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Radiohead returns to the top with gorgeous, illuminating ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’

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(Official Radiohead Facebook Page)

Around five minutes into the Paul Thomas Anderson-directed music video for “Daydreaming,” the second track and single off of Radiohead’s ninth studio album, “A Moon Shaped Pool,” there is a distinct, significant change in atmosphere.

As the band’s frontman, Thom Yorke, stumbles out of a seemingly endless maze of indifferent environments and onto the slopes of a colossal, snow-covered mountain, a sudden, jagged orchestral swell unsettles the fragile base of the song, sending it into the same sort of darkness that consumes the rest of the video.

The first five minutes of the song would be recognizable enough to any Radiohead fan. The way Yorke’s piano pirouettes elegantly over Colin Greenwood’s unceasing pulse of a bass line. The sudden, breathtaking crescendos that die away without warning. Yorke’s unmistakable voice appears in both steady, stabilizing phrases and cut-up snippets that get swept up and tossed around by the constantly fluctuating instrumental landscapes that surround them.

While the individual elements themselves may not be new, Radiohead is talented enough as an ensemble to recreate the feeling, on “Daydreaming,” of hearing them each for the first time. But if one thing has defined Radiohead for the entirety of its existence, it is a total unwillingness to settle merely for what is familiar. That’s where the sudden entry of the orchestra, which shatters the delicate axis around which the song had been spinning, comes into play.

“A Moon Shaped Pool,” released May 8, is neither Radiohead’s boldest reinvention nor its greatest work. But the way it so perfectly balances familiarity and subtle but unmistakable evolution, serenity with anxiety, and chaos with staggering beauty makes it a perfectly natural, welcome entry into the band’s already extraordinary catalog.

More so than any album in the band’s history, “A Moon Shaped Pool” reaches deep into Radiohead’s extensive backlog of rarities and obscure fan favorites. And yet each of these years-old (in some cases, decades-old) songs have been updated and fleshed out in entirely unexpected, and delightful ways.

“Burn the Witch,” the album’s tense, deeply paranoid opener, dates back at least a decade. But Yorke’s mob-mentality lyrics (“Stay in the shadows/cheer at the gallows/this is a round up/this is a low-flying panic attack”) ring especially true in this, the age of Trump and the far-right UK Independence Party.

“Present Tense,” which was first performed by Yorke during a solo show in 2009, blossomed in the intervening years from a vague, spiky acoustic number to an irresistible, unlikely pop oddity. Philip Selway, long one of rock’s most underrated drummers, lends “Present Tense” the sort of breathing room it never had as a Yorke solo track.

“Identikit,” which the band played during its 2012 appearance on “Austin City Limits” and throughout its world tour that same year, is far more nimble on record than it ever was during those early performances. Yorke’s vocals playfully fade in and out of the foreground of the song, irrespective of the hypnotic interplay between Selway and Colin Greenwood.

But for all of the phenomenal contributions from Selway, Yorke, guitarist Ed O’Brien and Colin Greenwood, it’s Greenwood’s brother, Jonny, who truly shapes “A Moon Shaped Pool.”

Greenwood, the band’s longtime lead guitarist and informal musical director, wrote the orchestral arrangements, like the aforementioned disruption in “Daydreaming,” himself. Having honed his skills in this department by scoring Paul Thomas Anderson’s three most recent films – 2007’s “There Will Be Blood,” 2012’s “The Master” and 2014’s “Inherent Vice” – Greenwood brings the same sort of widescreen, awe-inspiring cinematic feel to his arrangements that Anderson has always brought to his films.

Case in point would be the album’s centerpiece, the jaw-dropping “Glass Eyes.” Yorke and Greenwood seem to almost function as one cohesive musical imagination on this piano ballad, one that ranks among the finest the band has ever produced. Yorke, so famous for his cryptic, often indecipherable lyrics, lays bare his anxieties over a lonely, twinkling piano and string arrangements that are almost painfully beautiful.

In his smallest voice, Yorke sings “Hey, it’s me, I just got off the train/a frightening place, their faces are concrete grey/and I’m wondering, should I turn around?/buy another ticket, panic is coming on strong.” Greenwood’s strings are the most prominent feature of this beguiling environment, but they serve only to highlight Yorke’s worries, while never obscuring them.

The two also team up, to similarly astonishing effect, on the album’s other time-stopping piano ballad, its closer, “True Love Waits.”

“True Love Waits,” for over a decade, has been perhaps the ultimate Radiohead rarity and fan favorite. First played live in 1995, the band has performed the song dozens of times over the last two decades – it even appeared on the band’s sole official live album, 2001’s “I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings” – while the song itself has gone through numerous arrangements and evolutions.

The version that brings “A Moon Shaped Pool” to a close is another somewhat revealing moment for the normally reclusive Yorke. Having recently separated from his partner of 23 years, Yorke’s crooning of the line “I’m not living, I’m just killing time,” packs a stunning punch, but perhaps not as great as the song, and the album’s, final line: “Just don’t leave/don’t leave.”

On many of the internet forums run by Radiohead’s famously fanatical fanbase, speculation has been rampant that the decision to include so many older rarities and fan favorites – especially the decision to close the album with “True Love Waits” – is an indication that “A Moon Shaped Pool” may be the band’s swan song.

If this is indeed the case, which we should all hope it is not, there would hardly be a more fitting note for the band to go out on. Just when you might think you have “A Moon Shaped Pool” pinned down, it slithers away, and blossoms into any number of fascinating, unrecognizable forms.

But for a band that has made constant, total reinvention its status quo for most of its decades-long existence, those very moments when Radiohead twists itself into intimidating, unfamiliar territory are the moments when Radiohead truly leaves every other conventional rock band in the dust.

Jackson Maxwell can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @JMaxwell82.

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