I’ve long been an admirer of Radiohead’s dystopian, postmodern, synthetic psychedelia. To be honest, however, many of their most impressive albums have been difficult for me to listen to for very long. Like a painful film, a heated conversation or an emotional breakdown, their songs have traditionally possessed a type of energy that is fatiguing over time. That’s what caught me so off guard once I finally got to sit with their new release, A Moon Shaped Pool. Gone is the aural razor wire and acidic lyrical assault. Instead, the listener encounters a warm and symphonic - while still complex and challenging - conversation about death, identity, acceptance and something like grace.
It would miss the point to call A Moon Shaped Pool Radiohead’s “kinder, gentler” album, yet the songs are definitely more personal and inviting than anything in their catalog. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood, who has launched a thriving side career as a film composer (There Will Be Blood) and is currently composer-in-residence for the BBC Concert Orchestra, pushes himself well past the guitar-as-weapon style that has made each of Radiohead’s albums interesting and challenging. Here his primary role seems to be as an orchestrator who happens to have a guitar and an arsenal of incredible effect pedals. The result is a collection of resonant songs that defy convention and yet remain compellingly listenable, revealing new layers with repeated exploration.
The songs feel like the quiet time after hours of cathartic weeping.
Meandering through this aural backdrop are lyrics that drip like black ink from a pen that just wrote a break-up letter, or maybe a suicide note not yet delivered. While cryptically dealing with issues like social media, environmental decay or failed relationships, vocalist Thom Yorke manages to implicate the scariest monster of all: himself. There’s a sadly honest realization throughout that humanity’s problems are anchored in the fractured and embattled human psyche. Thus these songs feel like the quiet time after hours of cathartic weeping. The flailing and screaming has stopped and the breathing is coming back. There’s a strange peace at the eye of this emotional storm that reminds me of Paul’s beautifully poetic promise in Philippians 4: 6-7:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
I’ve always been amazed, challenged and comforted by the idea that there is a peace so deep and true our minds can’t comprehend it. In fact, trying to understand that peace – to contain it within our safe intellectual boundaries – risks destroying it. It is, as Scripture says, beyond us. It’s a mystical yet palpable peace that swallows anxiety and gives birth to hope. I have experienced this peace from time to time, but try as I might, I cannot contain it. Words often fail to describe it. Sometimes, music comes closer.
Whereas Radiohead previously used aggressive instrumentation to augment the urgency of Yorke’s acerbic vocals, here the band, with the help of the London Contemporary Orchestra, creates a dreamlike, billowing and luxurious tapestry that seems – to my ears – to suggest some kind of hope beyond the destruction. As always, the lyrics are far too oblique to mean any one thing, but in some very special ways they finally find themselves dancing with the soundtrack instead of leading it into battle or breakdown. The result is a sad, beautiful comforting work that lies just beyond understanding.