Radiohead’s first new album since 2011’s The King of Limbs is both dazzling and extraordinary. It’s been a long time coming. Back in October of last year people started speculating that a new Radiohead album was in the works when the band created a new company, Dawn Chorus LLP, something they had done before independently releasing both In Rainbows and The King of Limbs. In February, they established a second company, Dawnnchoruss Ltd., which suggested to fans that the new album was imminent. And then finally, on May 8 (Mother’s Day), after a short rollout with two singles released in the previous week, they gave us A Moon Shaped Pool.
A Moon Shaped Pool is quite different from the Radiohead albums we’ve become accustomed to since the early 2000’s—post-Kid A. In many ways it’s a return to the earlier stuff, and particularly the Kid A sessions, which produced both Kid A and the following year’s Amnesiac. For one, this album is bookended by two songs that have been floating around and teased by the band for over a decade: the unsettling and politically timely “Burn the Witch,” and the heartbreaking “True Love Waits,” which first appeared on 2001’s I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings. “Identikit” is another rarity that the band have been playing live for a number of years, and is a definite stand-out. However, there are lots of great new songs here as well that fit seamlessly together with the older stuff.
This album all but abandons the drum machines and electronic music that Thom Yorke was beginning to gravitate towards on Hail to the Thief, In Rainbows, and, most notably, The King of Limbs, as well as his solo albums The Eraser and Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes and his Atoms for Peace project with Flea, which released their debut album, Amok, in 2013. Instead, it’s a return to the earlier, more guitar-based music of the Kid A sessions and the even earlier albums that made Radiohead the biggest band to emerge out of the 90s. In December 2015, Thom Yorke played an acoustic concert for Pathway to Paris, a climate change benefit held at Le Trianon, at which he showcased the new direction with acoustic performances of “Desert Island Disk” and “Silent Spring” from the new album, perhaps its most powerful new song, which has since been renamed “The Numbers.”
The performances at Le Trianon also showed us a more political Yorke, and one who has perhaps finally found his cause: climate change. The father and musician got emotional talking about his son asking him about global warming and what he feels is his responsibility to the planet and to future generations. “Silent Spring,” which appears as “The Numbers” on A Moon Shaped Pool, is a kind of folk-protest song in the vein of Patti Smith, taking the line “People have the power” and giving it a new significance for the modern crises facing us in 2016. The orchestral arrangements on the album version give it an even greater power, as the strings grow in intensity alongside the track’s most inspiring call-to-action lines. “The numbers don’t decide / Your system is a lie” sings Yorke in a moment of clarity, a rallying cry against the lobbyists and special interest groups that currently control the political system.
A Moon Shaped Pool is perhaps Radiohead’s most ambitious album to date, coalescing songs that have been floating in the ether for more than a decade with new and politically-informed material. What’s striking about it is the way it harnesses the old and the new to create something that’s both timely and socially conscious as well as deeply personal and intimate; reviewers have already speculated that the inclusion of “True Love Waits” as the album’s conclusion is a result of Yorke’s recent divorce, and that he’s laying it all bare for us here—although in typical Radiohead-fashion it’s through a cryptic reference in a 15-year-old song. However, A Moon Shaped Pool is noticeably darker than Yorke’s most recent solo work, a fact Nigel Godrich was alluding to when he suggested that part of his soul lives in it as a result of his father’s recent passing.
It’s a difficult album to listen to at times—both emotionally raw and deeply complex. There are vocal parts played backwards, massive orchestras and choirs, and hidden references for fans that know the back catalogue inside out. But as always, it’s worth the time getting to know, as an increasingly rare release from what remains the most exciting band in the world. On A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead remind us of how they got there, and lend their uniquely political voice to a challenging and uncertain time, and the result is both unsettling and deeply cathartic.
Revisit “Kendrick Lamar, M.I.A., and the Politicization of Popular Music,” which features Thom Yorke, here.