Radiohead’s newest record, A Moon Shaped Pool, is about the illusions, dreams, and perceptions we create regarding love. The album gets off to a somewhat frightening start with the sharp string instruments and dark lyrics of “Burn the Witch.” The video for it features a stop-motion animation version of The Wicker Man, a film about illusions and deception (and horror) in a remote English village. Thom Yorke sings about “red crosses on doors” and falling prey to myths as the song builds to Psycho shower scene pace and then cuts to “Daydreaming” – with synth and piano instrumentation that causes your mind to drift elsewhere. Yorke’s lyrics are backwards at the very end, leaving you wondering what the hell just happened…much like you would when returning from a daydream.
“Decks Dark” talks of “a spacecraft blocking out the sky, there’s nowhere to hide. You run to the back and cover your ears, but it’s the loudest sound you’ve ever heard in your darkest hour.” It’s bleak until the other lyrics of “It was just a laugh” come into the song. The bass line on this is wicked, and I love the angular, stabbing distorted guitar licks in it.
“Desert Island Disk” is a term coined by British DJ’s to describe records you’d take with you if you knew you were going to be stranded on a desert island. The song mentions waking up from “a thousand years of sleep” and how “different kinds of love are possible.” It’s easy to think that it’s a song about coming out of the closet, but I think it’s more about waking up from the illusions we’ve created around us. The acoustic guitars on the track are excellent as synths build and then disappear behind them.
“Ful Stop” claims, “You really messed up everything,” but also says, “Truth will mess you up all the good times.” Yorke seems to be singing about how the fantasy he’d created in a bad relationship is finally broken. Is it a good or a bad thing? Only Thom Yorke knows the answer, but the shoegaze / goth wave feel of the song leads one to believe he’s angry about it either way.
“Glass Eyes” is about the hollowness of strangers and love that’s not really there anymore. It’s a somber song with near-funeral dirge piano and synths and strings that move around like ghosts in an old church. On “Identikit,” Thom Yorke admits that he doesn’t want the illusion of false love to end (“When I see you messing me around, I don’t want to know.”). The tick-tock percussion stands out among the jangling guitars, spacey synths, and chorus that sounds like it was recorded in a big concrete bunker.
“The Numbers” is a subtle (in its instrumentation, certainly not the lyrics) power to the people song about the 99% shaking off our shackles and reclaiming happiness. “We call upon the people. People have this power. The numbers don’t decide. The system is a lie.” There’s more excellent string work. I can’t remember so many good string arrangements on previous Radiohead records.
“Present Tense” is about a man fighting for love. “In you I’m lost. I won’t turn around when the penny drops. I won’t stop now, I won’t slack off, or all this love will be in vain.” The backing vocals are a bit ethereal, making you think that voices in Thom Yorke’s head are encouraging him the whole time.
In “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief,” Yorke lets his lover know that “all you have to do is say, ‘Yeah.’” He’s willing to embrace the illusion if that’s what it takes. It’s an excellent track with more of those great piano chords only Radiohead can seem to make work.
The album ends with “True Love Waits.” It’s a sad song Thom Yorke wrote in 1995 about begging a lover to return and being willing to do anything to make a relationship work. “I’ll drown my beliefs to have your babies. I’ll dress like your niece and wash your swollen feet. Just don’t leave.” The band’s been looking for the right album / moment to release it, and this album is perfect for it.
A Moon Shaped Pool is about how love can be a fragile fantasy. It can be a comfortable illusion that, once shattered, either delivers agony or ecstasy. Would you want to be put back into the Matrix if you were pulled out of it? Would you embrace illusion for the feeling of love, even if you knew it was false? Many would, for the risks in finding new love and a true path are frightening.
There is a Zen koan about the nun Chiyono being enlightened while carrying a pail of water:
In this way and that I tried to save the old pail,
since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break,
until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!
Radiohead’s newest album reminds us that love can be like the moon in the water. You think it is there, but it is only there until the bottom drops out and the illusion is shattered. You can find true love past the illusion, or you can cling to it. The choice is yours.
Keep your mind open.
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