappear Completely” again, so I didn’t even rush home from my errands today to listen to this.
I did follow the buzz on Twitter leading right up to the release. After Thom’s divorce last year, some joked this would be his “Lemonade”. Others said they were already feeling depressed about the world and they hadn’t even listened yet. It’s easy to joke about the band. It can all feel a bit pretentious at times. But it’s still great fun, isn’t it?
Okay, let’s get this going…
1. Burn the Witch:
Michael: I’ve heard each of these a few times already, but it’s still nice to finally sit down and hear them in their proper context. “Burn the Witch” certainly doesn’t sound like a typical Radiohead album opener, yet here we are. Not a complaint, though; listening now, it works just fine.
I do really like “Burn the Witch”—it reminds me something from Hail to the Thief both lyrically and in the way it gets progressively more and more intense—but “Daydreaming” is on a whole other level. Those extra layers that keep weaving in and out of the mix are gorgeous, and I love Thom’s delivery throughout. Oh, and the weird backwards vocals at the tail end are strange as hell, in a good way.
I first listened to this song in the middle of a work day, with 40 other things on my mind. I liked it, but I also didn’t give it the attention it deserved. This is a heck of a song.
Matt: Already heard “Burn the Witch” several times since they released the music video. Definitely a strong intro, so already in my mind, this album has pulled ahead of The King of Limbs which had by far the weakest opening of any Radiohead album. And it has a stronger beat than 80% of the tracks on The King of Limbs. Okay I am going to have to work hard not to just shit all over The King of Limbs during this review. I like this song! Good intro to the album!
I have also already heard Daydreaming several times, although this is the first time with headphones. It’s definitely a better experience with headphones. This is a fantastic song. I love how it starts out like a rough OK Computer-era B Side and morphs into something out of an ambient indie game soundtrack.
As I said before, I can’t really expect this album to sound anything like their previous ones, but so far, it feels like it harkens back to the early 2000s era of Radiohead, which I couldn’t possibly complain about.
Evan: Yes, yes. Heard “Burn the Witch” a dozen times or so over the past week, so no surprises here. Love the immediacy of the strings right off the bat, track one. The jittery energy perfectly matches the nervous lyrics. Abandon all reason/Avoid all eye contact/Do not react/Shoot the messengers.
“Daydreaming” is just beautiful. As it starts playing, I’m realizing this is the first time I’m hearing this with headphones, even though I’ve watched the video a half-dozen times or more in the last couple days since the band tweeted it out. There’s so many subtle sounds giving a real sense of space that I didn’t pick up before. A conversation just quiet enough to be inaudible. Chimes echoing into nothingness.
It kinda reminds me of “Pyramid Song,” though while that song’s slow piano dirge takes you underwater (imagery aided by the accompanying video), “Daydreaming” has an uplifting, airy feel.
At 2:20, it really feels like you’re soaring, though looking down on unhappy scene. These ghostly wails that start bubbling up after a few minutes are much more haunting when not distracted by the video.
3. Decks Dark:
4. Desert Island Disk:
Michael: “Decks Dark” didn’t really set my world on fire or anything, but that guitar work near the end is a nice touch. I did love how it flowed right into the next song, “Desert Island Disk.” And that one did grab me right away. Thom singing over an acoustic guitar is pretty much guaranteed to make any Radiohead fan get a little extra excited, and I love that moment at 2:17 or so when the other instruments come up in the mix. Nice of you to join the party, guys!
Matt: Wow, it is getting harder and harder not to compare this material to what came out of the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions. “Decks Dark” starts with a simple, but solid electronic beat, a bit reminiscent of “A Punchup at a Wedding” minus the bass. That vaguely middle-eastern scale reminds me of Pyramid Song (what is that, phrygian mode or something?) although the bass definitely has a “Nude” feel.
Acoustic guitar and bass out the gate on “Desert Island Disk”! I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a Radiohead song start quite like this. And the guitar style is like nothing else I’ve heard out of Radiohead; it reminds me more of Jack White’s riff in “As Ugly as I Seem”
I love the simplicity of these last few tracks. A little splash of ambient sounds in the background but not too much to distract from Thom’s vocals and guitar. At 2:00 we get a bit more of that synth with effects that I loved so much from “Daydreaming.” Then Phil’s subtle drum groove … ooh and that little bridge at 3:10! OK, that’s enough restraint. I am seriously excited about this album now. I feel at this point, this album could conceivably top In Rainbows, which has been sitting at my 2nd favorite LP since its release.
Evan: Okay, something new. Drum machine on “Decks Dark” is joined by a piano progression that, admittedly, if it were playing on a Coldplay track, I might think was little too precious, but seeing as it’s backing Thom’s bleak lyrics, I’m buying in.
Speaking of lyrics, let me pull those up so I can follow along. But it was just a lie, just a lie/Just a lie, just a lie…This dread still covers us/You gotta be kidding me/The grass grows over me.
I love the bit of bouncy swagger that gets going around 3:30 and builds till the end, which has a little transition into “Desert Island Disk.”
Is this a Nick Drake song? Really dig the intimate feel of this one, with the acoustic guitar propelling things forward as this alien-sounding hum in the background kinda churns in and out of sharpness.
Waking, waking up from shutdown/From a thousand years of sleep literally did make me jolt up, as the background fell away. Energetically melancholy.
5. Ful Stop:
Michael: Yes! I love it. I feel like I’m racing through space or riding on an out-of-control boat ride with Willy Wonka. The song changes directions a few times while staying locked into a tight groove. I’m getting an In Rainbows vibe, and I like it.
THEM DRUMS at 3:10, and then that new vocal part just 9 seconds later? What a journey. Go crazy, folks! Go crazy!
Matt: Very interesting buildup here. We have abandoned whatever minimalism the previous two tracks had. I wonder where this is going.
3:20 – Ooooohhhhh, that’s where this is going! It’s so good to know they’re letting Phil play again. Maybe after he put out his impressive solo album the band was like, “Oh yeah, Phil is awesome, isn’t he?” And of course the rest of the band is awesome too, but Phil is like the salt that ties the whole dish together, bringing out all the flavor.
This song is like “Weird Fishes / Arpeggi” on speed. Not a bad thing at all.
Evan: The name says it all. Abrupt change in tone from the previous track. This bass line has the same jittery energy of the strings in “Burn the Witch,” though I’m a couple minutes in and feel like this might be the first miss on the album for me.
The guitar at 3:13 brings a lot more life to things however. And … whoa … hold on a second. Where am I? This one totally explodes in a swirl of energy as Thom screeches about All the good times and pleading Take me back/Take me back again. Definitely not a miss.
6. Glass Eyes:
Michael: Another great one. And there’s so much going on here! Little fluttering noises show up and then sneak away before you can even sort out what they were. The strings are laid on insanely thick here. It still works, but it approached being too much right as the song started slow down and then fade out.
Six songs in, and the band hasn’t let up yet with the complex arrangements. Even on the more basic “Desert Island Disk,” there were so many tiny little details. Even if a particular Radiohead song isn’t my favorite, I’ll never say these guys aren’t absolutely brilliant when it comes to arrangements and composition. Listen to the worst Radiohead song on good headphones and you’ll still be absolutely floored.
Matt: More dreamy, piano based ambient stuff. Once again, I feel transported back to 2001. Whoa, and that lyricism. And those strings. This song is just freaking gorgeous. This must have been what it felt like listening to “Motion Picture Soundtrack” for the first time.
Seriously, the lyrics in this feel so different from Thom’s usual style. More literal, less stream of consciousness. It’s remarkable how much that makes this song stand out.
Evan: Radiohead has always played with the tension of technology and nature, both lyrically and with their compositions, and the way this song’s opening electronic gurgles give way to the string section is a perfect example of the latter.
Lyrics call to mind the alienated narrator from … every other Radiohead song. The path trails off/And heads down a mountain/Through the dry bush, I don’t know where it leads/I don’t really care.
Michael: I’ve known of this song for a few years now, and the band actually played it when I saw them in 2012, but I can’t say I remembered much about it.
I dig the drumming that gets things started, and then we get some honest-to-goodness riffs! I was thrown off at first by the way Thom’s vocals were buried so deep at first, but then the second vocal part appears and it all makes sense. And I loved it when those background vocals started up at about 2:30, riding the synth like smelly, grass-covered kids on a Slip N Slide.
Ooh! I dig that guitar that takes the song home, starting at about 3:46! This is a damn weird song, and it’s going to take several listens before it fully sinks in, but I know I like it. Never change, guys!
Matt: More sweet drums and bass. This is the Radiohead I have grown to love. I believe this is a song that Radiohead have been playing live occasionally, but I have tried to shelter myself from their new songs until they make it on a studio release, so this is new to me.
This song is wonderful. The straightforward yet slightly complex beat, the subtle background vocal harmonization. The buildup to the heavier chorus. It’s all great. More sweet-ass synths come in about halfway through, and at around 3:10, dayum, that guitar riff is freaking badass too! I cannot say that sounds like anything I have heard from Radiohead thus far, but it’s wonderful.
The end of this song sounds like a rock cover version of NES Megaman stage music. And once again, I mean that 100% as a compliment. Fantastic. Possibly my favorite track so far in a sea of great tracks.
Evan: This one has been floating around online for a bit, if I recall, though I’m not as much of a completist with my media these days, so I’m not sure if I ever even sought it out. I sure don’t remember this. The drums really reverberate through the first part of this song and are at the heart of it overall for me, though that choir chanting Broken hearts/Make it rain is so dope, as is that guitar solo (!) at the end.
I’m just gonna listen to that one again …
8. The Numbers:
Michael: Holy crap. There’s a lot going on here, and I like it. Reminds me a bit of “Codex” and “Give Up the Ghost” from The King of Limbs. This is outstanding; my favorite track so far, or at least tied with “Daydreaming.”
Matt: Piano, bass, acoustic guitar. Some more subtle ambient stuff in the background. I love the improvisational, jam-like feel of the instrumentation in this song. It’s a little reminiscent of “Dollars and Cents.” And the bass almost makes it feel like a laid-back version of “Optimistic.”
Those vocal synths around 3:30 almost bring me back to OK Computer and all its wonderful mellotron; “Exit Music”, “The Tourist”, etc. What a cinematic feel this album has. (I guess I should have guessed that by the Paul Thomas Anderson-directed music video.)
Evan: Led Zeppelin-esque melody plucking along to start, but this song gets way more complicated. I can’t even really describe what all is happening, so I’ll leave that to someone else. The mood here, though, is considerably more optimistic than previous tracks. Whereas earlier, we heard about not caring where the path leads, here the narrator still believes things can be better. We call upon the people/People have this power/The numbers don’t decide/Your system is a lie.
9. Present Tense:
10. Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief:
Michael: Two perfectly fine songs … “Present Tense” wasn’t all that interesting at first, but there’s a lot of cool stuff happening here. And the song definitely has a little bit of a bounce in its step, which isn’t terribly common for Radiohead. You might even be able to play this for someone who normally hates Radiohead and get them to crack a bit of a smile.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” … well, those last 40 seconds or so of freaked me out a bit, I’ll give them credit there.
I don’t know why, but this one just isn’t clicking for me yet. But it’s obviously very early.
Matt: “Present Tense” is another one that I’m pretty sure is already a fan favorite from live performances, but new to me. That exotic swing feel of the percussion and guitar and I can’t help comparing this to the first movement of “Paranoid Android” now. But that’s really not fair.
I love the feel of this track. Another big departure, despite any superficial “Paranoid Android” comparisons.
Now for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” or whatever it’s called. Honestly it’s hard for me to concentrate at this point because I’m so excited to finally hear a studio version of “True Love Waits”. Oh, but the piano coming in around 2:00 is definitely a nice touch. And the ending of this almost had an “Airbag” feel.
There is no question this album beats out The King of Limbs and probably Amnesiac now in my personal Radiohead LP lineup. And this track solidifies the now undeniable cinematic vibe of this album.
Evan: Okay, another rope-a-dope here. After a minute of “Present Tense,” I felt an unsatisfying familiarity. Could’ve fit in on either Hail to the Thief or In Rainbows. As the song progresses, though, it feels more patient than what I remember from those albums, and those lyrics … man. So much of this album is about a very intimate pain, rather than the nervousness and anxieties of society that make up so much of their earlier work. As my world/Comes crashing down/I’m dancing/Freaking out.
The way “Tinker Tailor blah blah” kind of broods and then changes towards the climax reminds me a lot of “You and Whose Army?” It’s a good thing when a song reminds me of “You and Whose Army?”
11. True Love Waits:
Michael: Hearing a studio version of “True Love Waits” on a new Radiohead album in 2016 is pretty dang bizarre. A live version closed out I Might Be Wrong, the band’s 2001 live album, and here’s a studio version 15 years later. I’m a little underwhelmed listening now, but maybe because I’m just so used to that live version? It’s hard to say. But it’s going to take a while to adjust to that prominent piano part.
Matt: What a perfect end to this album. Fans have been waiting for two decades for Radiohead to deliver a studio cut of this song, and now all of us who truly love Radiohead are getting what we have waited for.
As an outro track, this has really got me comparing the album to In Rainbows now. It’s so reminiscent of “Videotape”; a simple, melancholy piano ballad. As a song on its own, I think I preferred it with acoustic guitar, but I think it works just great here.
Evan: I almost didn’t want to listen to this one. Hearing the live version so many times it’ll be too difficult to evaluate this fairly. Maybe I should just keep the live version as the definitive version in my head?
Nah, I gave it a shot. The context of Thom’s divorce gives this as much weight as the additional production, though I can’t help but miss the way the lyrics are belted out on the live take. The last words we hear are, “don’t leave,” and then the album ends.
Michael: My early opinion of A Moon Shaped Pool is that it’s the band’s slowest, most contemplative album yet. In Rainbows and The King of Limbs had a few songs where the band just seemed to cut loose and see where the rhythm would lead them, but that really only happens here on “Identikit,” which was a somewhat older song anyway.
The album’s complex arrangements and intricate song structures make it hard to judge so early, and I’m sure more and more details will reveal themselves over time. Overall, I (think) I like it a touch more than The King of Limbs, and I could easily grow to love it more than In Rainbows or Hail to the Thief, but it I don’t see it approaching that The Bends/OK Computer/Kid A/Amnesiac tier. Time will tell.
Favorites (so far): “Daydreaming,” “Ful Stop,” “Identikit,” and “The Numbers.”
Matt: For me, ending the album with “True Love Waits” is particularly poignant, since I was so disappointed by The King of Limbs, but did not let it make me too pessimistic about their next release. For me, it completely sidesteps the problems I had with The King of Limbs and delivers songs that aren’t just complex and layered, but also damn catchy.
As much as In Rainbows harkened back to what in my mind will always be the golden age of Radiohead (1996 – 2001), A Moon Shaped Pool quite possibly does it even better while still remaining fresh and experimental. Look, even the album art looks like the paint splatter from In Rainbows only washed-out like the art in OK Computer.
Favorites (so far): “Desert Island Disk,” “Ful Stop,” “Identikit,” and “The Numbers.”