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Classical 101

Radiohead's 'A Moon Shaped Pool': A Symphonic Lamentation

wikipedia, public domain (edited picture)
The newest album by Radiohead features more orchestral string and choral sections as well as the expected political statements.

It's been a month since Radiohead's newest, and arguably most-symphonic, album was released. The work oscillates between eerie lyrics and soundscapes taken from a David Lynch-esque dystopia and the heartfelt, whispered lamentations of a man losing the love of his life. It's the work of nearly a decade of composing and editing, and it shows. 

Let's take a look under the hood of A Moon Shaped Pool, long-format style.

Credit wikipedia-public domain
wikipedia-public domain
Like many of the tracks on 'A Moon Shaped Pool,' "Burn the Witch" has been featured in concerts and the lyrics were even distributed on these great (and totally creepy) leaflets mailed to fans in the UK.

Is It Any Good?

The discussion of what is good music vs. what is bad music can often turn into a hack-and-slash diatribe between various factions, and Radiohead's output is arguably some of the most bloodily defended and attacked. There are so many comment boards and sub-Reddit battles about Pablo Honey, you could spend days reading how terrible/wonderful/pointless the whole album is.

But, does it really matter whether you or I like the album or think it is good? Not really.

What does matter is what the music is doing. How has this album opened conversations about genres; how has it redefined or broken barriers between genres— not just Classical, but also smaller genres such as Afro-Futurism vs. Eurodisco— and what has the music itself evoked and accomplished? These are the more important questions about music; not whom does it serve, but what purpose is it serving?

So, what is this new album accomplishing in the musical world? It ranked as their sixth No. 1 album in the UK. It's wonderfully intimate and yet far more poetically veiled than much of their previous repertoire, the compositional editing is some of their finest, and it's a testament to some of the best strategic marketing in the music industry. Who erases their online presence in order to get people to sit up and listen? That's a grade-A, Doctor Who "Bad Wolf" type move.

...Oh, and the tracks on this album are in alphabetical order. 


This album plays into Radiohead's relish of lacking  pigeonhole-ability. If you ask the next five people you see what genre Radiohead might be, chances are you'll get at least three different answers. It's a seemingly simple question, but the more music becomes diversified and accessible, the less easily definable it will be. And that's just it; it's not that this music isn't Rock, Pop, Alternative, Symphonic, etc... it's just All of The Above

In fact, I vote we just designate a genre called All of The Above, so more musicians aren't so burdened by expectation and commercial packaging. Those motivations generally bring about watered-down, mass-appeal music, or as Ray Bradbury once said:

"The bigger your market, the less you handle controversy..." -Fahrenheit 451

Radiohead and The Orchestra

The string and choral sections on this album were written by band-member Johnny Greenwood, who is no new-comer to writing cinematic, symphonic works. This particular album features performances by the London Contemporary Orchestra, and their music isn't relegated to mere ambient textures. I would argue it is the best of orchestral collaborations on any Radiohead album yet. 

One of the best examples of Greenwood's previous approach to writing for the orchestra is perhaps "Climbing Up The Walls" from OK Computer. That chromatic ascent in the strings around 3:30 is a good depiction of how Greenwood, and many other band-to-orchestra composers, generally write for their symphonic compatriots; "washy," sustained, somewhat distorted, generally more atmospheric string parts. If you boiled down all of the symphonic sections in rock/alt music, it would probably end up sounding like Battlestar Galactica. 


Again, on the King of Limbs track "Codex," the strings act as a punctuation, but little else. 


This new album takes a much different and more integrated approach to what can be done with an orchestra, and I think it speaks to Greenwood's growth in symphonic composition. In fact, we hear the London Contemporary Orchestra first on the album, and their sound is a Ravel-esque, col legno ostinato that drives the first track, "Burn the Witch." I wouldn't exactly call this a "prancing orchestral strings" section, as the Wall Street Journal did.


The London Contemporary Orchestra was certainly an effective choice for this project. The ensemble was established in 2008 by Robert Ames and Hugh Brunt. Ames plays viola on A Moon Shaped Pool, and Brunt served as conductor for the entire score. The group was already somewhat familiar with Greenwood's compositional style since most of them played his score for Paul Anderson's The Master.

Here's a peek at the LCO with Johnny Greenwood at the Boiler Room venue back in 2014:


Age and Wisdom

Thom Yorke is 46 years old, and he's beginning to sound like it in a very good way. There's a sadness and tenderness that comes through Yorke's voice more and more these days, and I think it's a sign of the age of the band members. They're all going on 50, after all. 

That lyrical sadness is certainly not feigned, either. Of the 11 songs on the album, seven of them have been heard in some form over the past decade, and many were written specifically during the time Yorke was separating from his partner of 23 years, Rachel Owens. Thankfully, his poeticism about the event leaves details aside but keeps the depth of emotion fully intact, a la Bjork's most recent album Vulnicura

Hence the terrifying mouthed words played backwards at the end of the second track,"Day Dreaming": 

"efil ym fo flah" AKA "Half my Life"; referring to the time Yorkespent with his longtime partner. It lends the whole album an air of lamentation that lingers even in the more upbeat tracks.


Musical Editing

Likewise, this music was deepened by age. Most of the music from A Moon Shaped Pool has been in the works for the better part of a decade. What does this mean, musically-speaking? In the same way that some of history's greatest composers revised and re-published their greatest symphonic works and operas, Radiohead knows the golden rule of music; edit again.

I don't just mean they know how to edit while in production or mastering; I am referring to the difficult process of taking one's own music and pouring over it time and again, as a musical autopsy of sorts, in order to remove any superfluous material and keep the bits that make the piece really work. In an age that worships the emotional and raw experiences of music often over the technical and poetic proficiency of musicians, these guys take the road less traveled, and it often pays off. 

Case in point: True Love Waits, the last track on the new album. 

I've loved this piece since I first heard it on their 2001 live album, I Might Be Wrong, but like many fans I've waited for a studio release. There are many fantastic older versions of the song, but my favorite is the 1995 live Brussels version (see the video below)... which happens to be the version my husband played for me when he proposed. But really, what can top that? *Swoon.*


While the new version cannot top the personal connection I have with the original guitar arrangement, its minimalism is absolutely a fantastic closer to what is possibly the most intimate album from one of the biggest bands of our time.