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Radiohead makes strong return with “A Moon Shaped Pool”

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By Ian Flanagan / Culture Editor

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England’s most perplexing rock band has finally broken its five-year silence, returning to the same hallmark glumness, lyrical oddity and eerie musicality that make up Radiohead.

After its members went their separate ways for various solo works and collaborations, Radiohead came together again to record its ninth LP, “A Moon Shaped Pool,” which was released at 2 p.m. Eastern Time on Sunday, May 8.

Yet again, the curious combination of elements from the group’s key members — multi-instrumentalist and singer Thom Yorke, guitarist-keyboardist-composer Jonny Greenwood and producer but unofficial sixth member of the band Nigel Godrich — mingle into an atmospheric whole.

Since their last album, 2011’s “The King of Limbs,” Yorke and Godrich have teamed with Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea to form Atoms for Peace, creating the album “Amok” in 2013. Greenwood provided the score for filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” in 2012, and both Yorke and drummer Philip Selway each released a solo album, respectively.

In late 2014, they all kicked off months of studio work for “A Moon Shaped Pool,” which finds the separate musicians meshing as naturally as ever. 

Wavering between lush choir and string arrangements by Greenwood and a typical offering of austere poetry from Yorke’s delicate falsetto, the new record backdrops depressive lyrics and melodies with grand-scale cinematic ambiance.

Just look to the first single, “Burn The Witch.” Radiohead released the song on May 1, a day after mailing ominous leaflets with artwork and the song’s grim lyrics to fans who had previously bought from the band.

Though not as strong an opener as many past tracks, like “15 Step” from 2007’s “In Rainbows” or “Everything in Its Right Place” from 2000’s “Kid A,” the staccato string plucks and Yorke’s croons create a restless energy, like legendary musicians trying to prove they’ve still got it.

And, at least for the chorus, they do.

Greenwood utilizes music from the London Contemporary Orchestra, who he also worked with to score “The Master.” The orchestra has a forceful presence on the album, providing the heft behind Yorke’s central lamentations and fearful imagery while Godrich’s glitches and labyrinthine production labors fill out the edges of the sonic canvas.

Anderson also directed the music video for the band’s second single, “Daydreaming,” which debuted this past Friday. As the second track on the album, the rhythmically shifting ballad is representative of the album’s gloomier emotions, reminding listeners that this is still Radiohead.

“Deck’s Dark” and “Identikit” are the album’s strongest offerings. They have the rock elements that root Radiohead in something tangible combined with the electronic influences that have been a staple of the band’s defining sound for years.

Between the highs of meticulously engineered art-rock is Yorke making the otherwise vivacious album into something of a somber breakup record, at least in parts.

Yorke ended a 23-year relationship with the mother of his two children in August. His heartbreak is present through much of “A Moon Shaped Pool,” while the end of “Daydreaming” features vocals of Yorke repeating “half of my life,” over and over but slowed down and reversed. Someone in the sea of serious fans unraveled the otherwise indecipherable audio.

“True Love Waits,” a song Radiohead has kept since 1995, finally made its way onto this album as the closer, furthering the album’s lovesick subplot but providing a weak spot.

Sporting gorgeous melancholic lyrics — “True love lives on lollipops and crisps” and “I’m not living, I’m just killing time” — the song fits the album thematically, but the flow is ambiguous and confusing, and the final produced version doesn’t do the sentiments justice.

The band’s ability to be both chilling and calming is its greatest asset. The haunting milieu of “The King of Limbs,” their previous LP, articulated both creepy and cool vibes on a smaller, more abstract level. Here, like with “In Rainbows,” “A Moon Shaped Pool” is welcoming before it is challenging.

In “Desert Island Disk” and “The Numbers,” Yorke flexes his acoustic skill. The former is a relaxed folk song about renewal, the latter a call to global action with some of Yorke’s most straightforward lyrics: “We are of the earth, to her we do return/The future is inside us, it’s not somewhere else.”

“The Present Tense,” which has been reworked for the past several years, is a songwriting highlight, a despondent tune connected by an astonishing set of chord progressions and made immaculate by the angelic choirs. Piano parts are also present on a majority of the album’s tracks, though the gentle arpeggios of “Glassy Eyes” are the most lovely.

Trying to meet expectations time and time again must be exhausting. Yorke pokes fun at his fans and their obsessiveness in “Daydreaming,” singing, “We are happy just to serve you.” Even if the band means this sarcastically, Radiohead’s lofty reputation — especially following the self-assuredness of this LP and its warm reception — is showing little sign of wear.

Like the best of Radiohead, the split in “A Moon Shaped Pool,” between the real and the ethereal, is a beautiful contradiction — at once calculated and feral.

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Radiohead makes strong return with “A Moon Shaped Pool”