So Radiohead have a new album, but I guess you heard about it already, right? It has been hard to escape in the world of social media – most of my timeline has been buzzing with various shades of sycophantic adoration since the record dropped on Sunday and frankly, in spite of my own love for the group, I find it a little baffling how they can have such a massive impact whilst avoiding the usual marketing over-saturation most bands have to go through just to get you to stream their latest work. In Rainbows, which the band released to huge fanfare as a 'pay what you like' download, was clearly a massive game changer. I've heard people say the band members made more of a fortune from that album than any of their previous major label efforts combined. I'm not sure if that's entirely true or not, but it was undeniably an uproarious success. It was also a great collection of songs and possibly my favourite album of theirs. I've been following the band since my parents bought a copy of Pablo Honey the day after hearing 'Creep' on the radio. I was in the car. I still have that copy of the album, in a yellowing, tatty plastic CD case and 'Anyone Can Play Guitar' is one of the first songs I learnt how to play on the guitar, aged fourteen. It's rare for a band to bloom with such an excellent record so long into their careers, but In Rainbows was nearly a decade ago now and The King Of Limbs was, frankly, a bit disappointing. Its songs were buried beneath over wrought layers of dense digital poly-rhythms, a theme carried from Thom Yorke's solo album, Tomorrow's Modern Boxes and before that, with his other band Atoms For Peace's album Amok, which also seemed to lack for actual songs: those melodic jewels that have always kept Yorke's pop crown in place, no matter how far he fell down the rabbit hole of existential angst. So why were we all still so excited – so willing to spread word of their new work ourselves, like a bunch of brainwashed Midwich Cuckoos?
If Radiohead, and Yorke's side projects, have been becoming ever more obtuse, Johnny Greenwood has been simultaneously pursuing the sublime. The younger Greenwood, famed in the early days for his aggressive and distinctive lead guitar work, has been off carving out his own solo career, in the somewhat less conspicuous world of film soundtracks and composing for orchestra. I've not been following him too closely, but it feels like it's Greenwood's work with orchestral muusic that has most affected this new album, the string arrangements throughout A Moon Shaped Pool are amazing. They immediately give this album its own sound palette, making it sound distinct from any other Radiohead album to date, and they are often strikingly beautiful. This is an album where the electronics, while certainly there throughout, tend to bubble away in the background while more organic sounds – piano, guitars, brushed drums and voices – are given the fore. At times it sounds as if the orchestral parts might be programmed, rather than played, because they sound so direct, perfectly rendered with machine-like precision. It could just be that the London Contemporary Orchestra are that good, credited on the album for providing strings and choir, they won in the Ensemble category at the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards last year. Having worked with Greenwood on soundtracks they seem the perfect match for Radiohead on this album, their contributions provide much of the character for this, possibly their most laidback and love-lorn album.
The first song, 'Burn The Witch' is also the first song they teased, complete with a sinister music video spoof, where Trumpton meets the Wicker Man. It's propelled by a violently insistent set of taut strings, hard bowing that creates tension but with a sort of bubbly energy that propels it with progressive momentum. The lyrics also compliment the contrast between optimistic front and dark realities, "sing the song of sixpence that goes…" recalling the famous nursery rhyme we still teach to children, ending with a maid getting her nose ripped off by a magpie. I was surprised that the next teaser track they released, 'Daydreaming', was also the second song on the album, because it is so mellow. I often find when sequencing an album people tend to start with a few up-beat songs, establishing a certain pace, letting the slower songs gather more towards the middle and end. On A Moon Shaped Pool Radiohead defy that convention by placing this six-and-a-half minute song, that has no drum pattern, only a gentle keyboard arpeggio for rhythm, backed with electronic ambience and a vocal, right at the front. From that point on they establish a convention of a one beat driven track followed by a track without drums, or with only very minimal percussion. When I spotted the album tracks are also in alphabetical order (if you ignore the 'The' in 'The Numbers') I wondered if this was a happy accident, but having listened to the whole album many times in sequence, you can't ignore how well it flows, which seems surely deliberate.
'Decks Dark' is a slow-building sombre groover, with some great gritty electric rhythm guitars and that fantastic choir, the last minute is one of those incredibly satisfying moments of mellow crescendo you couldn't imagine anyone else pulling off. 'Desert Island Disk' sees Radiohead at their most folky; it comes close to resembling a Nick Drake song, with Yorke choosing a deeper register than the high pitched falsetto he's famed for. There is a beat to this one, but it's paper-thin and the whole song is sparse, mostly bass and acoustic guitar but with plenty of atmospherics working away in the background. 'Ful Stop' takes things up a notch, with its insistent beat, but it's still stripped back. The motorik beat and driving bass sound like they're way off in the distance, while a soft, sinister glassy synth pad dominates the foreground. Again this is a satisfying builder; halfway through what sounds like a second drum kit comes in, creating skipping poly-rhythms as the guitars mount competing for space with bleeping electronics.
We go back down again for 'Glass Eyes', where the orchestra really shines. The song is played on a piano sound that has been filtered, sounding almost like it's underwater, leaving Tom's voice to sit, lonely and sad upfront, backed by shimmering flourishes of strings. One of the shortest songs on the album, it's stark and beautiful, and sounds melodically very familiar to parts of their earlier work. 'Identikit' is another slow groover, with an intricate off-beat funk to the verses – it's got one of the biggest choruses on the album, with Thom repeating, “broken hearts/make it rain” over and over before handing the baton to the choir, who take the motif to celestial heights. The track ends with a guitar solo, yes, not a massive shred, but an interesting cascade of delayed notes flowing round each other, in a cleaner tone than they might have used earlier in their careers.
It's at this later stage in the album that things really hit their stride, in my opinion. 'The Numbers' begins with dancing, fluttering pianos and odd sampled noises before slowly ushering in another mellow groove, with some excellent bass playing. Two thirds into the track the strings step up, with some ingenious lines that snake around the vocal, taking us to unexpected places, reminding me a little of the way Yes were using strings on the Time And A Word album. 'Present Tense' though has quickly become my favourite track in this collection, its Latin groove and guitar arpeggios seem to me to be the sound of the band perfecting something they were seeking in the In Rainbows sessions. I just love that kind of rhythm, matched with Radiohead's distinctive style of melancholia. There's also something particularly moving about the sentiment. Thom sings about using distance as a weapon of self defence, to protect himself from a world he finds difficult to inhabit. Later when he sings, “in you I'm lost” we feel that his distance is broken down by one person he can connect to, and lose himself in. A point that becomes terribly tragic when we consider the news, which is hard to avoid when you're searching for info on this album, that Thom split from his long-term partner of 23 years of marriage last year.
In truth, the first fruits I heard from this period of recording sessions came by surprise on Christmas Day last year, when the band unexpectedly uploaded their song 'Spectre' as a free download from their Soundcloud page. It turns out Radiohead had been approached to compose a song for the last Bond film, but their offering was rejected in favour of Sam Smith's 'Writing's On The Wall', which inexplicably went on to win a Grammy, well, there's no accounting for taste! Still, listening to the strings on the excessively titled 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief' you'd be forgiven for thinking Radiohead simply picked the wrong song for Bond. The mood of suspense and thriller-ready tension conjured up by those soaring notes would compliment a serious Bond, or any other lofty spy-flick, extremely well.
This is an album full of references to love that become so tragic when viewed through this lens, none more so than on album closer 'True Love Waits'. This heartbreaking ballad has been in the band's repertoire for some time, there's a solo acoustic performance from Yorke at the end of the I Might Be Wrong live album, which straddles the complimentary material on the twinned albums of Kid A and Amnesiac, showcasing them in a live setting. In fact the song has been around even longer than that, I've got lucky friends who said they heard it live back in the Bends era, and it was apparently recorded during sessions for OK Computer, a version that's never been released. I wonder if Thom and Co felt this song was too sickly romantic for a Radiohead album, before the true love turned sour twenty years on, finally giving the bitter-sweet kick the sentiment really needed to tug on our heart strings.
I asked at the start of this review why so many of us get caught up in the spells Radiohead cast, turning their seemingly anti-commercial tactics into hugely successful marketing because so many of us are primed and ready to share whatever they give us. Perhaps it's because these dark themes of depression, anxiety and heartache are so familiar to so many of us deep down, the private nightmare thoughts that some of us never share with others, but many of us experience from time to time. Perhaps this modern world bears down on many of us to the extent we recognise ourselves in the alienation, angst and melancholia in their recordings. They paint beautiful pictures of painful struggles and there's comfort in the recognition. A Moon Shaped Pool finds Radiohead at the top of their game, breaking new ground whilst recalling familiar themes from throughout their career. It's a sombre, moody record that ticks all the right boxes for me. I would say it's a return to form but I listened to King Of Limbs again last night and realised that I'd seriously underrated it. Still, that's a great sign for this album: it's immediate, it sucks you in from the opening notes and keeps you there to the end. Sure, it has plenty to offer to the repeat listener, there's depth to each song that reveals itself the closer you listen, as you might expect, but it's the return to uncluttered immediacy that really marks this out as being amongst their finest work.