Radiohead, “A Moon Shaped Pool” (XL)

In “The Numbers,” a new song from Radiohead’s ninth studio album, frontman Thom Yorke calls for a revolution, in the way Radiohead does these sorts of things. Where other bands or orators might be tempted to shout, Yorke sounds like he’s singing a lullaby.

“We’ll take back what is ours,” he calmly declares. Yorke doesn’t sound like he wants to lead a revolution so much as sign off on its inevitability. It’s a rare moment of certainty in the Radiohead universe, a place where beauty (a moon-shaped pool, indeed) and dread uneasily coexist.

Two songs later, in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Beggar Man Thief,” the revolution has arrived, and it’s not covered in glory. “All the holes at once are coming alive, set free,” a shellshocked Yorke reports before his outpost is invaded.

Radiohead has made five-piece rock records and claustrophobic electronic ones, glitchy dance tracks and spiraling anthems since the early ’90s. “A Moon Shaped Pool” merges downcast folk and chamber music, and injects noise into expansive orchestrations.

A casual listen or two might consign “A Moon Shaped Pool” to the latest in a series of Radiohead releases post-”Kid A” (2000) that are more about texture and arty experimentation than guitar rock or pop structure. But as with most Radiohead releases, there’s something more going on. The biggest instant rewards belong to Jonny Greenwood, who makes excellent use of a string section and choir to augment the band’s increasingly refined role.

The music on all 11 tracks often appears bottomless, with new spatial possibilities suggested by the mix. Producer Nigel Godrich and the band shape the arrangements by changing depth of field. In their slow-motion psychedelia, hidden sounds slowly drift into prominence and lead instruments gently fade into the background or disappear.

Folk elements provide some familiarity, especially with the sandpaper sway of “Present Tense,” in which the narrator tries to dance away his troubles, at least momentarily. Songs about romantic and geopolitical travail overlap, and the search for an escape hatch is a recurring theme.

The progressive-rock-leaning “A Moon Shaped Pool” is also about getting lost: in space, down a fantasy rabbit hole or at least in one’s own head.

There’s a “spacecraft blocking out the sky” in “Decks Dark,” and a desire to step “through an open doorway to another life” in “Desert Island Disk.” Children’s rhymes pop up in several songs, and an Alice in Wonderland alternative universe appears in “True Love Waits.”

Stumbling upon a mountain path in “Glass Eyes,” Yorke’s narrator sings, “I don’t know where it leads/I don’t really care.” In a world of hurt, the moon-shaped pool is an illusion, but it doesn’t prevent us from dreaming about what lies beyond it.

Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune


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