The expectations of a new Radiohead LP are stratospheric: nothing short of a musical paradigm shift will appease the fandom. Even the release itself is usually spectacular, be it The King Of Limbs being released with virtually no warning and an accompanying newspaper, or In Rainbows infamously trialling a 'pay what you want' system. Fortunately, Radiohead's ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, is the masterpiece it needs to be: anxious, delicate, ethereal.
Comeback single Burn The Witch is at odds with the record – full of angst, vocally, and melodically recalling 2003's Hail To The Thief (although Witch was written a decade ago). As Thom Yorke instructs us to "abandon all reason", and to "shoot the messengers", it's natural to reflect on refugees, or perhaps the rise of the Orange One stateside. It's a rare beast on a reflective, introspective effort.
Musically, album highlight Daydreaming serves as the true introduction to today's Radiohead. A sombre piano precedes Thom's best Neil Young impression, as vulnerable as 2009's Videotape. The track is an intensely personal insight into the breakdown of a relationship, as Yorke mourns "it's too late/the damage is done/this goes beyond me/beyond you", before the Johnny Greenwood-orchestra provides the disturbing coda. Closing number True Love Waits is cut from the same cloth. A live crowd favourite from 1995, age has transformed the song into a stripped back reverberant piano cut, gutting the listener with harrowing sincerity. "I'll drown my beliefs " Yorke wails, begging "Just don't leave" with hard-hitting directness laid bare.
At heart, Radiohead are still a rock band, and, although their instrumentation is often hidden deep in the mix behind strings and synths, the double salvo of Decks Dark and Desert Island Disk showcase the quintet's musicianship, providing perhaps the warmest, most accessible hits of the album. Disk features a hopeful Yorke vocal and a melody reminiscent of George Harrison strumming on a post-Britpop Pulp song. The panicky undercurrents of Ful Stop blend into the Brian Eno-esque Glass Eyes and lunge into Identikit's dense grooves.
The sparse approach has rare flaws, with The Numbers' almost folk quality feels lost at times, rescued by Thom's climate change polemic. Tinker Tailor on the other hand is a superb lullaby but a song too aimless and unsure of itself for another purpose.
A Moon Shaped Pool is not an album for the casual listener, but any time invested is rewarded tenfold. An online blackout preceded the release, and this sense of emptiness permeates the record, aching loss tempered by authentically stirring internal peace. The ground A Moon Shaped Pool occupies in Radiohead's hallowed discography remains to be seen. Nonetheless, the understated musicianship, fragile vocals, and celestial production combine to produce the Oxfordshire quintet's most enchanting, poignant work to date.