In terms of the modern musical cycle, five years isn't really that excessive of a wait between albums, but this is Radiohead; No band has higher expectations heaped upon them. Their last album, The King of Limbs, was a half-formed, strangely muted record and an incoherent collection of a remixes followed by a nagging dissatisfaction - could that really be it? Five years on and Radiohead gradually erased their internet presence. In a way they became transparent, and following the whirlwind of new music and a surprise album release, that seems entirely appropriate. A Moon Shaped Pool is the most unaffected, transparent and naked the band have ever sounded, and all the better for it.
Pulling back from the fussiness of The King of Limbs and opting for a delicate, atmospheric sound. A Moon Shaped Pool feels like a fully considered and arranged (in alphabetical order - another of the band's inscrutable quirks) collection of songs. It's surprising that the album feels so fully realised considering many of these songs date back several years, including first single "Burn the Witch," and the live favourite "True Love Waits," which has been in the band's live sets for more than 20 years. A Moon Shaped Pool seems to be a band taking stock of themselves and corralling these lost spectres of songs into an immaculately arranged and emotionally honest collection.
A Moon Shaped Pool is a gift given without pretence, without spin and without artist commentary. These eleven songs state and explain themselves like a self-sustaining microcosm. There are traces of Radiohead's signature paranoid darkness in opener "Burn the Witch," with its tightly wound, shuddering string accompaniment and the jittery "Ful Stop," featuring some of Thom Yorke's meekest vocals subsumed in a roaring full-band arrangement. The album is not as openly experimental as some of the band's most groundbreaking music, but in terms of texture and mood, it is almost unparalleled.
Most of the pieces here are accompanied by the London Contemporary Orchestra, with arrangements by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, who is also a noted film composer. The swelling, sweeping, swirling strings take on many different roles, but never feel tacked on or unnecessary. Even with juxtapositions like the short, sorrowful, string-drenched "Glass Eyes," rubbing up against the angular funk of "Identikit," the record never feels imbalanced, nor does it lose momentum. Every moment, every shift, every tiny embellishment, feels necessary.
But A Moon Shaped Pool doesn't entirely reveal itself upon first listen. With repeated visits, Thom Yorke's melodies become more and more engaging as the openness and vulnerability of his performance becomes clear. So too do the acoustic guitars become more gorgeously delicate-sounding, and the sturdy bass lines become more propulsive. A Moon Shaped Pool requires that you submerge yourself in it and seek out the treasures that its surface doesn't divulge. Even the more idiosyncratic songs, like the moody, defensive "Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief" or the long, winding "Daydreaming" reveal striking emotional depths.
The final song on the album is also the oldest. "True Love Waits" appears here in a new arrangement, with a dusty shuffle provided by wandering electric pianos echoing Thom Yorke's tender vocals. "Don't leave," he pleads to a lover, distraught. This studio version of "True Love Waits" feels like a wall coming down, when the mythos of what Radiohead the band has represented over their long career crumbles and we can finally see the human beings behind the band. Like the unusual social media campaign that portended its arrival A Moon Shaped Pool as a whole is a fresh start, a cleansing of years of pressure and expectation. Radiohead feels vital and exciting all over again.
A Moon Shaped Pool is available to stream now through Apple Music and Tidal, with a physical CD and vinyl release to follow on June 17.