In 2009 I wrote that In Rainbows was the culmination of everything good about Radiohead’s formidable progress over nearly 20 years. I Reckon was right, at the time.
This year’s release of their 9th studio album A Moon Shaped Pool has forced me to reconsider. This is a very, very good Radiohead album, made even better by Jonny Greenwood’s arrangements and the introduction of intimacy. And it’s this honest human emotion that IMHO lifts it above everything else.
Radiohead have made a career from often unsettling music. In 1989 Thom Yorke responded to friends’ criticism that he only wrote miserable songs with a self-consciously titled Happy Song(!). But these songs feel truly from-the-heart, an opening up, brutally honest and raw. There are more mentions of the words love and heart than on their entire back catalogue combined.
Burn the witch…
abandon all reason / avoid all eye contact / do not react
shoot the messengers / burn the witch
This is the exception to that rule. From the sudden, strident opening, with strings playing repeated percussive chords con legno (with the wooden back of the bow), through the chilling message so relevant to the Brexit referendum campaign, this had my attention immediately. After the more electronic feel of The King of Limbs, this felt like a powerful statement. Jonny Greenwood’s film scores and orchestral writing were up front and central, and the relentless momentum of the song made me very excited for the album. Oh, and the video…
Around the time of the album release I read that Thom Yorke had split from his life partner of 23 years. This coloured my reading of the whole album, and I Reckon it’s a serious influence on the musical and lyrical content.
Daydreaming is the first song that alludes to the End of Something, a time when something precious has been lost, and the world must move on.
beyond the point of no return… / …it’s too late / the damage is done
After Burn the Witch it immediately signals a change of tone and mood that flows through and over the rest of the album. Slow descending piano arpeggios are set against a pulsing bass in a 3-against-2 rhythm that seems to cocoon the listener with its almost hypnotic feel. Thom Yorke’s plaintive vocals feel like mourning, while the fabulous video shot by P T Anderson evokes ceaseless searching for something misplaced, but concluding in a wilderness, retreating into foetal hibernation.
Decks Dark seems to use an alien invasion as a proxy for psychological unease.
In your life, there comes a darkness / there’s a spacecraft blocking out the sky / and there’s nowhere to hide…
…it’s the loudest sound you’ve ever heard / in your darkest hour
This feels like the overwhelming threat of depression, the deep guitar and dissonant effects adding to the unease, before it ends in a layer of overlapping sounds and a woeful
Have you had enough of me?
Desert Island Disk seems born of solitude, perhaps not loneliness, but more of acceptance and understanding. It’s lilting and beautiful, but leaves me feeling almost unutterably sad.
The wind rushing round my open heart / an open ravine…
…waking up from shutdown / from 1,000 years of sleep…
Different types of love are possible
Ful Stop must be tremendous performed live. A restless, driving track that feels more angry than plaintive.
You really messed up everything
This is a foul tasting medicine / to be trapped in your ful stop…
After a building, almost menacing first couple of minutes, the band bursts into life in a way that reminds me of Arpeggi/Weird Fishes from In Rainbows
All the good times … / take me back again / won’t you take me back again?
This is as beautiful a piece of music as I’ve heard in years. Limpid, fluid keyboard figures are distorted like reflections in the ripples of a pool, while aching strings underpin a lyric full of anxiety, fear and resignation: perhaps a farewell message, or a call for help?
Hey it’s me / I just got off the train / a frightening place / faces all concrete grey /
and I’m wondering should I turn around / buy another ticket /
panic is coming on strong / so cold from the inside out
And the path trails off and heads down the mountain / through the dry bush / I don’t know where it leads / I don’t really care
I feel this love turned cold
Identikit is a great Radiohead song that builds layers of different sounds and moods. Almost indecipherable words at the start break into a chilling
Sweet faced ones with nothing left inside that we all can love
When I see you messing me around I don’t want to know
Broken hearts make it rain
The rolling accompaniment soars into broken jangling chords and a choral refrain that is gradually replaced by terrific guitar work that takes over and builds in a rare solo to an almost ecstatic finish.
The Numbers starts like a jazz group warming up. Rolling, random piano lines and rustling percussion undercut with birdsong gives way to an insistent, shuffling rhythm and lyrics that depart from the painful intimacy of the previous 4 songs. This feels like a more prophetic take on global ecology and our place in the world. The string arrangements in the second half are astonishingly effective and turn this initially quiet song into something almost epic.
The numbers don’t decide / the system will survive /
the river running dry / the wings of butterflies /
will take back what is ours one day at a time
Present Tense is a great track, reminding me of Jigsaw Falling into Place with shuffling rhythms and acoustic guitar figures over layers of vocalising. It’s both a defiant stance against sadness and a recognition of loss. It has a perfect ending.
This dance is like a weapon of self-defence against the present tense…
…As my world comes crashing down I’m dancing, freaking out, deaf dumb and blind…
It’s no one’s business but mine that all this love has been in vain
In you I’m lost
Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief…
With the longest title of any song I can recall, this is a hark back to Hail to The Thief, with white noise distortions and echoing vocals that grow with dark bass piano figures and sliding strings. On one level it feels more shapeless or experimental than other songs in the album, but then when I listen to it it feels almost perfectly formed.
True Love Waits is a song that had its origins 20 years ago as a B-side to an early single. It’s my favourite final song to a Radiohead album (no small achievement). A love song, a lament, the references to children (Yorke and Rachel Owen have two, similar ages to mine) make me shiver. The unresolved end to the song, to the whole album is breathtaking. I’m struck dumb for moments after.
true love waits in haunted attics / and true love lives on lollipops and crisps
just don’t leave, don’t leave
I Reckon this is my favourite album of all time. In the few months since its release I’ve listened to it straight through in one sitting more than 40 times, and I never get bored. I can’t remember a time when one album commanded my attention so completely for so long. It’s unsettling, challenging, beautiful, heartbreaking, human, breathtaking, accomplished and (occasionally) uplifting. Uniquely, in my experience of Radiohead over 25 years, it’s moving, touching, intimate.