A Low Flying Panic Attack: A Reflection on Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool
It has been six months since Radiohead’s ninth album was released yet I can’t think of a better time to examine a work that sets the tone of our waning world. A Moon Shaped Pool examines a world faced by demagoguery, racial fear, debilitating paranoia, environmental disregard, empathetic disconnect, a diseased system of values, and a bloated sense of privilege that undermines the entirety of political discourse and democracy itself. In the album’s protean instability and somnambulant crooning, the band somehow taps into this weird zeitgeist called 2016 that seems untethered to a firm sense of reality. The constant voice of Thom Yorke and the other four members establish a dreamy groove that lacks a bottom much of the time, tracks without backbeats or strong rhythms, a first in the band’s corpus. The band continues to impress and reinvent for a world where rock bands seem to become less and less relevant and less and less a part of the culture’s direction.
The energy of the album traverses an arching soundscape: the initial single (probably the only one that would ever gain radio airtime) serves as a sort of garish introduction in juxtaposition of the rest of the album; no song is as steady or firm throughout the rest of the songs. The following song (and only other single) “Daydreaming” is a six and a half minute ambient track with more backing by the London Contemporary Orchestra and a few electronic tinkering’s that creates what becomes one of the highpoints of the album, the sunken naidr to “Burn the Witch’s” discomforting Orwellian man in the high tower. After the initial pairing of the album’s two singles, the motion of the work jumps back and forth between acoustic laden moans and symphonic dirges that could tour the great opera houses of Europe. It’s at the three song center (tracks 5-7) that the album reaches the benighted core of the work, beginning with “Ful Stop”. It’s here that the inextricable bond between a doomed future and our determined identities become clear; the repeated mantra here feels both cathartic and damning: “Truth will mess you up”, a line that may come to sum up Radiohead’s perspective. And as soon as the listener penetrates this cold cynosure, we see a moody beautiful moon on the other side of the clouds. Track six, “Glass Eyes” is the true middle point with these contiguous bangers on each side, the first sinister, the second plaintive, both dark but on different ends of the spectrum. This track persists in its pessimistic tone but also taps into some of the most tender parts of a band already wearing their heart on their sleeve. Its location in the center gives it the feeling of authenticity or sincerity that the rest of the album revolves around. And where “Ful Stop” sees apocalypse, track seven, “Identikit” finds an ecstatic release in the very actions that embody the album, a poetic cry of one’s misery, an articulation of suffering that rings more clear than political pandering or semantic free play, “Broken hearts make it rain”. Side note: the droning guitar strumming at the middle of “Identikit” paired with the repetition of Yorke’s “rain” references the fountainhead of creative rock and the idea of finding solace in the unorthodox, The Beatles single “Rain”.
One of the most poetic elements of the album is in the interplay not only with the symphonic and electronic but with intimacy and mechanical detachment. The songs avail these wide-ranging dynamics, effusive microcosms that sound like flower-like organisms that fail to bloom under a moody sky, and the sinister macrocosms of a dying world composed of mendacious politicians and industrial darkness, both of which are complemented masterfully by Johnny Greenwood’s orchestral arrangements and electronic strata that probably has more layers than any other Radiohead album. It seems as if every song is either recorded in a dimly lit bedroom or Royal Albert Hall with either the soul or the entire planet at stake.
“The future is inside of us, it’s not somewhere else,” Yorke sings on “The Numbers”, a track which harkens back to a Neil Young like zeal more concerned with mother nature on the run than rocking in the free world. Because one seems much more sure than the other now. On close examination, the album’s title references a place of relaxation, escape, exposure, mysticism, reflection. But it’s one that follows the outline of a moon, an object that “presides over conception pregnancy and birth, over the agricultural cycles of sowing and reaping, over every kind of coming into being” (Taschen). It is something protean, shifty – always opening and closing, filling up or running dry.
The album not only remedies an age where insanity is taken for truth, but calls into question many things that existed in an age before Trump became President of the United States. It didn’t take Trump to “sing the song on the jukebox that goes: Burn the Witch”. These have always existed but now its quite clear how fitting an album like A Moon Shaped Pool now is. One of the most despairing themes of the album is the idea that we have now crossed the Rubicon, that “it’s too late, the damage is done”. And with this election year, that doesn’t seem impossible even if it is true for the well-being of the planet. And yet, Yorke still finds a reason to resist surrender: “People have this power, the numbers don’t decide”. These lines may appear cheesy but when he breaks into the chorus and repeats the phrase “one day at a time” the line in one waning light sounds like the slow descent into a hell on earth, and in another waxing light, the resolute climb to “take back what is ours”.