Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Music Review: Radiohead’s labyrinthine soliloquy

Rarely motivated by chart success or winning over a younger legion of fans, Radiohead’s faithfulness to its creative process positions its records for a considered listen. When the English rock band unveiled A Moon Shaped Pool on 8 May, it was an event, but it wasn’t trending on social media. The hermetic band is popular but remains cultish to its fervid fanbase, its songs are accessible but adequately cryptic. Through its career Radiohead has mastered a curious subversion of pop standards, but never quite divorced itself from the mainstream. Over time Radiohead’s music, which originated in alternative rock, found influences in the vagaries and minimalism of Krautrock, the majestic flourishes of orchestral music and emotive potency of film scores.

Most rewarding has been Radiohead’s curation of sound oddities to engineer atmospherics that capture the feeling of vulnerability: obscured lyrics acknowledge the inarticulable pit of grief, spatial solitude in arrangements allow for the dread of alienation, the caged dissonance of stray notes in structural compositions simulate jagged edges of paranoia.

Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood and crew continue soliloquising on A Moon Shaped Pool, which comes five years after their last, King of Limbs (2011). But we have heard plenty from Yorke and Greenwood via their solo projects during this interval. The first single, Burn the Witch, to be released from the album, borrows snatches—the predominant string section played col legno—from Greenwood’s 48 Responses to Polymorphia, which paid tribute to Krzysztof Penderecki. The Polish composer’s distinction of conjuring aural psychosis with pieces like Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima and Polymorphia has played a significant influence on and complimented Greenwood’s aesthetic. The staccato rhythm of Burn the Witch is underscored by a sinister, grinding drone. The song channels Yorke’s long-running—since the days of Kid A (2000)—disdain for the flag-bearers of conformity, and expression of Orwellian dystopia. The song is believed to be critical of the backlash against the Syrian refugee influx in Europe.

The London String Orchestra—which has played on most of the tracks—is definitely the star on A Moon Shaped Pool. Radiohead’s restive stirrings on tracks like Indentikit and The Numbers are galvanised into a cathartic swell by the orchestra. The string sections sonorously eddy within Radiohead’s cavernous soundscape. This aspect of the album owes a great deal to Greenwood’s work on film scores like There Will Be Blood, The Master and We Need to Talk About Kevin. There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson, who collaborated with Greenwood on his India project Junun, also directed the video for Day Dreaming. The despondent lull of Day Dreaming is met with friction on the coda where Yorke’s ciphered lyrics, Efil ym fo flah (Half of my life), blur into fiendishly laboured breathing. Unsurprisingly, subliminal preludes and outros are a common feature on this record.

Radiohead’s talent for conflating tonal contradictions to project the charade of harmonious living or dissembled happiness is employed in songs like Present Tense—nestled in the soft sway of Brazilian samba—and Desert Island Disk—lambent with folksy evocations of Bert Jansch. On Present Tense, Yorke and the choir’s sombre croons shadow the lilt of the samba. “This dance/is like a weapon of self defense/against the present tense…as my world comes crashing down/I’m dancing/freaking out/deaf, dumb and blind," Yorke’s dirge spells sangfroid.

On this record, Yorke’s nonpareil lyricism often dodges literal comprehension, leaving room for poetic interpretation. Yorke’s lines leave a trail of ellipses. When some songs start out seeming to be about a deteriorating relationship they suddenly assume a political nature—about the dispossessed or global warming or fascism— and to Yorke’s credit the transitions are deceptively seamless.

Identikit and Ful Stop are the standout tracks on this album. The propulsive guitars on Identikit hearken to Radiohead of old. Notable on Ful Stop is the sound of seething malevolence—an ominous hum overlaid with a menacing synth siren—as the words lacerate: ‘You really messed up everything/If I could take it all back again/Strike up what’s in the box/Why should I be good if you’re not?".

And finally, Radiohead’s gift to fans is the studio version of the legendary True Love Waits, which closes A Moon Shaped Pool. If one were to use the word haunting sparingly and judiciously, it should be reserved for a song as this. A reminder that Yorke’s versification of lovelorn defeatism is a rare thing: “I’ll drown my beliefs/To have your babies/I’ll dress like your niece/And wash your swollen feet."

A Moon Shaped Pool is available on amoonshapedpool.com. The vinyl album costs $29, the CD for $14.50 and the digital album for $11. You can also buy the vinyl or CD from Amazon or download the album on iTunes.

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