- UFOs don't usually figure in the canon of heartbreak metaphors, but Thom Yorke likes to do things differently. On "Decks Dark," from Radiohead's ninth album, he sings: "And in your life there comes a darkness / There's a spacecraft blocking out the sky / And there's nowhere to hide / You run to the back and you cover your ears / But it's the loudest sound you've ever heard." A few seconds later, a chorus with all the rainy grandeur of "Subterranean Homesick Alien" sweeps into view. News of Yorke's separation from his partner of 23 years filtered out last year, a few months after the release of another major breakup album. Unlike Björk's Vulnicura, however, A Moon Shaped Pool doesn't explicitly address the event—for one thing, many of its songs were written years beforehand. But the knowledge of Yorke's situation repeatedly crowds out other interpretations.
Take for example the tail-end of numbing krautrock dirge "Ful Stop," when Yorke pleads, "Take me back / Take me back again," while a choir wails in the background. Or "Identikit," when he laments that "broken hearts make it rain" over dolorous strummed guitars. Or "Present Tense": "It's no one's business but mine / That all this love could've been in vain." As with Vulnicura, it's hard to say whether the heartbreak gives Radiohead's music a fresh power, or whether the band happens to have found a new creative energy that amplifies the heartbreak.
It helps that they've overhauled their sound. The airless electronica of 2011's The King Of Limbs and Yorke's solo work seems to have run its course. Instead, his wounded voice is like the "ragdoll" mentioned in his lyrics: a helpless presence, buffeted around by watery guitars, spring-reverb spume and loose swirls of piano. The songs are mostly dark and spacious, the sound of somebody marinating in unhappiness. Sometimes, as in the pairing of "Present Tense" and "Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief," the music's tendency to wander gets frustrating. But it can also add to the effect. On "Desert Island Disk," Yorke tries to convince himself that "different types of love are possible," but his fingerpicking has strayed into a minor key, suggesting that things aren't quite so simple.
Yorke has rarely been capable of Björk's emotional openness, and in places he falls back on a stale, preachy mode. Opener "Burn The Witch" is a Radiohead-by-numbers decrial of media shaming, and folksy climate change protest song "The Numbers" is about as trite as it sounds. But these moments are counterbalanced by three of the best ballads of the band's career. There's the gorgeous, tragic "Daydreaming," which features the best of several great string arrangements by Jonny Greenwood. Then there's "Glass Eyes," in which a panicked Yorke finds a path that "trails off / And heads down a mountain / Through the dry bush, I don't know where it leads," his mumble disappearing under a brilliant cumulus of strings.
And then, at the end of A Moon Shaped Pool, there's "True Love Waits." Yorke's relationship with the song dates back to 1995—not so far off 23 years—and it appeared on 2001 live album I Might Be Wrong. Back then, it sounded boyishly romantic; now, transposed from acoustic guitar to piano, it's cold and hopeless. Vulnicura had one of these callback moments, too: a lyrical echo of 2002's "Cocoon," in "History Of Touches." It’s the sort of move you can only pull if your career spans your adult life, and if your fans are still listening as intently now as they were then. Following shaky albums from both Yorke and Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool suggests that they were right to keep the faith.
01. Burn The Witch
03. Decks Dark
04. Desert Island Disk
05. Ful Stop
06. Glass Eyes
08. The Numbers
09. Present Tense
10. Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief
11. True Love Waits