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With themes of betrayal, recrimination, remorse and a final bereft plea for reconciliation, A Moon Shaped Pool, given a surprise release at the weekend, can be read as Radiohead’s unexpected entry into the tradition of the break-up album, like Blood on the Tracks with added paranoia.
The real-life event lurking in its shadows is frontman Thom Yorke’s separation from his partner, Rachel Owen, an artist with whom he has two children. Fans who like to comb his cryptic lyrics for hidden messages, rock’s equivalent of Kremlinology, will have a field day. “Daydreaming”, for instance, includes a backwards-looped vocal fragment in which Yorke appears to be saying “Half my life”. He was 46 when his 23-year relationship with Owen ended in 2015.
But A Moon Shaped Pool is not just an album about breaking up. It is also an album about not breaking up.
With the exception of U2, almost no other band has survived as long with an unchanged line-up as Radiohead, now in their fourth decade of existence. The Oxford quintet have developed divergent interests as they have got older, evident in their various solo projects. Drummer Phil Selway makes genial roots-rock albums, guitarist Jonny Greenwood has notched up heavyweight kudos as an orchestral composer and Yorke releases glitchy dance music.
They almost called it a day after their 2003 album Hail to the Thief. “[We] couldn’t work out whether we should be carrying on or not,” Yorke said afterwards. A Moon Shaped Pool vindicates their decision to do so.
Several tracks are old songs, previously unfinished affairs with a fugitive life in concert set-lists and obscure demo recordings. The oldest, “True Love Waits”, dates back to 1995. But the sense of a band foraging through the sofa for small change is mitigated by the handsome way the music has been finished off.
It opens with “Burn the Witch”, a masterpiece of mounting dread in which Yorke sings about scapegoating as sinister bass drones and affrighted strings played col legno by the London Contemporary Orchestra build in volume around him. Then the mood switches to “Daydreaming”, a desolate electronic ballad with Yorke crooning in a sad slur, “It’s too late, the damage is done,” as though surveying the bleak aftermath of a disaster.
Attempts to lift the melancholy mood don’t come off. “Desert Island Disk” features a lovely 1970s folk-rock guitar riff but meanders rather vaguely around the subject of rebirth. Much better is the way “Present Tense” takes an ostensibly upbeat samba rhythm and turns it into ghostly portrait of Yorke as a dancer twirling madly as “my world comes crashing down”.
Apart from a wild solo in “Identikit”, Greenwood and Ed O’Brien’s guitar-playing is restrained. “Decks Dark” is driven by a hypnotic groove from Selway on drums and bassist Colin Greenwood, but they too are content to melt into the background for much of the album.
Deft string arrangements, textured electronic effects and folk-rock echoes create the impression of varied sensibilities brought together in seamless unity. Production, by the band’s regular collaborator Nigel Godrich, assisted by the celebrated mastering engineer Bob Ludwig, is sensitive and nuanced. “True Love Waits” brings the album to a close with a tender piano ballad in which dissonance is used to highly atmospheric effect. It leaves us with the understanding that A Moon Shaped Pool is about working out differences, not submitting to them.
‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is released on XL Recordings, radiohead.com
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