Radiohead’s Stark Side of the Moon

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By Allen Callaci

We last heard from Radiohead five years ago. The band’s 2011 release, King of Limbs, sounded more like a mishmash of Thom Yorke’s solo material and half-finished Radiohead demos than the groundbreaking releases that preceded it. Longtime fans — including this one — wondered if the band ran its creative course.

A Moon Shaped Pool, the band’s new effort, restores the faith. A cold still piece of frozen beauty on the painful, transitory, and transcendent nature of love, the album will “make your eyes rain.”

No one captures the melancholy and anxious disconnectedness of our plugged-in and connected society better than Radiohead. A faint cry in the wilderness, Thom York’s frail and quivering voice calls out to the modern world that reduces human interaction to emoticons, 140 character tweets, and online soulmate searches.

Stay in the shadows
cheer at the gallows
this is a round-up

These menacing lines open Moon Shaped Pool and summarize the rest of the music that follows: dark, damaged, cool to the touch. The album’s final cut, a long-awaited studio version of the band’s aching “True Love Waits”, offers a desperate and meditative prayer from a haunted attic that finds Yorke pleading with a lover not to leave. Decades old, time treated it as gracefully as a favorite song of a long-lost love:

I’m not living
I’m just killing time
. . . Just don’t leave
don’t leave.

With a pleading vocal accompanied by sparse and ghostly instrumentation, the song captures the pained sound and the lonely release of a broken heart, playing out like the icy, post-modern answer song to Jimmy Ruffin’s pining “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”.

The lovelorn vulnerability running through Moon Shaped Pool may come as a surprise to the band’s followers, who recall the band’s concentrated gaze on our anxious and fearful modern age. Beneath the isolation, anger, stoic cynicism and contempt that characterized Radiohead’s music — from the band’s debut single “Creep” to later works such as “You and What Army” and “2 + 2 = 5” — Radiohead’s Stark Side of the Moon listeners beheld a romantic idealism. As the old saying goes “What is a cynic but a disillusioned romantic idealist?”

In the song “Present Tense”, Yorke turns his sights inward and finds an almost Lennon-esque sentiment about the necessity for love in a cutthroat universe. While not quite on a par with “All You Need is Love”, it comes as close as the band ever did to wearing its heart on its sleeve: a fearless admission of the emotional risks and internal rewards that come attached to love that go unaddressed in 60-second ad spots for online dating sites.

I stop from falling
Down a mine
It’s no one’s business but mine
Or all this love
Has been in vain
In you I’m lost

While Moon Shaped Pool focuses on issues of the heart, it provides more than a bright bouquet on a lover’s doorstep. It represents a dusky unopened love letter found years later hidden at the bottom of a bedroom drawer. Songs like “Burn the Witch”, “Identikit”, and “Decks Dark” are as complicated, thorny and despairing as anything in the band’s repertoire. If Bob Dylan’s 1974 classic of love, loss and healing Blood on the Tracks taught us that a true portrait of love cannot be painted without using those colors.

A lazy rock critic would describe an album like Radiohead’s Moon Shaped Pool as the artist’s “romantic break-up” album in the fashion of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear or Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love. Each of those efforts deals as much with healing, rebuilding, and reflecting as with an artist’s personal romantic break up. Deeply personal works, they describe the permanent refuges for the brokenhearted.

So it is with Radiohead’s latest.

In 2003 Radiohead sang of sailing to the moon.

In 2016 they reached it.