Radiohead, the band for two decades synonymous with experimentation, has inched back to its rock roots on a long-awaited album that seizes on space as a symbol of individual darkness.
A Moon Shaped Pool, the ninth album by the Oxford, England-based group, came out Sunday with two days prior notice and, in an affirmation of its principles, Radiohead boycotted leading streaming service Spotify.
Radiohead had heralded a new chapter in music culture in the mid-1990s by moving away from the jamming guitars that characterized alternative rock and heading full-speed into synthesized innovation on now seminal albums such as OK Computer and Kid A.
A Moon Shaped Pool does not come full circle, with Radiohead little interested in simply revisiting the past. But the album nonetheless offers some of the band’s most accessible music since its transition.
“Burn the Witch,” the first single off the album, is built off strings played by the London Contemporary Orchestra but comes together as a tightly written rock song with a hard-driving bassline, as frontman Thom Yorke sings of mass hysteria with lines such as, “This is a low-flying panic attack.”
Radiohead returns even more to a rock base on “Desert Island Disk,” built off a minimalist acoustic guitar, and the gloomy “Decks Dark.”
Yorke expands on the space imagery on “Decks Dark,” singing, “In your life, there comes a darkness / This spacecraft blocking out the sky / And there’s nowhere to hide.” The idea of an individual alone in the universe is also apparent on “Daydreaming,” a melancholy piano track accompanied by a video in which Yorke strolls alone through stages of life from a delivery room to snowy mountains.
Yorke is a famously abstract lyricist, but A Moon Shaped Pool comes a year after his separation from his longtime partner, printmaker Rachel Owen, and amid the rocker’s intense environmental activism. Yorke turns the space imagery into a message of resilience in “The Numbers” as he sings, “We are the earth / To her we do return / And the future is inside us / It’s not somewhere else.”
Yet Radiohead would never be so straightforward as to switch direction completely. A Moon Shaped Pool ends with “True Love Waits,” one of Radiohead’s concert favorites that had never appeared on a studio album.
On the version on the 2001 live album I Might Be Wrong, Yorke sings of fears of an irreversible separation—“True love waits in haunted attacks”—to the strumming of an acoustic guitar. But the song that had come close, by the band’s standards, to a clear-cut ballad takes on the latter-day Radiohead sound on A Moon Shaped Pool. The guitar is gone and instead “True Love Waits” turns deliberately challenging, with a surprise piano progression that could have come from Satie.
Elsewhere on the album Radiohead brings soaring strings into “The Numbers,” which is led by tight guitar licks, and incorporates an ominous choral backdrop on “Identikit.”
A Moon Shaped Pool is the first Radiohead album since 2011’s The King of Limbs, on which the group shook up traditional song structure by playing off a repeated loop of previously recorded music. A touch of The King of Limbs returns on “Full Stop,” with a fast-paced synthesized bass line crescendoing into an electronic haze.
Radiohead has for years sought not just new musical forms but fresh ways to release albums. In 2007, Radiohead took the unusual measure of inviting listeners to pay whatever they wanted to download In Rainbows.
For A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead has become more conventional—to a point. The band sold downloads directly on its website and within an hour made the album available on streaming services such as Apple Music and Tidal—with the major exception of Spotify, the largest company in the fast-growing sector.
Yorke has been an outspoken critic of Spotify—in 2013 describing its role for the music industry as “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse.”
Unlike most streaming services, Spotify features a free tier that is backed by advertising. Radiohead nonetheless put out the album’s first two singles from the album on Spotify as well as rival services. CD and vinyl versions of the album will come out on June 17.