Radiohead have dug deep into the past on their new album, reworking tracks once thought abandoned by fans into fresh compositions. But how do the resurrected songs on A Moon Shaped Pool stack up against their original versions? Chal Ravens traces their evolution.
Radiohead’s ninth album finds the Oxford band in a dark and reflective mood. Shaking off the itching polyrhythms and quirky dancefloor aspirations of 2011’s The King of Limbs, A Moon Shaped Pool is a return to more traditional verse-chorus structures, the lush orchestration and organic textures of 2007’s In Rainbows, and the tingling, eye-stinging melancholy that has always been Radiohead’s most powerful weapon. Thom Yorke takes a seat at the piano for the majority of the 11 songs, while Jonny Greenwood brings grand sweeping strings familiar from his film music for Paul Thomas Anderson, Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood provide a meaty rock backbone on ‘Decks Dark’ and ‘The Numbers’, and on ‘Identikit’ we get the gnarliest guitar solo since Hail To The Thief courtesy of Ed O’Brien.
The album offers a sense of looking backwards and inwards, trying to find some kind of closure on a turbulent period. Thom Yorke split with his partner of 23 years in 2015, and several lyrics seem to allude to a breakdown of relations (“And it’s too late, the damage is done” on ‘Daydreaming’, “Different types of love are possible” on’Desert Island Disk’). Adding to the mood of posterity, the majority of the album’s 11 tracks were already known to fans before its release. ‘Numbers’ and ‘Desert Island Disk’, ‘Ful Stop’ and ‘Identikit’ have all appeared in live sets over the past four years, while ‘True Love Waits’ is a live favourite dating back over 20 years, ‘Burn The Witch’ made fleeting appearances in sets back in 2006, and ‘Present Tense’ was performed in a solo Yorke set in 2009.
(Additionally, the deluxe edition of the album will include two bonus tracks, one of which is the band’s unused Bond theme, ‘Spectre’, which they revealed in December 2015. If you zoom in to the CD, the second track appears to be titled ‘B Word’, or similar, which isn’t a familiar track title – but it could also be a renamed track, as with ‘Numbers’, previously known as ‘Silent Spring’.)
It’s not the first time Radiohead have revisited songs from their archive to record them with a new sense of purpose; ‘Nude’, for instance, was written 10 years before the band finally nailed a studio version for In Rainbows, while Yorke’s 2009 solo single ‘Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses’ was initially debuted by the band in 2001 as ‘Reckoner’ (a title reused for a different song on In Rainbows), and ‘Morning Bell’ was recorded in two versions, one released on Kid A and the other one Amnesiac.
The inclusion of a handful of old songs on A Moon Shaped Pool could be seen as Radiohead cleaning out their cupboards, whether because of a lack of new ideas or an urge to close a door on the past. But equally it may show that the band are at the peak of their powers, confident enough to tackle songs that have been on the back-burner for years or even decades. As Greenwood put it to NME in 2007, “Thom will come and play a song like ‘Nude’ to you and obviously its good. You want to record it. But it’s been hanging around for 10 years and you find yourself thinking, ‘Why haven’t we recorded a good enough version of this song?’ The relief now is that it’s done and we didn’t mess it up – it’s worth it all.”
We’ve dug through Radiohead’s live archives to trace the evolution of A Moon Shaped Pool’s oldest tracks.
‘True Love Waits’
A long-time fan favourite, ‘True Love Waits’ was first performed in Brussels in 1995 as a stripped-back acoustic ballad circling around a lovesick refrain (“Just don’t leave”). Too simple and sweet to fit with the band’s increasingly ambitious rock songwriting, the track remained part of their live set for years, eventually given a release on 2001’s live EP I Might Be Wrong, in a version recorded in LA earlier that year. The band had likely attempted to record a studio version at points, as with ‘Nude’, but as recently as 2010 it was still popping up in sets as an unadorned acoustic ditty. ‘True Love Waits’ is finally in its right place as the finale of A Moon Shaped Pool, reworked into a languorous piano piece where sustained notes overlap to create complex harmonies and creeping dissonance, underlining the desolation at the heart of the song.
‘Burn the Witch’
The bare bones of ‘Burn The Witch’ existed a decade ago in 2006, as captured by fans at Radiohead’s show in Berkeley, California, when Yorke teased the chords before stating they will perform the song “when we get the orchestra”. The same thing happened at a gig in 2008, where Yorke couldn’t resist a burst of those piano chords before launching into ‘Videotape’. The completed version is, as we mentioned in our track review last week, one of Radiohead’s most stunning arrangements yet, framing Yorke’s reliable paranoia with cresting strings plucked straight from Jonny Greenwood’s favourite Bernard Herrmann horror scores.
Yorke first performed an acoustic guitar track called ‘The Present Tense’ at a soundcheck in Mansfield in 2008, as the obsessive fans at Citizen Insane note, but the song had its debut during a solo gig at Latitude Festival in the UK in 2009. Yorke also played the song solo in sets with Atoms For Peace, his band with Flea and Nigel Godrich, when they toured in 2010 and 2013. At the Pathway to Paris climate change concert in 2015, he added lashings of reverb to his vocals to create a foggy cocoon for detailed fingerpicking, and the album version expands on that mood by submerging his guitar arpeggios in lush strings, a warm bass pulse and brushed drums, recalling the watery drift of In Rainbows’ ‘Weird Fishes’.
A Moon Shaped Pool’s most guitar-heavy and, frankly, strangest song is ‘Identikit’, which opens like a Can rehearsal tape before Yorke cuts loose with its quivering chorus (“Broken hearts / Make it rain”), a line then taken up by a choir of freaky voices while Ed O’Brien cranks out a stuttering, trebly riff that’s half math-rock, half ‘Hotel California’. The song was first unveiled in strikingly different form in 2012 during The King of Limbs tour in Miami, based on a syncopated rhythm with an almost hip-hop feel and featuring intertwined vocals from Yorke and O’Brien, a pretty synth line and more subdued guitar work. Later that year they brought the song to Coachella, with Yorke getting into the groove in his peak dad-dance period.
Like ‘Identikit’, ‘Ful Stop’ made its first appearance during The King of Limbs tour in 2012, raging like a disturbed hornet’s nest as O’Brien and the Greenwoods rattled out a motorik groove under Yorke’s whining synths. On A Moon Shaped Pool, the song’s serrated edges are muffled with soft drones while Yorke keeps his anger bottled up, whispering bitterly, “The truth will mess you up”. The track expands exponentially, adding uncountable pockets of noise and shape-shifting patterns before bowing out on a ribbon of unusually trebly guitar. Much different to its earlier version, the final ‘Ful Stop’ has been translated from the stuttering grooves that defined TKOL into AMSP’s fresh musical language.