Radiohead is gonna do Radiohead, sidling ethereally through a confusing, increasingly unstable world as only Radiohead can. So what does that mean? It means that presidential terms may elapse between studio LPs, meticulously constructed by a team the size of a very small hamlet. Said LPs will roll out and retail in ways that seem cryptic and contentious, until in retrospect they seem absolutely inevitable; massive world tours will follow; there will be bafflement and fevered theorizing and furious rhapsodizing.
In the interims — at the poles between efforts — there will be offhand, noncommittal remarks in the press about recording. Singer Thom Yorke will surface for surprise DJ gigs, for guest spots on other artists’ songs, or with ancillary releases. Multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood will rock out internationally or orchestrally when he isn’t cutting mind-blowing soundtracks. Drummer Phil Selway will give himself over to solo songwriting; the rest of the band and their longtime collaborators will turn their attention toward other, off-season interests.
Meanwhile, the world debates, debases, or dismisses the band’s back catalog while anticipating whatever the next move happens to be. Radiohead is gonna be Radiohead, and — much like Neil Young, Kanye West, Beyoncé, or other artists who secured their places in the cultural firmament pre-Long Tail — whatever you or I happen to feel about the next move is irrelevant to this particular quintet.
Case in point: A Moon Shaped Pool, where Yorke somewhat loosens his death grip on that ol’ post-millennial angst as the rest of the band lets loose some of the most beautiful, composed, expressedly chill music of the lineup’s 30-year-long career. This isn’t saucy, jittery Radiohead (2011’s The King of Limbs), freaked-out New World Order Radiohead (2003’s Hail to the Thief), or pro-IDM, existentially-zombified Radiohead (2000’s Kid A, 2001’s Amnesiac). Instead, Pool somehow coalesces aspects all of these eras and emerges as a considered, filigreed, album-length sigh — a earnestly human sigh, a distinctly fortysomething sigh, with all the fears, trials, and exhaustions that middle age can accrue.
The floodgates are open for strings; they’re everywhere, and they’re incandescent. Opener and first single “Burn the Witch” swarms with them. Members of the London Contemporary Orchestra chip and clip those bows in waves so delirious that it’s easy to lose sight of how tight Radiohead’s rhythm section is, how Yorke’s paranoid vocal alternately leans into and swoons away from the song’s overall velocity. “Witch” is almost too perfectly bifurcated — its conservatory elements almost Disney-fi it, next to the proper band’s annihilating, discomforting id — but its undertow scans as a head fake, an über-Radiohead red herring that kicks off an album disinterested in Infowars alarmism.
Pianos — actual, treated, and synthetic — paint mini-epic “Daydreaming” as a melancholic thermal updraft, tugging the heartstrings in all directions, disorienting beyond its final measures. Selway and multi-instrumentalist Colin Greenwood seize the spotlight on “Ful Stop,” worrying a dank groove with such conviction that it ascends, slowly, up through daisy chained swirls of horns and effects. Joining in eventually, Yorke and the guitarists are mere garnishments. “Identikit” plumbs emotional crisis, as the frontman caterwauls into a hall of echoes, while “The Numbers” climaxes in a gospel denouement after gradually extracting sophisticated roadhouse choogle from an aural cul-de-sac.
But “Present Tense” is where Pool locates its hips, light-touch psychedelic flamenco brushing up against country gothic while Yorke catalogs fears through one channel and flickering, massed voices moan replies from the other. It’s followed by “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief,” which forefronts a tremulously tender, amused Yorke, framed by hissing snares, singing strings, and what might be the sturdiest, most insinuated bass line they’ve ever written. The song slinks and shifts like the theme song to some lost MGM classic from the 1950s, at least until sinister effects begin to sink their fangs in.
Looking back at Radiohead’s previous eight albums, there was a tendency for key songs and phrases to leap out, in a sloganeering fashion, to demand our attention: “You have not been paying attention” from the bullet train of “2+2=5” before Hail to the Thief scatters; the anthemic snarl that separates “Creep” from the rest of Pablo Honey’s self-loathing; even the surprising sexiness of “Lotus Flower,” amidst The King of Limbs’ percussion-pockmarked subterranean funk. Despite slight variations in texture and tempo, A Moon Shaped Pool is a different animal, one where every song assumes an equal weight, where Yorke’s voice often seems like one instrument among many and not necessarily the main selling point, even when the album becomes minimalist. (At times, what he’s singing is indistinct, or fails to register unless one focuses.)
Radiohead — a quintet made up of the same five musicians through a long, accomplished career — truly feel like equals here, during what history may validate as one of the band’s finest hours; it’s an especially level playing field. Somehow, Pool transmutes fatigue and anxiety into a hallucinatory magick that’s far more cathartic than a jacuzzi soak or a glass of wine. It’s Radiohead doing Radiohead on a molecular level, via controlled burns. Their weary indifference to us becomes our transcendence.