To experience A Moon Shaped Pool, the ninth studio effort from Radiohead, is to find treasure in a garbage can. It’s a beautiful rarity in an ugly world that appears when you least expect it. The album’s title alone indicates the contradictory forces swirling within its 53 minutes. Listeners cannot imagine such a pool because, from a terrestrial POV, the moon has no definite shape. It appears differently to us night by night, and even at its fullest shows no more than half of itself. Still, these musicians are up to the task of degaussing their waters in accordance with the phases, cupping hands to receive the wisdoms dripping from Thom Yorke’s mouth. Said pool is as amorphous as his singing, which ranges from waxing clarity to waning enunciation—not one in which to dive headfirst, but to ease into as a hot spring.
If the staccato pulse of “Burn The Witch” tells us anything about what we’re getting ourselves into, it’s that the Radiohead soundscape consists of consistencies. Where songs like this one stay crunchy even in milk, others were born to flop around, boneless and insecure. The witch hunt, for its part, is a red cross of medium and message. The tactility of guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s arrangement ensures that things remain three-dimensional from start to finish. The feel of keratin on woven gut and metal turns this musical inquisition into a flashing light in the neighboring village that never goes away. You stare and wonder into whose hands the mirror cuts, but no change of angle gets you any closer to discerning a face. The slackness of Yorke’s delivery belongs to the furniture of everyday life, where not every contour need be known in order to enjoy its function. The dust gathering beneath it is the ash of a dead messenger swept into anonymity by the broom of overlord politics. The fireplace roars, spottily as in the song’s video, trailing messages in the darkening sky, each a comet falling upward into extinction.
When Yorke paints the scene as “a low flying panic attack,” he hints not at faith but a watchful eye buried up to its pupil in denials of equality. The echoing chorus is a thing of such attraction that the flames begin to feel like your safest haven from oppression.
Electronic reverie and rounded pianism introduce the warmth of execution that butters “Daydreaming.” Yorke extends his body toward the blurry pessimisms of being fed upon and tasted. Boards of Canada-esque distortions yearn for a childhood in which the allergies of springtime actually meant something because they confirmed the platitude of staying indoors. Backward voices and strings snore like beasts grabbing handfuls of their own skin amid nightmares of wasting away.
The accompanying video is a revelation for revealing nothing. Its forced temporal adjacencies of spatially disconnected places leave much to be desired, for desire is its only valid emotion. In such context, dreamers can only be enablers, and at their center Yorke folds as the line “Half of my life” plays backward in the final laydown, very much aware that all of this is greater than the sum of our admirations.
And in your life, there comes a darkness
There’s a spacecraft blocking out the sky
These opening lines of “Decks Dark” reveal a technological anxiety, half-quelled. Atmospheric blotting is a prediction of sunset, a faro-shuffled existence painstakingly restored to new deck order. Yes: decks not only of ships, but also of pasteboards—hearts and diamonds printed in the blood of expectation; spades and clubs in ashes of war.
The song further emphasizes a lingual idiosyncrasy, by which Yorke’s esses emerge as barest alveolar contacts. And it is a song about language:
Your face in the glass, in the glass
It was just a laugh, just a laugh
It’s whatever you say it is
The presence of choir, however, reduces potential roars to whispers.
All of which explains the acoustic matrix of “Desert Island Disk.” Obsessions with interface magnify the necessity of human language, and so the band must unplug them for hope of capturing them. This dust bowl is shaped in the studio, in post-production, in the very circuitry of the air. It is an affirmation of repetition as the locus classicus of psychological attachments. The feeling of ritual is out of sight, but blasts its Morse code across the windowpanes of the ears.
Waking, waking up from shutdown
From a thousand years of sleep
So pining, Yorke succeeds in delivering a murder ballad where no one gets killed.
A wall stands between you and the destination you seek. It is “Ful Stop.” Peruse all you want for the missing el, but it will always tap you on the shoulder before disappearing. The laser blaster of ambiguity fires a few test rounds in order to gauge the thickness of communication, so that when Yorke exhales he knows exactly how to absorb the fumes on the uptake. He gives it to us straight (“Truth will mess you up”), compressing a coal of the stomach until it is a diamond of the mind.
Like the indefinable moon, “Glass Eyes” concerns artificial organs through which not even light may pass. A skipping beat and arcade progression give this song uplift, so that by the end Yorke has split into multiple voices. His falsetto is a bird on a wire, riding the shared border of floating and falling. “I feel this love turn cold,” he laments, never wanting to close his eyes until he is sure that others are gone from view.
Hence the return of panic, by now a leitmotif, in the self-pleasuring “Identikit,” which names a forensic tool used to draw composite portraits of criminals from a bank of predetermined features. It is connective tissue between fault and compliance. And as Yorke intones, “Broken hearts make it rain,” we think of monetary downpours imparting false images of who we are.
The shared continuums of life are those we most abhor: our ability to slaughter, our want for personal gain, and our need to be remembered. Such are the conditions of a fashionable life, also running themes of “The Numbers.” A Jacob’s ladder of strings and strums captures the essence of adolescence in this prickly pear, shaken from its branch by daughters of ruin destined to become mothers of rebuilding, and by whose laughter the gas masks of subjugation will one day be fogged beyond use.
We call upon the people
People have this power
The numbers don’t decide
That this song was once known as “Silent Spring” is no surprise. Its well runs deep and its waters are thick with unuttered promises. And if we walk away from it thinking the system to be a lie, then we have fallen victim to that very thing. Such reminders of our constitutions are vital to holding this album in.
Like the Amnesiac sharpening that is “Knives Out,” “Present Tense” sings from a higher plane. Warped yet utterly literate, this bossa for supernovas thatches protection around the here and now, as if the very term were an abomination to evidences airbrushed between pulpits and podiums. The scrape of fingers on guitar strings is like the licking of a lion’s tongue across our collective backside: it grooms the hairs in perfect correlation but callouses the skin in the process. “It’s like a weapon” says Yorke of distance, which inters its social messages in fears of disability.
An electronica-oriented spin of the wheel lands on “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief,” where at last the internal vocation of thought is given an external wage. You hope for balance between animal behaviors, only to find predatory favor in an indigenism gone awry.
All the holes at once are coming alive, set free
Out of sight and out of mind, lonely
And they pray
Or is it “prey”? For will not all teeth know the stain of blood eventually? If resonance equals proximity, then Radiohead is an abandoned cathedral. And in its reliquary: “True Love Waits,” a macramé of pianos drifting into summer. The lyrics are a skeleton rocked in a glass case until it spins flesh and begins to cry. Yet the love Yorke professes exists in a haunted attic, where he opens a box containing the final words, “Don’t leave.” But leave we must if we are ever to approach this music again, holding a suicide note written in a temporal hand.
The alphabetized song list represents the arbitrariness of order and the systematic breakdown of communication into its consensus parts. More than a critique, it is a critique of critique, a hammer taken to one’s own reflection in honor of the fragment. The interruption of time by space, then, is far more traumatic than the reverse, for at least in the former’s violence one can be sure of having lived. Otherwise, the meanings of all works and adorations grow sour. Day jobs turn into night sweats, and dreams take on a visceral truth. Darkness is common to both, exclusive to its self-imagining, and holds your hand down the mountain path. At its end: a match. And you are the kindling.