Unless you were hiding under the bed all weekend, you’ve heard that there’s a new Radiohead album. As you may or may not have heard, though, it’s really good!
A Moon Shaped Pool is the band’s ninth album, their first since 2011’s The King of Limbs — and perhaps their best since the heady days of the late ’90s and early 2000s. We’re not alone in thinking this, it seems, because this record seems to have resonated with both fans and non-fans more than anything Radiohead has done in years. The Flavorwire office consensus is “Wow, I like this more than I thought I would,” and while that evidence is certainly anecdotal, the Guardian did a vox-pop with a bunch of long-term fans, all of whom said pretty much the same thing. It’s interesting that so many people seem to relate so strongly to A Moon Shaped Pool, because paradoxically, it’s also arguably the most personal record the band has ever recorded.
It’s always dangerous trying to conflate a song’s first person person perspective with that of its writer, but as plenty of people have noted already, A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead’s first release since Thom Yorke split with his partner of over 20 years, and it seems undeniable that at various times on this record, the singer is alluding to his own experience — the gorgeous “Daydreaming” ends with a back-masked sample of him reciting the phrase “half of my life”, and elsewhere there’s talk of “messing up everything,” both parties “messing around,” and “all that love [being] in vain.” Most notably, the album closes with “True Love Waits,” a song that’s existed for pretty much the same amount of time as Yorke’s failed relationship; the last thing you hear is Yorke singing the song’s refrain, “Don’t leave.” It’s… bleak, to say the least.
But the best music works because it transcends the personal to achieve universal resonance, and these songs evoke all sorts of loneliness. Since OK Computer—and arguably, earlier—Radiohead’s music has been characterized by a very modern alienation: the feeling of being alone with everybody, of being isolated in a world where, ostensibly at least, we’re more connected than ever. It’s easy to forget this feeling, or gloss over it; often, it takes some sort of upheaval to remind you that the structures you erect around your solitude are fragile and ultimately transitory, and that when they’re knocked down, you’re left as alone as you always were.
Those support structures could take the form of a relationship, or something else — a job, an addiction, a state of mind, or a million other things. But whatever they are, once they’re gone, you find yourself staring at the blank open space of the future, both terrified and exhilarated. Your nerves are raw and ragged, your emotions visceral, and there’s suddenly a whole lot of time that you have no idea what to do with. The “Daydreaming” video certainly alludes to this feeling — it sees Yorke escaping a world of mundanity, literally stepping out of the solitude of modern life into a wide open snowscape. The environment he enters is both beautiful and intimidating: there’s nothing but white, an image curiously reminiscent of the sleeve art on OK Computer, where half-formed images of freeways and schematic drawings of esoteric technology emerge out of a scratchy white background. The snow is a blank canvas, a place to start again — but it’s also a place where you might just freeze to death.
On the record, several songs put this feeling into words. “Glass Eyes” finds Yorke disappearing into a wilderness both literal and metaphorical: “I just got off the train/ A frightening place… The path trails off/ And heads down a mountain/ Through the dry bush, I don’t know where it leads/ I don’t really care.” The track before that one, “Desert Island Disk” — a title that’s already redolent of isolation and solitude — deploys the imagery of waking from a long reverie: “Waking, waking up from shutdown/ From a thousand years of sleep/ Yeah, you know what I mean/ You know what I mean.” And we do, because what he means could be any number of things.
Even “True Love Waits,” the presence of which fans have been quick to identify with Yorke’s breakup, contains more than just a story of broken love — years ago, Yorke explained the lyric “True love lives/ On lollipops and crisps” as being about “a young child who was locked in his house for a week and survived on junk food.” The theme of abandonment is clear, but so is the idea of a sort of defiant and desperate self-sufficiency. The metaphor is easily extended to any number of situations, and ultimately to life under late capitalism itself: we’ve been thrown to the wolves, but we’re surviving, somehow.
It’s for this reason that seeing A Moon Shaped Pool as just the Thom Yorke Breakup Album is ultimately selling it a little short. Lead single “Burn the Witch” is definitely more of a political than personal bent, but more notably, “The Numbers” — originally entitled “Silent Spring” — steps away from the personal to address a more universal theme, that of the fact that we’re slowly destroying our planet. Again, the idea of waking from sleep is present: the world as a whole continues to sleepwalk toward fossil-fueled oblivion, but at least some of us realize it. “The future is inside us,” Yorke sings, “It’s not somewhere else… You may pour us away like soup/ Like pretty broken flowers/ We’ll take back what is ours.” It’s an uncharacteristically optimistic assessment, but then, a sort of bruised optimism shines through the darkness throughout this album, and that’s perhaps the most surprising thing of all. As they say these days: Stay woke.