The epic opening of A Moon Shaped Pool, “Burn the Witch” (as well as its associated media blitzkrieg), is Radiohead’s grandest indication on their ninth album that they have honed their musical abilities so completely as to be able to seamlessly combine what they’re most adept at–sorrow–with what they’ve never dared to do so unabashedly: offer no objective crowd-pleasers.
Sure, “Burn the Witch” has its “Idiotheque” qualities in terms of message and musical beat, but, apart from this, Radiohead displays very little in the way of caring much about what the listener wants to hear. For when it comes to Radiohead, it’s all about they want you to hear. With mastery comes a no fucks given approach, which is perhaps why the band feels so comfortable delving right into all-out moroseness with the second track, “Daydreaming.” Thom Yorke, who knows better than anyone, laments, “Dreamers, they never learn/Beyond the point of no return/The damage is done.”
“Decks Dark” continues the, well, dark motif. Possibly the most overt reference to the demise of Yorke’s twenty-three year relationship with partner Rachel Owen, a melding of allusions collides in the form of “But it was just a laugh, just a lie/Even at this angle/And so we crumble” as Yorke references a “spacecraft blocking out the sky.” In the end he asks, “Have you had enough of me, sweet darling?”
“Desert Island Disk” reveals the band’s forgotten about acoustic side, with the title itself a mirror of the stark musical presentation. As a song that highlights the propensity the heart has for recovery and reinvention, Yorke describes, “The wind rushing round my open heart/An open ravine, with my spirit white/Totally alive, and my spirit light,” and concludes with the assertion, “Different types of love are possible.”
“Ful Stop,” that wonderful British phrase meaning to end completely, features a sinister opening that leads into Yorke accusing, “You really messed up everything” (again, A Moon Shaped Pool unravels itself as a breakup album with undercutting speed). Musically, there are glimmers of an In Rainbows sound, which makes sense considering this song was first performed in 2012 at a show in Chicago. Indeed, the running gambit on A Moon Shaped Pool is, of course, that the large majority of the tracks have stemmed from years of germination, with the concepts for “Present Tense” arising in 2008, “Burn the Witch” in 2000 and “True Love Waits” in 1995. And maybe this is a testament to just how meticulously the band develops their work, or possibly how long it took Yorke to realize his relationship was coming to a close at a rate tantamount to the pace of a Radiohead song.
“Glass Eyes” transitions thematically back to the tone of paranoia that pervades the album, its narrative focus on the interaction (or lack thereof) that occurs when taking public transportation to go somewhere. But again, it all goes back to heartbreak with the coda, “I feel this love turn cold.” The minimal string arrangements of the track heighten the sense of anxiety and uneasiness experienced while listening to it, proving that Radiohead is one of the few bands capable of auditory 3-D.
The In Rainbows vibe flickers at us again with “Identikit,” also first performed in 2012. The line “pieces of ragdoll mankind” not only elucidates the poetic lyrical style of Yorke, but also marks the second use of the word “ragdoll” on the album (it also appears on “Decks Dark”), a word that so succinctly describes how the jilted person in a relationship feels as it comes to a close. The title of the song itself is a study in the psychology of love, as an identikit is a composite picture used by police–scrapped together from other images or descriptions–to reconstruct what the culprit might look like. Obviously, the symbolism is this: when we lose the person we love–or thought we loved–we want desperately to re-create who they were, to vilify, to reconstruct the events, to search for clues as to where it all went wrong. A breakup aftermath is very much like police work, in that sense. Moreover, only Radiohead could get away with saying, “Broken hearts, make it rain.”
Yorke shifts to a more selfless bent with “The Numbers,” initially performed as “Silent Spring” in 2015. A lyrical homage to Mother Earth and her evermore dangerous susceptibility to human influence, Yorke insists, “We are of the earth, to her we do return” and “People have this power, the numbers don’t decide/Your system is a lie/The river running dry.”
The fanciful (by Radiohead standards) sound of “Present Tense” is contrasted by Yorke’s insistence that distance is “like a weapon of self-defense against the present.” Yet again, the reference to Owen and the time the two spent apart as necessitated by the nature of Yorke’s profession seems unconcealed here, as Yorke knows it’s over, and yet “won’t slack off, or all this love will be in vain.”
Fitting in with that “no need to bother appealing to the masses” mantra that A Moon Shaped Pool parades, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” is not just quite possibly the longest song title ever put onto an album, but the most balefully foreboding of the collection on this record. Even more than “Burn the Witch,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” harbors a latent tinge of paranoia that bursts at the seams by the middle, with Yorke warning, “All the birds stay up in the trees/All the fish swim down too deep and lonely.” The fact that its named after John le Carré spy novel–as well as the classic English counting rhyme–only adds to its ominousness, along with a transistor radio-like static noise to round it out.
And, at last, we reach the end, with the somewhat ironic decision to use “True Love Waits” as the denouement. Taken from the name of a Christian abstinence group, Yorke indicates that time is all that is needed to intensify true love. But then, if that’s the case, why must he beg his lover, “Just don’t leave/Don’t leave.”?
For as pieced together as the songs are from various eras of the band’s creative maturity, culled from all manner of decades, there is an undeniable cohesion to A Moon Shaped Pool, which one would like to think Damon Albarn is proud of, as this record serves as Yorke’s interpretation of Blur’s 13.