The rise of digital music and streaming music services like Spotify and Apple Music has been great in many ways. It is easier than ever to get music and discover music. It does have its downsides as well though. One of the of these downsides is the rarity of the “album artist” in today’s music business. It simply is a rare art form in the current business of single track downloads.
I’ve been a big Radiohead fan since I first saw the video for Creep on MTV all those years ago. I’ve listened as they’ve matured as a band and risen to be one of the biggest rock bands in the world. One thing I think they do better than pretty much any other contemporary rock band (especially of their prominence) is the careful thought and makeup of each individual album (with a couple of exceptions). There are great individual singles on each Radiohead album, but there is clearly a lot of thought put into the placement of songs on each album. This is what makes Radiohead’s best albums great.
A Moon Shaped Pool is no exception to this idea. This being Radiohead there is no single theme to the album and even those identifiable themes are inexplicably entwined. Whatever the theme you relate to in each of these songs, this is an album of someone who has been broken open. The tragedy of politics, environment, and personal life have cut open a sense of trauma, heartache, and drained acceptance of the invading doom.
The theme of heartache that flows through the album, largely inspired by Thom Yorke’s separation from his partner of 23 years (and mother of their two children). Unlike Björk’s Vulnicura, where the songs were largely written while the separation/divorce was building up, happening, and resolving; A Moon Shaped Pool includes songs that were written years earlier, however the specific placement of these songs on the album is what makes them even more interesting. In this context, these earlier slices of heartache show slivers of the troubles that will lead to the separation.
With current circumstances in my life, the heartache in the album resonates with me deeply. It begins on the second track, Daydreaming. The dreamer has past the point of no return and the damage has been done. He is lost wandering the world no longer connected to anyone (especially as depicted in the video for the song). As the song concludes you have a chant that sounds like nonsense, but is actually Thom referring to his relationship having been “Half My Life,” slowed down and played in reverse.
In the next track, Decks Dark, the themes of environment and heartache are entwined. Something is blocking out our vision…our happiness. We can no longer resist the darkness that has taken over. There is an element of surprise in his reaction to what is happening inside of him. He sings ““You gotta be kidding me, the grass grows over me,” signifying a death of sorts. Is it a death of the love for his former partner? A death of self? A death of the environment?
Desert Island Disk, we get a focus on light and the color white. These images are also sprinkled throughout the album (again first really showing up in Daydreaming). There is a sense of erasing and rebirth in these images that are reflected in both the music, and how the band went about preparing to release the album. Before the album release, they “erased” their entire online presence…website & social media accounts…and started over with the album release. By erasing we can be reborn.
Next we get one of the older songs, Ful Stop (it was performed on tour in 2012), that is making its album debut. This is one of those songs where you can see those earlier slices of heartache but its placement on the album is spot on. Things are messed up and now even the truth is hard to believe. Were the good times actually good times…or do we just want to believe they were? These questions that have no real answers can cause us to be trapped in the full stop (a period), the ending of a sentence (relationship).
Anxiety and alienation (another common theme in Radiohead’s music), are the primary themes in Glass Eyes. Now that the truth has been shattered, we are left as an anxious and alienated mess. We want someone to tell us we are great but instead we just feel small and alone. We are constantly on the verge of tears. So we retreat to nature, to escape the overwhelming pressure of the city. All we want to do is escape.
Perhaps my favorite of the “heartbreak” songs, Identikit, another first appearing during that 2012 tour:
Identikit: A picture of a person, reconstructed from strips showing facial features selected to match witnesses’ descriptions; used by the police to build a likeness of a person sought for a crime. A heart is broken, tears flow, and love becomes doubt. We are left to reconstruct that person, that love, that life. This song links back to Ful Stop (and was often played together on that tour in 2012). “Truth will mess you up” in Ful Stop, “I don’t wanna know” in Identikit. The truth could hurt and break you. This is the climax of the heartache theme on the album. There is nothing left.
While not specifically dealing with heartbreak, but the aftermath of the ending of a relationship, is Present Tense. This is another older song, having been played as early as 2009. The lyrics are abstract enough to cover both that time when you know the relationship is falling apart, but also that time after the relationship when you talk to the person again. The awkward interactions, the remnants of love and being lost in each other. How we question the relationship and if we did enough, if it was all in vain, if it was worth it at all. By the end you cannot escape the present tense, finding yourself outside of that full stop earlier in the album.
The album concludes with the oldest track on the album (and most eagerly awaited of unreleased studio tracks), True Love Waits. This song was first played in 1995 and has existed in various live versions over the years. This version is stripped back to just Thom’s vocals and two piano tracks. It is heartbreakingly beautiful. Both sad and hopeful at the same time. I honestly can’t decide whether it’s a hopeful end to the album (and the survival of the dreamer) or the final expression of having that dream broken for good. I do know that it makes me want to hug someone I love (friend, family, or lover) in that 20 seconds after the music fades out before the track itself ends.
I’ve talked a lot about the lyrical content of the album, but it would be amiss to not mention the effect of the musical arrangements led by the musical direction of Jonny Greenwood. The addition of the London Contemporary Orchestra adds layers to digest over many of these songs. Like many of the movie scores that Jonny has scored recently, the music is a voice/character of its own. It commands as much attention as the lyrics themselves.
I’ve skipped over three tracks, the opening track Burn the Witch, The Numbers (between Identikit and Present Tense), and Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief (between Present Tense and True Love Waits). These songs deal more with the themes of political and environmental anxiety and alienation. They are entwined with the brokenness of the world and life, but focus less on the specific personal heartbreak that sticks to me at the moment. Even then, I think they are very purposefully placed in the context of the entire album.
My friend Elizabeth had a great observation as we were discussing the album: “I actually think the whole production is sort of like a reversible shirt. It’s meant to go both ways. The infinity sign of time. He is always walking toward and away from this relationship.”