Sound — 8
Radiohead's legacy not only made its mark in terms of the music they made - from the universally-lauded likes of "OK Computer" to the esoteric experimentation of "Kid A" and "Amnesiac" - but also in terms of how they impacted the music industry, like highlighting the practice of a "pay what you want" pricing with their 2007 album, "In Rainbows," and being a major voice in denouncing the economics of music streaming services (although seeing as "In Rainbows" recently made its way onto Spotify, that may be a battle Radiohead just can't win).
While that legacy is properly cemented, Radiohead's previous album, the limp and unintriguing "The King of Limbs," didn't leave the band on a strong note before their hiatus in 2012. In the meantime, plenty of the band's members kept busy with their own respective projects: guitarist Jonny Greenwood continued to do soundtrack work with Paul Thomas Anderson; drummer Philip Selway releasing his second studio album "Weatherhouse"; and Thom Yorke juggled plenty of things, from also releasing his second studio album "Tomorrow's Modern Boxes," forming the supergroup Atoms For Peace with RHCP's Flea, or taking a turn for the absurd by composing a single song that was apparently 18 days long. But while plenty were still yearning for a new Radiohead album, lo and behold, the band were indeed working on that returning album in the meantime, keeping quiet about it until promptly dropping the news a week before its release.
Surprises aside, Radiohead's ninth album, "A Moon Shaped Pool," recalibrates the band's sonic capabilities in a number of ways. One can catch plenty of bits and pieces that call back to their previous work, whether it be the odd synthwork heard in "The Numbers" and "Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief" that calls back to the likes of "Kid A" and "Amnesiac," the looping vocal samples in "Daydreamers" and "Present Tense" that echo the likes of "In Rainbows" and "The King of Limbs," or the fact that they finally put their old, unreleased song "True Love Waits" on the album in the form of a piano ballad. But compared to their previous album, what livens up "A Moon Shaped Pool" for the better is a reinvestment in the band's conventional instruments. Bassist Colin Greenwood sticks out the most here, where his activity reaches up to a "Hail to the Thief"-era noteworthiness (best heard in "Decks Dark" and "Ful Stop"), and from Jonny Greenwood's lead guitarwork in "Identikit," to the standout acoustic guitar elements in the somber folksiness of "Present Tense" and the J Mascis-type trickiness of "Desert Island Disk," Radiohead's guitar elements are much more satisfying this time around.
With a more noteworthy performance aspect to the album, the other element that's just as captivating, if not more so, is the orchestral flavor in "A Moon Shaped Pool." With Greenwood only growing more tenured as an orchestral composer in the past few years, the string sections woven throughout the album are more exquisite than ever before, blooming from the synthetic likes of "Tinker Tailor..." with aplomb, and carrying the underwater-like piano melody in "Glass Eyes" to a beautiful apex. But despite the richness of this element, it doesn't prove to be universally beneficial, and along with the string sections that pop up later on in "The Numbers" feeling a bit gratuitous, the positive, staccato pep to the strings in "Burn the Witch" give off a similar vibe as Coldplay's "Viva La Vida."
Lyrics — 8
Only emphasizing his esoteric style of writing, Yorke's lyrics in "A Moon Shaped Pool" are noticeably more terse than in previous albums, with him giving the listener little to grab ahold of when trying to ascertain the context of what he's singing about. But while some of these cases are about articulating a theme with brevity, like the mocking inflection of society's milquetoast thought processes towards unjustly-defined pariahs in "Burn the Witch" ("Stay in the shadows / Cheer at the gallows"), Yorke's repetition of lyrics that are heard often are meant as a simple accentuation of feelings. This goes hand in hand with the album's main theme of damaged love, which is arguably inspired by Yorke's recent separation with his wife. Yorke goes from lamenting idyllic foolishness in "Daydreamers" ("Dreamers / They never learn... And it's too late / The damage is done") to self-consciously questioning a relationship's looming end in "Decks Dark" ("Have you had enough of me?"), but also shows a bitter side in the accusatory likes of "Ful Stop" ("You really messed up everything... Why should I be good if you're not?"). And though there are moments where Yorke indicates the choice to move forward, whether with invigoration in "Desert Island Disk" ("So let me go upon my way / Born of a light") or apathy in "Glass Eyes" ("The path trails off / And heads down a mountain / Through the dry brush, I don't know where it leads / I don't really care"), his desire to stick around and persevere comes off stronger in "Present Tense" ("I won't stop now / I won't slack off / Or all this love / Will be in vain") and dovetails nicely with the old relic of "True Love Waits."
Overall Impression — 9
In both its role as a returning album and the latest installment of Radiohead's illustrious catalog, "A Moon Shaped Pool" achieves its goals well. With its stronger orchestral output acting as the freshest characteristic for the album, Radiohead make a good call reigniting the "rock" aspect of their sound to a sensible degree (parlaying from the lukewarm results of their previous album), and their tethering of subtle stylistic parallels to previous albums duly succeed in keeping the album attached to its predecessors without simply repeating itself. Ultimately, this combination of organic rock, synthetic oddity and symphonic richness makes for an impressive trifecta of capability for Radiohead.