Review Summary: You Are Still A Beautiful and Unique Snowflake
Radiohead are one of the last standing great musical institutions; the 90s weren't overly blessed with such acts, artists either perished before the decade was through (Cobain, Buckley) or saw their popularity drop off alarmingly (Oasis, Wu-Tang Clan). As a result Radiohead remain the closest thing to this generation's Rolling Stones; a group who've reached that rare level of untouchability that allows them to work however they please. What's particularly interesting in the case of Radiohead is that this lofty status hasn't diminished the band's thirst for experimentation and there's no way you could label them a 'ticket sales cash cow' in the same way you could do with the Stones or say U2. It's true that the gaps between recordings have increased over the years but you're never left with the impression this band feel in any way pressured to record irrespective of their current level of inspiration; if Radiohead aren't feeling it they take a break, that's the deal.
So five years after the release of the slightly insubstantial 38 minute long 'The King of Limbs' the band return with 'A Moon Shaped Pool', a 53 minute album released with next to no advanced marketing at all. Just how they like it. As ever a slight shift in the band's musical approach has resulted in a subtly different sound, in this case one that feels pleasingly natural and surprisingly spacious. Here Radiohead take the exotic sweeping strings they used on previous songs like 'Pyramid Song' or 'House of Cards' as a starting point and then expand their tonal palette around this style; you can hear it in the rippling piano intro of 'The Numbers', in the faintly Balearic guitar figures and sampled maracas of 'Present Tense' and certainly in the echoed choral female vocals that emerge half way through 'Decks Dark'. Johnny Greenwood's recent penchant for recording music for soundtracks and collaborating with various world musicians has clearly informed many of the artistic choices made here, though thankfully it's never the case that these influences feel in any way superfluous or shoehorned into the mix.
Indeed there's little of the intentional sonic clutter and brittleness that came to define much of their recent output to be found on 'A Moon Shaped Pool'; the biggest upshot of this change is that Thom Yorke in particular grabs the opportunity to shine in these more minimal musical surrounds. Here he's able to showcase his full range of vocal subtleties; the elegantly arranged 'Present Tense' boasts a chorus of unexpected melodic purity that is matched perfectly by Thom's unabashedly emotional delivery; album closer 'True Love Waits' pushes the vocals even higher in the mix to ramp up the intimacy to the level those bittersweet lyrics demand; while Yorke's enigmatic hints of warmth on 'Daydreaming' elevate the song from a potential dirge into something far more mysterious. Intriguingly the vocal effects and manipulations have far from been abandoned on this release, it's just that here they've been integrated with such an impressively light touch that they're now a truly seamless addition.
Of course for many bands releasing a collection of consistently engaging and atmospherically unified songs would constitute a perfectly acceptable ceiling to their ambition but for Radiohead things moved beyond that sort of level years ago; while it would be overstating the point to claim that this band's albums are entirely defined by their 'classic' songs there's nevertheless an expectation that a handful of tracks on any new album will end up ranking among their very best. If 'A Moon Shaped Pool' comes up a little short in any department it is here; yes there are contenders, though you'd have to say not nearly enough to compete with the hit rate established on many of the band's former albums.
'Ful Stop' is certainly the song that initially stands apart from the rest of the pack; a slow building intro develops in a similar fashion to Portishead's 'We Carry On' and conjures up that same feeling of racing through an urban landscape as all around alarms sound and panic spreads. Whatever this 'foul tasting medicine' is that Thom speaks of it's clear you wouldn't want to stop moving to find out. This track is also notable for bearing more than a passing resemblance to past Radiohead classic 'Idioteque' with its paranoid tone and ominous intermittent drum track. In a pacing masterstroke the claustrophobic 'Ful Stop' is followed by the lilting 'Glass Eyes', the shortest track on 'A Moon Shaped Pool' but also one of the most distinctive and a surprising highlight. Sombre strings and undulating piano lines are the two signature ingredients of the album and here they combine to particularly alluring effect. Beyond these two songs the acoustic rock classicism of 'The Numbers', the ghostly opulence of 'Decks Dark' and the aforementioned trio of 'Present Tense', 'True Love Waits' and 'Daydreaming' are the tracks that make the strongest claims for standalone greatness.
That Radiohead's legacy is assured is beyond doubt, that's a milestone these unassuming gents passed decades ago, but just because they've already achieved all they have should in no way be held up as proof that this band no longer has the capacity to surprise. The greatest compliment you can pay to an act this long-lived and operating at the latter stages of their career is stating that their current output ranks among their very finest work, and that's an argument you can see being entertained in many quarters regarding 'A Moon Shaped Pool'. While this release undoubtedly shows flashes of their previous work (particularly 'In Rainbows') and includes songs the band have been playing live in one form or another for many years, the final result is an album as distinctive and immersive as any they've recorded.