For a format that’s supposedly been on its deathbed for more than a decade, the album has had something of a revival in 2016. Kanye West debuted his “living” album The Life of Pablo at Madison Square Garden in February, Beyoncé dropped Lemonade with an HBO special, and Kendrick Lamar, one of pop’s most spotlight-averse stars, managed to turn a brief collection of studio outtakes into an internet-shaking event with untitled unmastered. And cohesive records like Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth and David Bowie’s Blackstar have bolstered the case that even in the streaming age, albums still matter.
It’s only fitting that Radiohead, who sent fans rushing to their DSLs to pirate Amnesiac in 2001 and who pulled a Beyoncé before “pulling a Beyoncé” was a thing with the surprise release of 2007’s In Rainbows, decided to drop an album of their own to remind listeners that, ahem, they’re the patron saints of making a release a global, headline-making moment.
So it is that, after the longest gap between albums in their quarter-century career, the eternal purveyors of all things glum and grand in alt-rock have returned with A Moon Shaped Pool, their potent ninth full-length. And while frontman Thom Yorke and guitarist Jonny Greenwood released plenty of music in the interim — Yorke via a solo album and his supergroup Atoms for Peace; Greenwood with his scores for Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent films — Radiohead’s latest affirms they’re much better as a team, aided by bassist Colin Greenwood’s slinking grooves, guitarist Ed O’Brien’s rhythmic counterpoint, drummer Phil Selway’s careening beats, and longtime producer Nigel Godrich’s guiding hand.
On their last album, 2011’s The King of Limbs, Radiohead indulged Yorke’s interest in low-key electronic sounds — standouts like “Bloom” and “Lotus Flower” drew heavily on known associates like Four Tet and Flying Lotus — but Pool heightens the 47-year-old’s idiosyncratic vocal melodies with full-bodied strings and choirs. By nature, Radiohead albums will always be somewhat epic, but this one is more consistently grandiose than any of the band’s releases since 2000’s masterpiece Kid A.
Take “Daydreaming,” Pool‘s astounding second track. At first listen, it’s the type of melancholy piano-driven ballad, like “Videotape” or “Codex,” that Radiohead have perfected. Yorke’s fraught lyrics — “Dreamers / They never learn / Beyond the point / Of no return” — carry the track’s elliptical melody, until Jonny conjures Igor Stravinsky’s spirit with menacing string flourishes. The downtrodden vibe doesn’t stop there. Yorke, who quietly separated in 2015 from his partner of 23 years, Rachel Owen, explores the dark complexities of relationships throughout Pool and he does so as insightfully as classics like 2007’s “House of Cards.” As the strings swell on “Daydreaming,” Yorke repeats “Half of my life” — played backwards, of course; this is Radiohead, after all — and that lyrical snippet hammers home the time invested in what now amounts to nil. And the staggering closer “True Love Waits” is perhaps his most emotive vocal performance ever — it’s a naked elegy where he pledges to “drown my beliefs / to have your babies … just don’t leave.”
Of course, Radiohead fans will note that tracks like “True Love Waits” have been kicking around for years. Other tunes have seen more recent live previews, whether during Radiohead’s 2012 tour (“Ful Stop,” “Identikit”) or during Yorke’s 2015 solo shows (“Desert Island Disk,” “The Numbers”). Godrich has even suggested that “Burn the Witch” dates back to the Kid A sessions. But Pool‘s sumptuous arrangements help these versions surpass shaky, fan-shot concert bootlegs that populate YouTube.
Radiohead and Godrich have formed one of modern-day rock’s best braintrusts, and it’s fair to say their music will never dip below a certain base level of quality: Pool‘s songs are too good to explain away as the product of big budgets and endless studio tinkering. “The Numbers” couples Neil Young-style strumming with strings straight from George Martin’s Magical Mystery Tour playbook, while “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” is as economical and intriguing as its title isn’t. And “Burn the Witch” is as affecting a political statement as Radiohead have made, ripe with allusions to gallows and societal persecution, as spiccato strings collide with quaking bass lines.
Yorke’s lyrics will always face scrutiny for their apocalyptic overtones, and there’s plenty of examples on Pool, whether he’s singing about venturing into the wilderness to escape a dystopian society of drones (“Glass Eyes”) or contemplating “waking up from shutdown / from a thousand years of sleep” (“Desert Island Disk”). But he balances his doomsaying with some of his starkest romanticism to date. All these lyrical elements coalesce on Pool‘s headiest cut, “Decks Dark,” which simultaneously discusses succumbing to aliens, lovers, and life: “We are helpless to resist.” Buttressed by glistening piano arpeggios and jagged electric guitars, it’s also one of the album’s most sublimely gorgeous moments. Later in the song, Yorke wonders, “Have you had enough of me?” Nine albums in, the answer’s a resounding “no.”