The stadium band that hates being a stadium band, Radiohead have always been at their most fascinating when confronting the contradictions of their identity.
So it proves with their ninth studio album, a “surprise” release on Sunday. The electro wonkiness of 2011’s King of Limbs has been toned down, with Thom Yorke and co retreating to the pastoral comforts of piano and acoustic guitar, across a collection brimming with bleakly catchy moments.
But this shift toward the familiar is accompanied by the frontman’s darkest lyrics, as he gazes out at a world riven with conflict and paranoia, and drinks deep of the despair. He is full-of foreboding on opening track, ‘Burn The Witch’, and thereafter his disposition does not turn any merrier. By the time the 11-track project closes with the haunting ‘True Love Waits’, it feels as if we’ve been on a tour of the stygian reaches of the singer’s soul.
As is the tradition nowadays, A Moon Shaped Pool was presented to us as a bolt from the ether, its existence confirmed a mere 24 hours before release. Yet, for once, the music can be enjoyed without reference to the hoopla. A Man Shaped Pool is an immensely thoughtful affair, songs stitched together from fragments of ideas that ought to fall apart, yet somehow hold together.
The best moments come early on, in a dreamy rush of images and beats. ‘Decks Dark’ is a woozy stream-of-consciousness dirge, pairing a meandering vocal from Yorke with a twitching piano line; ‘Desert Island Disk’ unfolds as a chilling acoustic lullaby, dripping 4am melancholy.
It is too early to predict where A Moon Shaped Pool fits in the Radiohead canon. The knee-jerk response is to say it’s their best album since 2001’s Amnesiac, and certainly more cohesive and coherent than Hail to The Thief or The King of Limbs (2007’s In Rainbows remains the project child of the catalogue, impossible to judge outside the four walls of its own singular vision).
But this is a record that surrenders its mysteries slowly and it may be some time before the true measure of its worth is clear.
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