It's coming up for nearly 20 years since Radiohead released its masterpiece*, OK Computer. Which means that for the best part of two decades the band has been continuously striving to match or better that landmark work. Not to reproduce or replicate the formula, but to expand or develop upon it. The result of that quest for long-form excellence has been a series of albums ranging from the good, to the great, to the quite magical. A Moon Shaped Pool is merely the latest instalment in that remarkable flop-free run.
In some respects, along the way, Radiohead has become post-millennium rock’s equivalent of what Pink Floyd was to Seventies rock – a genuine master of the album art form. During a period when that art form has been slowing dying. Or so we’ve been told.
And of course, just like Floyd, a large degree of innovation is right at the very heart of everything Radiohead does – whether it comes to embracing new production values, breaking down genre prejudices, mixing up release formats, or in the case of A Moon Shaped Pool, releasing the album on the back of zero pre-release publicity or hype. Radiohead just like to do things a little differently.
With a few other projects on the go (solo albums, Atoms for Peace) there was a school of thought that Thom Yorke may be, in a creative sense at least, in danger of spreading himself too thinly. The same might be said for guitarist Jonny Greenwood (film scores and other composition work), or indeed, producer Nigel Godrich (various, also Atoms for Peace), but on the evidence offered here, we need not be concerned with such folly. Radiohead is back, and clearly, all component parts are fully engaged.
In fact, I’ll go further: Radiohead, as a unit, is better than it has been for a long time. Each time I play A Moon Shaped Pool, everything else I've been listening to immediately pales into insignificance. It feels like the album is a cut above everything else out there at the moment. It’s a bit like that mythical "next level" status so loved by those of us who like to deal in hyperbole.
Next level, progressive, moving forward, and yet still able to draw upon many of the best features of the band’s past output. So we get the beautifully crafted symphonic rock (‘The Numbers’), the darker, dense, flashes of paranoia (‘Ful Stop’), and the softer, more melancholic acoustic moments (‘Desert Island Disk’). There’s strings, glitchy electronica, dreamy prog flourishes, and rather more straightforward or orthodox pop elements. And if there’s an album this year with a better one-two knockout opening combo of tracks – ‘Burn The Witch’ and ‘Daydreaming’ – then I certainly haven’t heard it.
A Moon Shaped Pool clocks in at a perfectly manageable 52 minutes (11 tracks), and where I might once have enjoyed the band’s music in much shorter doses, there’s not a single moment on this album where I feel bored or disengaged – it’s utterly captivating from start to finish. Even my long-suffering partner – a Radiohead sceptic, if ever there was one – owned up to (unexpectedly) enjoying this album. There can be no higher praise that that.
* Many will argue The Bends, or Kid A, might be a better fit for this description, but I’d argue more vociferously on behalf of OK Computer, as that album specifically marked the moment when pretty much the whole world – give or take a few naysayers in remote Amazonian blackspots – woke up and took note of the band’s existence.