I’ve waited a long time to like Radiohead again.
I remember the halcyon days of 1997, slipping on headphones and taking my first trip through OK Computer. I still contend that this complex, daring, difficult paean to paranoia is the best album the 1990s gave us. I can vividly recall how I felt as the album progressed, opening up new worlds and portals as it went. It’s such a triumph that I revisit it once every few months, still, and I’m unfailingly drawn in, amazed anew at the dazzling songs and the otherworldly sonic paints used to color them.
I also vividly remember 2000, when I was offered a chance to hear Radiohead’s follow-up, Kid A, in a local planetarium two weeks before its release. How perfect is that? Hearing the new Radiohead while the cosmos spins above your head? I was so thrilled at the prospect. And then, 40 minutes later, so let down by the actual record. It’s taken me some time to appreciate Kid A for what it is, and for how it set the template for Radiohead for the next 15 years. At the time, I just thought, “There weren’t any songs. They forgot to write any songs.”
I’ve definitely warmed to Kid A over the years, but ever since then, the band has seemingly forgotten how to reach the heights they scaled on OK Computer. Every album since has been varying shades of disappointing in comparison. The best of the bunch, 2007’s In Rainbows, was notable more for its pay-what-you-want surprise independent release strategy than for its actual music, though it contained many of my favorite latter-day Radiohead songs. (“All I Need,” “House of Cards,” “Reckoner.”) Most of the music Radiohead has made since the ‘90s has been cold, distant, electronic and formless, a far cry from the passionate, complicated, organic work of their first few efforts.
I’ve become so used to what they do, so inured to the band’s pitter-patter-and-moan style, that I’ve begun to roll with it. 2011’s The King of Limbs is one of their most insular recordings, and yet I could hear what they were trying to do, and how intricately they were trying to do it. I think I settled in. If this was Radiohead now, I thought, I’m going to try to enjoy it. I’m going to hear “Morning Mr. Magpie” as an intentional song, not as some half-assed, go-nowhere sheet of ice. And I’ll be OK with it.
So what does the band do next? Only their warmest and most beautiful record ever.
As per usual, Radiohead announced the existence of their ninth album, the hyphen-deficient A Moon Shaped Pool, mere days before releasing it on their website. Even from the early singles, you could tell this one was different. Jonny Greenwood’s side career scoring films has never had a greater impact on a Radiohead album – his strings were the driving force of lead single “Burn the Witch” and provided gorgeous color to “Daydreaming,” the slow, dark second single. Both of these songs suffer from the same deficiency of melody as anything the band has done since 2000, but I can’t overstate just how powerful the orchestral instrumentation is, and how energized Thom Yorke sounds by it on “Witch.”
I also can’t overstate how thrilling it is to press play on a new Radiohead album and hear those scraping strings kick things off. Greenwood has integrated the orchestra with the computerized drums and bass beautifully, and the massive, pulsing sound buoys Yorke’s high-and-wavery voice like nothing has in many years. As a song, it’s just OK, but as a statement of intent, it’s pretty awesome.
“Daydreaming,” which follows, actually sets more of the tone for the album – this is the slowest, most patient record Radiohead has made. They let these songs bloom in their own time. “Daydreaming” lasts more than six minutes, and for most of that time, a beautiful tinkling piano provides a bed of snow for Greenwood’s thick violins, some interplanetary ambience and Yorke’s quiet whispers. Not much happens, but for the first time in a long while, not much has to.
I haven’t enjoyed the first two songs on a Radiohead album as much as those two in more than a decade, and the rest of A Moon Shaped Pool doesn’t let me down. The focus here is on beauty – pianos and acoustic guitars abound, violins slip in undetected and offer caresses, songs have lilting tunes and Yorke sings them gracefully. The songs are arranged in alphabetical order, for some reason, and I wonder if that was simply the way it shook out, or if the band renamed some of the tracks to achieve that effect. Either way, A Moon Shaped Pool is in exactly the right order.
Take, for instance, the switch from “Desert Island Disk,” an acoustic love song that brings Nick Drake to mind, to “Ful Stop,” the album’s one driving-at-night propulsive dirge. “Desert” concludes with the full band completing their barely-perceptible crescendo, Yorke repeating that “different types of love are possible” while they play out. “Ful Stop” begins as if it will continue the softer tone, strings and ambient keys creating a dark atmosphere, but then a double-time drum loop takes things up a notch, joined in short order by drummer Phil Selway and the full band. It’s yet another case of a song that doesn’t really change, but doesn’t really have to. “Ful Stop” raises the pressure, with the quiet, elegiac “Glass Eyes” waiting to cool it down again.
As usual, Yorke’s lyrics are difficult to decipher, but this one seems to contain a lot of heartache and longing. Which makes sense – he separated from his partner of 23 years last summer, and such upheaval cannot help but inform his words. That the band has stepped up and provided him with the most gorgeous settings he’s ever had for those words, and that he sounds so engaged with them, is magical. “Broken hearts make it rain,” Yorke repeats on “Identikit” (the one showcase for Ed O’Brien’s electric guitar), and while I’m not sure what that means, exactly, it sounds like he does, and his emotional investment radiates out.
Nowhere is that investment more obvious than on the closing song. The band has been playing “True Love Waits” so long that it’s old enough to drink – they included a strummy acoustic version on 2001’s live album I Might Be Wrong, and it sounded very much like a song written during the ‘90s alt-rock ballad craze. It’s always been a beautiful one, though, and one of Yorke’s most emotionally direct. Now, two decades on, “True Love Waits” has finally found its studio album home. Here it’s a piano duet, its gossamer framework threatening to shatter at any time. The melody, thank the lord, remains the same, but listen to Yorke pleading the refrain: “Just don’t leave, don’t leave.” I think he’s sadder here than I have ever heard him.
And it’s so moving. Having been in love with this song since first hearing it 15 years ago, I can’t even tell you what this version does to me. It’s like Yorke wrote this song in his 20s, but had to wait until his 40s to really understand and inhabit it. I know what that’s like. I wrote songs of heartbreak in my 20s, and I listen now, and even though I had no idea what I was talking about then, they feel stronger and more important now. Yorke and Radiohead spent a lot of time over the past two decades obfuscating, blurring out, staying hidden. And here they are at last, giving us quiet and simple heartache, giving us “just don’t leave.” In the end, that’s what matters. The flowery language, the intricate clockwork of intellect and purpose, they all fade. A piano plays a simple arpeggio. Just don’t leave. Don’t leave.
And that is how they leave. There are rumors that A Moon Shaped Pool might be the final Radiohead album, and if it is, they could not have chosen a more open, yearning, powerful way to exit. I sincerely hope it isn’t, though. Not now, when they’ve finally figured out how to make me invest and respond again. I’ve been intrigued, captivated, confounded, awed, befuddled and delighted by Radiohead over their long history, but this may be the first album they’ve gifted us with that makes me feel this intensely. I’ve waited a long time to like Radiohead again. I’m so glad I did.
Next week, James Blake and a few others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.