ALBUMS OF THE DECADE: Radiohead’s ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’

MMC Writers reflect on their favorite records of the 2010s

It was spring. I was standing on the sidewalk with eighty percent of my earthly belongings strewn about the green lawn as I hurriedly moved out of my apartment. The sun was out but the day was cold, as most spring days in Chicago tend to be. It was there, in the midst of the confusing conclusion of my college years, coming off the amalgamation of feelings from graduation and entering this strange, amorphous next chapter in life that A Moon Shaped Pool came to me. 

For me, every Radiohead album is attached to an unusually preserved memory like this. I always recall exactly where I was upon first listen. Sometimes they are attached to interesting moments, trips across the country, sometimes in the midst of the mundane, and sometimes they imprint themselves onto milestones of my life. No matter the case, they always seem to come at just the right time. 

I had been warned that it was a “sleepy” record that takes a few listens to understand, a few to appreciate, and a few more to love. I won’t be the one to dispute this either. There are absolutely moments that the songs put me in a dream-like state, where all I can do is wonder and explore the emotional tapestries they weave. But to simply label it “sleepy” and walk away would be a disservice to the album and to the listener. A Moon Shaped Pool is contemplative, introspective, it’s melancholy and uncertain, it’s brokenhearted and wistful. It’s afraid. It’s cool and knowing in all the ways I expect Radiohead to be. As it happens, it captures exactly how I was feeling about the end of this big journey of mine, the start of another, and the gray space in-between. 

I have been a fierce fan of Radiohead since the day I was first introduced to the OK Computer. I am eternally grateful with every release that there is someone out there making music like this—music that pushes the envelope, that explores and employs the dissonant and the complex without ever losing sight of what makes an effective song. Where In Rainbows excels in beat-driven songs and Kid A tackles something electronic and chaotic, A Moon Shaped Pool takes a subtler approach, but no less intricate and certainly no less effective. 

The single, “Burn the Witch,” is incidentally the most upbeat and strays the most from what I might call the overarching spirit of the record. And while I love the song, it was far from the biggest standout for me. Middle cuts like “Ful Stop” and “Daydreaming” masterfully capture the slow build, with the former being lyrically sparse while the music swells and grasps at an impending realization. (“Truth will mess you up.”) The latter is meditative and achingly sweet, telling a solemn story of a Dreamer who has lost it all and let themselves get burned once again. It ends with the looped and distorted words “Half of my life” played backwards, which many attribute as an elegy to Thom Yorke’s separation from his partner of 23 years. Whatever the inspiration, that spirit of loss is one that carries this record. 

The choice to conclude 11 poignant songs with “True Love Waits” is appropriate for the record as well as for me, the listener. This song that has gone through so much change, been in the circuit since the Amnesiac days back in 2001, finally found its voice as a studio track nine years later. It clings to an innocence that has long since passed and begs those child-like ideas of true love, “Just don’t leave/Don’t leave.”

Like anyone else, I went into my college years starry-eyed and full of pre-conceived notions of what I was in for and what I wanted. And at the end of four years with a few peaks and a few more valleys than I’d hoped, I found myself wishing, as I packed my disorganized belongings into a car, that that starry-eyed dreamer would not leave as I was about to. But the Dreamer changed as she had to, and it was messy and imperfect. And it was mine.