Radiohead is made up of songwriter and singer Thom Yorke, brothers Jonny Greenwood and Colin Greenwood, multi-instrumentalist and bassist, respectively, guitarist Ed O’Brien, and drummer Phil Selway — producer Nigel Godrich should be mentioned, arguably as responsible for the band’s sound as the band members themselves, having served as producer on every album since 1993’s Pablo Honey.
Radiohead have been a big presence in the mainstream since their 1997 critically acclaimed album Ok Computer. They were hailed as new Pink Floyd, celebrities attended their concerts, and their fandom grew to the point that members of the band, especially Yorke, felt claustrophobic.
In response to Ok Computer came Kid A, a sharp left turn into the electronic unknown, where the members of the band toyed with buzzing and chirping machines, voice modifiers, and loop controls. Those two albums solidified their place in music as anti-mainstream, anti-establishment; fearlessly inventive and adventurous.
Since then they’ve released Amnesiac (which came less than a year after Kid A, and can be listened to as a companion piece or as its own work), Hail To The Thief in 2003, In Rainbows in 2007, and King of Limbs in 2011.
Now they’ve returned, about five years later, with their most atmospheric work yet, A Moon Shaped Pool, a collection of songs with lyrics like loose poetry and music like the weather, dim and cloudy one moment, bright the next, with little certainty in forecast and direction.
For the last decade, the members of Radiohead have taken time out of their respective roles to work on other projects — Yorke released The Eraser in 2006 and, as the front man for the band Atoms For Peace, an album called Amok in 2013; Jonny Greenwood served as composer-in-residence for the BBC Concert Orchestra, and scored the Paul Thomas Anderson films There Will Be Blood, The Master, and most recently Inherent Vice; Selway released two solo albums, Familial in 2010 and Weatherhouse in 2014.
The time away has done them good, as they return to perfect and capitalize on the various sounds they devoured.
“Burn The Witch” was the first album single released and is its most typical Radiohead song: dour lyrics that warn of the inevitable, strings and electric buzz providing a swell for Yorke’s falsetto to ride through the chorus and leave us with the uneasy feeling we didn’t know we wanted until we counted five years since “Little by Little.”
“Daydreaming” sounds just like what it is, a meandering albeit beautiful detour, filled with layered repetition.
“Decks Dark,” harkens back to Ok Computer‘s “Subterranean Homesick Alien” with mentions of spacecrafts interrupting what might be a typical English day. The way the piano blinks and then bottoms out, the way the choir melody soars in the background as Yorke doles out passive lyrics with his criminally underused lower register vocals make this a song to return to again and again.
You gotta be kidding me / the grass grows over me / your face in the glass, in the glass / it was just a laugh, just a laugh. – “Decks Dark”
“Desert Island Disk” serves as the band’s first truly bright spot on the album, with skittering acoustic guitar lines, whirring electric fuzz, and lyrics sung in the aforementioned lower register that come to a head intertwined with a shower of atmosphere.
“Ful Stop” skips along during its first two thirds over a relentless fuzz beat, but the way it ends, the way Yorke yelps, makes the exercise-in-patience-opening worth the wait.
“Glass Eyes” is another tiny break in gray clouds, and Yorke sends through the space some of his most matter of fact lyrics to date.
Hey it’s me, I just got off the train / a frightening place / with faces like concrete gray / and I’m wondering should I turn around / buy another ticket / panic is coming on strong. – “Glass Eyes”
“Identikit” is one of the songs I’ve been looking forward to most. The band gave a performance of the song in 2012 at Coachella, and when I saw it included in the album’s tracklist, I was nervous for the final product. What might have happened in the four years since the performance that could have interrupted its serpentine groove and electric chorus? It turns out, nothing. With a slight change in rhythm and the addition of a fuzzy-like-tv-static Greenwood guitar solo at the end, the song remained intact. All that’s missing from the original performance is Ed O’Brien’s backing vocals, another aspect of the band’s sound under-utilized, considering they’re what make In Rainbows’ “Weird Fishes / Arpeggi” as beautiful as it is.
“The Numbers” has been given a lot of coverage already so all I’ll say is it’s a climate change warning that goes from quiet acoustic to string-filled and cinematic in a blink of the eye.
“Present Tense” is the third sunny spot on the album, and the song closest to another on In Rainbows. Each second is filled with rumbling drums, flitting, finger-picked acoustic melody, and a crooning Yorke vocal, that opens up at the halfway mark to what could be interpreted as a romantic submission or a depressing submission:
In you I’m lost / in you I’m lost / I won’t turn round at the penny drop / I won’t stop now / I won’t slack off / or all this love / will be in vain. – “Present Tense”
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” is less of a mouthful than it sounds, and as the penultimate song on the album, serves as a great, moody transition into what fans have yearned for since the song was debuted live over 20 years ago. Put another way, by Record Eagle staff-writer Troy Reimink: It’s a song old enough to buy itself a drink to drown its sorrows.
That song is “True Love Waits,” and it contains lyrics I still have yet to make sense of, despite hearing the song for the first time about seven years ago; however, there’s one line that always gets me, and it seems to ring true now more than ever as Yorke reaches age 47.
I’m not living / I’m just killing time. – “True Love Waits”
If there’s a Radiohead lyric more evocative of the band’s sound and the sentiment they seem so intent on serving, I’d like to hear it.
The music that serves the lyrics thumps like slow heartbeats and culminates in a wash of twinkling piano. There couldn’t be a better indication of the album’s sound as a whole, nor end to a set of songs bound by beautiful atmosphere, richly decorated with melodies so fragile they might break if they come around too often, just like Radiohead themselves.
Another five years makes sense.