From symphonic flourishes to political lyrics, the alt-rockers return in a big way on their ninth album

By Eric Renner Brown
May 09, 2016 at 03:20 PM EDT
Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
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Radiohead released their ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, on digital services Sunday afternoon. Spanning 11 tracks and 53 minutes, Pool arrives more than five years after the band’s previous full-length, 2011’s The King of Limbs, ending the longest gap between albums Radiohead have taken in their storied career.

Radiohead’s members have remained musically active despite their primary group’s lengthy absence, though. Frontman Thom Yorke released Amok with his Flea-featuring supergroup Atoms for Peace in 2013 and followed that up with his second solo album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, in 2014. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood continued to work with director Paul Thomas Anderson, scoring 2012’s The Master and 2014’s Inherent Vice, before recording Junun in 2015 with Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur and the Rajasthan Express. Drummer Philip Selway released his second solo album, Weatherhouse, in 2014 and Radiohead’s longtime producer Nigel Godrich occupied his time working on all of Yorke and Greenwood’s projects with them.

But despite a steady trickle of tunes from the Radiohead universe, nothing compares to a new record by the band itself — and, after a brief release hiccup, fans rejoiced over the latest addition to the Radiohead’s oeuvre. Below, highlights from EW’s first listen.

A Moon Shaped Pool is, in fact, sequenced alphabetically

After a definitive announcement Friday that their then-untitled ninth album would arrive digitally at 2 p.m. ET, the record appeared more than an hour earlier than expected on Google Play. The mistake led Radiohead fans to immediately question the details offered by Google Play: Was the album title and artwork authentic? And was the alphabetically ordered tracklist correct? Google quickly removed A Moon Shaped Pool, but its details were soon confirmed when it hit the band’s website, iTunes, TIDAL, and Amazon. The alphabetical sequencing was notable considering…

Some of the album’s tracks have bounced around Radiohead’s concert setlists for years

For most bands, sequencing an album alphabetically would be pretty simple: Write and record the songs, order them how you want, and then name the tracks so that their alphabetical sequencing mirrors the desired order. But Radiohead aren’t “most bands”; “Ful Stop” and “Identikit” were staples during the group’s last major tour in 2012, and “True Love Waits” is a certifiable classic, dating back to a December 1995 concert in Brussels and having appeared on 2001’s I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings. Even the jittery lead single “Burn the Witch” has floated around in sessions dating back to 2000’s Kid A, according to Godrich. So if Radiohead’s alphabetical sequencing of the A Moon Shaped Pool tracklist was intentional — and they’ve done far stranger things in their career — they had to work around previously established track names.

A Moon Shaped Pool contains some of Radiohead’s most symphonic work yet

Radiohead fans were anxious to see how Greenwood’s increasingly frequent orchestral projects would influence their latest album; while he had scored Anderson’s 2007 classic There Will Be Blood, Greenwood’s symphonic explorations hadn’t seemed to significantly shape Limbs or 2007’s In Rainbows. And while A Moon Shaped Pool includes plenty of the tight interplay for which Radiohead is known — hear the intricate freakout on “Identikit” — its most notable element is the band’s newfound embrace of the orchestra. The band has always had cinematic designs, like on 2000’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack” or 2001’s “Pyramid Song,” but they’ve never harnessed them like on “Burn the Witch,” “Daydreaming,” or “The Numbers.” The epic arrangements come as even more of a surprise after the quaint, small-scale instrumentals on Limbs.

The album is sometimes overtly political

Observers could’ve guessed A Moon Shaped Pool would have political overtones after seeing the paranoid “Burn the Witch” stop-motion music video Radiohead released last week. The clip alluded to an old British children’s television show called Trumpton and showed the mayor of a rural town leading a visitor around before duping him into entering a giant wooden effigy, that the town’s citizens then light on fire. (If we’re talking about intentionality and Radiohead, this can’t have been a coincidence in a year where a demagogue named Trump is running to be president of the United States.)

The political paranoia extends beyond “Burn the Witch.” On “Identikit,” Yorke sings about “pieces of a ragdoll mankind … pieces of a wreck of mankind” and on “Decks Dark” he describes a dystopia: “And in your life, there comes a darkness / This spacecraft blocking out the sky / And there’s nowhere to hide… We are helpless to resist / In your darkest hour.” A narrator seems to run through the wilderness to escape “concrete grey” faces on “Glass Eyes,” and “The Numbers” warns that “we’re not at the mercy / of your shimmerers or spells.”

And when A Moon Shaped Pool isn’t political, it’s tragically heartbreaking

In 2015, Yorke split with his partner of 23 years and the mother of his two children, Rachel Owen. Unsurprisingly, failed romance litters the lyrics of A Moon Shaped Pool. The 47-year-old Yorke sings “half of my life” — backwards — on “Daydreaming,” clearly alluding to the period of his life spent with Owen. “Take me back again,” he sings on “Ful Stop” and on “Present Tense” he concludes that “all this love / could be in vain.” Plus, after more than two decades, Radiohead finally put “True Love Waits” on an album, with its lyrics begging for a lover to “just don’t leave.”

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