1:01, Burn the Witch
The way the staccato, Stravinskian strings drop away for the first time, to be replaced by low, brooding cellos and Thom Yorke’s full, wailing repeat of the track’s title, hits you with the same kind of gut-wrenching, suddenly sickening intensity as you feel when you almost fall down an open lift shaft.
3:10-3:40, Burn the Witch
The same feeling of teetering on the brink (or, more Radiohead-like, standing on the edge) is extended into an instrumental finale that oozes flames, death and destruction, even if you haven’t seen the Wickerman-inspired video. There’s a brief, disingenuous return to a major chord, which then disintegrates into jagged, discordant, argumentative strings.
Just after Yorke sings “The damage is done”, we enter an extended reverie. It’s in keeping with the song’s title and theme. Halfway through the Reich-esque piano figure’s sojourn, it’s joined by a pulsing bass note that at first seems intended to tether us but then, as the piano swirls around it, shifts and takes up new ground. As a patient instrumental encapsulation of the pain of separation, it is devastating.
1:18, Decks Dark
The synergistic relationship between music and lyrics on A Moon Shaped Pool is arguably the strongest it’s ever been on a Radiohead record.
Here, just after Yorke completes the delicate first movement of this soaring, mid-tempo space ballad, he sings “We are helpless to resist”. Immediately, the gorgeous piano arpeggios and tinny drum machine give way to the solidity of Colin Greenwood’s bass, followed swiftly by Phil Selway’s never-sounded-so-real drums and a female voice choir that sounds like it just arrived from Betelgeuse.
3:13-25, Desert Island Disk
This is the tension before the resolution in a song that has spent most of its time meanderingly exploring one chord. Eventually it develops into an psych-folk drama tinged with strange sweeping sounds. The lyrics once again speak of “standing on the edge”, before concluding that “different types of love are possible”. It’s as if the music needs to convince the singer of his conclusion, physically pulling him along.
3:10, Ful Stop
Ful Stop is a dark, muddy, moody, propulsive epic. This is the moment when light breaks in, live drums scattering themselves over everything and Yorke’s mantra-like falsetto backing vocals adding weight to a song that feels monumentally oppressive. “Take me back again”, he sings, later, before the beat returns and a sinuous, Electric Counterpoint-style guitar figure is sprinkled over the top.
1:20-2:00, Glass Eyes
Radiohead no longer write songs so much as compositions. It can be helpful to hear these free-flowing compositions in movements. Here, in the second segment of Glass Eyes, perhaps the album’s most descriptive track, the downward turn of the music is matched by Jonny Greenwood’s expansive strings, which are deliciously cinematic and spacious. They remind me of Copland’s most bucolic, calming moments.
For nearly a minute, we seem to have stumbled into a studio rehearsal or an excerpt that has made it onto the record by mistake. But then Yorke’s up-close-and-personal voice begins to duet with his lost-down-a-well voice, and everything is pulled together, tight, even as it remains loose and louche.
“Broken hearts make it rain.” The centrepiece of the album, this minute-long stretch of increasingly majestic music, incorporating first Yorke’s vocals, then what sounds like another choir beaming in their contribution from deep space, along with the cutting addition of unusually clean synths that have somehow avoided the usual Greenwood/Godrich warping procedure, perhaps sums up the intensely personal nature of the album. It is this album’s best attempt at surpassing Reckoner’s hitherto unsurpassed “in rainbows” breakdown.
3:35-3:59, The Numbers
The swampy, bluesy juggernaut of this track, which feels like it could be a cover of some forgotten ’60s supergroup, is roadblocked by melodramatic strings, sounding distinctly miffed that they were not given the James Bond gig.
1:49-2:10, Present Tense
Bossa nova is a music designed to deliver lightness of heart. It’s a form that speaks of sun and dancing feet and some sort of delectable rum-based cocktail. You would think that such a delicate structure would buckle under the ironic weight of Thom Yorke beseeching persons unknown, “no one get heavy/don’t get heavy/keep it light and keep it moving/I am doing no harm”.
2:50-3:16, Present Tense
And yet it doesn’t buckle. Somehow, this incongruous bastardized samba keeps its footing. And that is because it is full of small moments of glorious brightness. Here is one, where you realise the heart of this track is Yorke’s total commitment, beyond reason, to the person he’s addressing: “In you I’m lost.”
2:02-19, Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief
Phil Selway is not often given centre stage by the band he plays for. Especially since they took a turn away from real instruments. He’s one of the most patient drummers around. But he must live for moments, and songs, like this, when he can sprinkle his cymbal-led embroidery everywhere. His ride cymbal in this too-brief section sounds like it was stolen from the same drum kit as Nick Mason used on Dark Side of the Moon; it’s impossibly elegant.
0:00-4:43, True Love Waits
In common with many of the other songs recorded for this album, I think we are safe to presume that True Love Waits was written for Thom Yorke’s long-term girlfriend, Rachel. The difference is that this song was written at the beginning of their relationship.
The band has never successfully recorded it in the studio, until now. Its inclusion here, in a vastly different arrangement than existed way back in 1995 (video below), is gut-wrenching.
The arrangement itself, to me, betrays the change of heart. Where there was certainty, even triumph, there is now yearning, doubt, even despair.
It is possibly the most honest moment on the most personal album this most sincere of bands has ever released.
You can and should buy A Moon Shaped Pool here.