Nearly nine years after Radiohead gifted In Rainbows on unsuspecting fans in 2007, their seismic, no-label, price-point-be-damned surprise release has been co-opted by an exhaustive number of major-label artists. This year alone has seen pop royalty like Kanye, Rihanna and Beyoncé springing albums on their fans, and in the past 48 hours James Blake and Death Grips have also unleashed new albums. Radiohead's ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, popped into view a few hours ago and for a band that once pleaded for "no surprises," Pool's most thrilling surprise isn't its Mother's Day release, but that Radiohead's least rock-oriented album in the 21st century doubles as its most gorgeous and desolate album to date.
In the five years since The King of Limbs, the members of the group have explored numerous wormholes on their own: Phil Selway delved into his singer-songwriter side; Jonny Greenwood waxed classical, minimalist and got his A Passage to India on with last year's Junun. Meanwhile, Thom Yorke ran amok both with moody electronic projects and the more polyrhythmic dynamism of rock supergroup Atoms for Peace. But while The King of Limbs (and even parts of In Rainbows) at times sounded like five musicians pulling in as many directions, there's a stunning eloquence and cohesion on A Moon Shaped Pool, its many parts and trajectories aimed towards the same goal.
Radiohead have tantalized zealots with portions of first single "Burn the Witch" for nearly a decade, from piano chords to snatches of lyrics from their now-deleted website. But for all the clues that might have been accrued, the effect of "Burn the Witch" is remarkable. From its steady chug of drum machine, strummed acoustic guitars and the clacking col legno of the string section, "Witch" ratchets up that "low-flying panic attack" until its soaring climax.
From the elegant piano line of "Decks Dark" to the nimble finger-picking of "Desert Island Disk" and "Present Tense," Radiohead's long-standing embrace of edgy electronics has now been supplanted by an embrace of gorgeous timbres and melody, the more disarming the better. And while electronic effects and the like are still present (hear how they move like an ocean current underneath "Desert Island Disk"), most songs forgo the crunching, dueling electric guitars of Greenwood and Ed O'Brien and Selway's hard-hitting drums to instead foreground acoustic guitar, piano and strings. If anything, A Moon Shaped Pool reveals within Radiohead a newfound appreciation of, if not folk music, then the form's ability to express melancholy through melody.
A pall hangs over the album like a highland fog, which mirrors the theme of heartbreak that runs through Pool. "Daydreaming," which the band – in conjunction with video director P.T. Anderson – released to a handful of movie theaters in 35mm format, captures the album's mood best. Haunting, pensive, unable to shake loose from its revery and doldrums – from the "broken hearts make it rain" refrain of "Identikit" (the most uptempo song on the album) to the "panic is coming on strong/so cold, from the inside out" that Yorke confesses to on the murky ballad "Glass Eyes" – the album conveys great sorrow and heartbreak. The latter comes at the midway point of the album, wherein Yorke's minor-key piano moves with Jonny Greenwood's scored strings to heart-rending effect. While Greenwood has flashed Penderecki and Ligeti influences in deploying orchestration to heighten anxious states (from "How to Disappear Completely" to his soundtrack work on There Will Be Blood), here the strings swaddle Yorke's forlorn vocals with a mix of sadness and beauty. The downward spirals at the end of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief" create one of the band's most melancholic moments on record.
It all leads to Pool's striking conclusion, "True Love Waits," a song so old it could legally order a pint. The white whale in the Radiohead discography, it began to appear in live sets circa The Bends but has never aptly been recorded, save in live versions. For longtime Radiohead fans, it's worth the wait. One can only guess at how this love song of gentleness and intimacy reads two decades later, but the effect is like stumbling upon an old love letter years after a relationship has grown cold. Where there was once a hint of redemption in its devastating refrain, "Just don't leave" now sounds like the longest (and saddest) goodbye.