Excepting Amnesiac, which was recorded in the same sessions as Kid A, Radiohead has reinvented themselves sonically on every album since OK Computer. Saying that a new release represents a departure from their previous style is therefore paradoxical—the only possible departure would be non-departure.
Radiohead’s ninth studio album, A Moon Shaped Pool (XL, 2016) is no exception. Jonny Greenwood’s string arrangements, an integral part of Radiohead’s sound since In Rainbows, now leap to the front of the soundstage. This isn’t so much a Radiohead record as a Thom Yorke/Jonny Greenwood collaboration.
Sure, Colin Greenwood’s signature bass lines make the occasional cameo (e.g., the Police-esque groove at 1:56 in “Identikit”), but Jonny’s expanded string orchestra leaves no room for Ed O’Brien’s Hail to the Thief-era ambient guitar work. Radiohead ditches the percussion-four-arms experiment that was The King of Limbs for a return to simpler grooves. Like his compatriot Charlie Watts, Phil Selway’s genius has always been in highlighting the song, rather than himself. With the exception of the groove that finally emerges toward the end of “Ful Stop” (c.f.,“Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”), he’s rendered nearly transparent.
Thom Yorke’s unique keyboard-based harmonies, always fodder for speculation among music analysts, regresses more than ever into a bluesy/classic rock idiom. His “blue notes” (minor thirds in major keys) are particularly effective at highlighting emotionally poignant lyrics on AMSP. Nowhere is this more heart-wrenching than in the ending of “Desert Island Disk.”
Nearly all melodies conclude, structurally, with a mi-re-do (“three blind mice”) in some key. This G major song is headed for just such an ending (B–A–G), but at the moment Thom sings “different types of love,” the B is soured to B-flat. We’re then told different types of love are possible on A, with a sustained dominant pedal on D heightening our anticipation. Will his self-described “amicable” split with a partner of 23 years really be possible? When the dominant pedal resolves and A finally falls down to G, it’s harmonized with the happy B-natural, not the sour B-flat, and so Thom wants us to believe so.
Using blue notes for text-painting purposes is old hat, but Yorke has a new harmonic trick up his sleeve on this record: sets of pandiatonic major chords to accompany otherwise diatonic melodies. True, he’s flirted with this twice before (“Everything in its Right Place” and “Pyramid Song”), but never to this degree.
The F-sharp major and E major chords that begin “Burn The Witch” suggest a V–IV loop in B major. But Yorke’s melody, clearly in A, grates constantly against the A-sharp in the accompaniment. The prechorus further clarifies A major melodically, but with C-sharp major and B major chords. Was that V–IV in F-sharp major? Maybe, but sets of major chords all related by perfect fifths and moving in parallel motion cannot establish a key (especially when Yorke’s singing in a different one).
The four pairs of major thirds that form the basis of “Tinker Tailor…” yield a similarly chromatic saturation. The resulting octatonic collection <C#–D#–E–F–F#–G–G#–A#>, a symmetrical palindrome, reminds me of Messiaen, a composer for whom Jonny Greenwood has a great affinity.
These timbral and harmonic departures notwithstanding, Radiohead fans will find some of the band’s old formal and rhythmic tricks still present on the record. Radiohead’s always separated themselves from the din of conventional rock music through their song forms, which continually transcend predictable verse/chorus formal designs. A Moon Shaped Pool includes two notable terminal climaxes—memorable sections of new material that appear only at the song’s ending. Like 2003’s terminally climactic “Sit Down, Stand Up,” “Ful Stop” builds gradually over three minutes to arrive on the repeated mantra “truth will mess you up.” Yorke tempers the uncharacteristically poppy B major climax of “Present Tense” with a dose of irony. Though he’s been singing in B major most of the song, he waits until the first appearance of a B major chord (at literally the last minute) to repeat “in you I’m lost.”
Formally speaking, the album’s second single, “Daydreaming,” is built around the repetition of a single riff. Our sustained interest in this riff is guaranteed largely though its omnipresent 3 vs. 2 rhythmic dissonance—a trick that comes straight out of “How to Disappear Completely.”
The record’s biggest throwback is surely the fan favorite “True Love Waits.” Previously a trite C major strummed acoustic guitar sketch, it’s been completely re-imagined as the dizzying piano riff shown below. Like “The National Anthem,” it’s composed of seven notes spread maximally even over a grid of 16 possible points. Just when we’ve figured out the <2322232> pattern, Yorke switches the last two beats to <2322223>.
In light of recent events, listeners will want to hear this final track on A Moon Shaped Pool as autobiographical (i.e., “little hands,” “don’t go”). However, Thom’s been woodshedding this one for nearly two decades. What if this track isn’t a farewell to Rachel, but to us, the fans? Wouldn’t it be bittersweet if this song isn’t just another epic album-ending Radiohead track, but actually the final track? True Love waits through decades of fits and starts. It suffers rough drafts. It forgives half-decades between albums. Perhaps True Love knows when enough is enough, when to leave well enough alone.
Featured image credit: “Radiohead” by Radamantis Torres. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.