It wouldn't have taken much for Radiohead's ninth album to trump what came immediately before it. Even the most ardent fan of Thom Yorke and co. couldn't make a convincing argument for 2011's disappointing King of Limbs deserving its place in their largely consistent back catalogue; it was clear that the band needed a break.
Since then, there have been several changes and multiple solo albums from Yorke, who has been more experimental than ever before amid changes in his personal life, too, and a separation from his partner of 23 years. Drummer Phil Selway also released his second solo album, but most importantly – at least in the context of 'A Moon Shaped Pool', it seems – guitarist Jonny Greenwood beefed up the 'film scoring' section of his CV, asserting his influence on making this Radiohead's most cinematic, string-laden album to date.
That's not to say that 'A Moon Shaped Pool' is the sort of album that sweeps you up, gathers you in and gets you on board from the get-go. On the contrary; this is a slow burner, less immediate than superb opener and portentous lead single 'Burn the Witch', with its clipped violin riff and eerie vocals would suggest. The first third, in particular, is a mix of tender, piano-led tracks like 'Daydreaming' and 'Decks Dark', the haunting backing vocals on the latter adding depth and atmosphere in spades, and low-key murmurings, as head on 'Desert Island Disk'.
The album begins to sound more and more like 'old Radiohead' around the mid-point, with 'Full Stop''s brisk beat and tapestry of sounds providing a base for Thom Yorke to point the finger at an unnamed object of his disaffection. 'Identikit' brushes aside the niceties for shifting rhythms and one of the only guitar wig-outs that Greenwood allows himself, the bassline on 'The Numbers' sounds almost Air-like, while the muffled, squally hiss and orchestral climax of 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief' hints at their aborted Bond theme for 'Spectre'.
More than anything else, this album is a reminder that whether you're a disciple or not, there really is no other band quite like Radiohead – and certainly few who have managed to balance reinvention and challenging their listeners so consistently. 'A Moon Shaped Pool' does both with gusto. It's good to have them back.