Several of the tracks on A Moon Shaped Pool were written some time before the album's recording. Radiohead first performed "True Love Waits" in 1995, and singer Thom Yorke performed it alone numerous times in the following years. The band and longtime producer Nigel Godrich attempted to record it for the albums OK Computer (1997), Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001), but struggled to find an arrangement that satisfied them, and it became one of their most famous unreleased songs. A performance from the Amnesiac tour was released on I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings (2001). Radiohead worked on "Burn the Witch" during the sessions for their albums Kid A, Hail to the Thief (2003) and In Rainbows (2007), and lyrics from the song appeared in the artwork for Hail to the Thief and on Radiohead's website. "Present Tense" dates to 2008, and Yorke first performed it in a solo set at the UK Latitude Festival in 2009.
During the tour for their eighth album, The King of Limbs (2011), Radiohead performed several new songs, including future Moon Shaped Pool tracks "Identikit" and "Ful Stop". While on tour in the USA, the band recorded a version of "Identikit" and another, unidentified song at Jack White's Third Man Records studio. After the tour ended in 2012, Radiohead entered hiatus and the members worked on side projects. In February 2013, Yorke and Godrich released an album, Amok, with their band Atoms for Peace. In 2014, Yorke and drummer Phil Selway released their respective second solo albums, Tomorrow's Modern Boxes and Weatherhouse. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood scored his third film for director Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice (2014), and collaborated with Godrich and other musicians on the album Junun (2015).
Radiohead and Godrich began work on A Moon Shaped Pool in September 2014. The band was slow to regain momentum after their hiatus and worked in "fits and starts". The sessions lasted until Christmas that year, and resumed in March 2015 in the La Fabrique studio near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. The studio, originally a nineteenth-century mill producing artist's pigment, has been used by musicians including Morrissey and Nick Cave, and houses the biggest collection of vinyl records in the world.
After recording The King of Limbs using software written by Greenwood, Radiohead opted to record A Moon Shaped Pool to tape with analog multitrack recorders. This added creative limits to the process, as rerecording a take meant first erasing the previous take. For the introduction to "Daydreaming", the band slowed the tape, creating a pitch-warping effect. Radiohead still used digital manipulation on many tracks; for example, Greenwood used the music programming language Max to manipulate the piano on "Glass Eyes". Drummer Clive Deamer, who performed with Radiohead on the King of Limbs tour and appeared on their 2011 singles "The Daily Mail" and "Staircase", played additional drums on "Ful Stop". Greenwood estimated that 80% of the album was recorded in two weeks.
In November 2015, composer Robert Ziegler, who worked with Radiohead on The King of Limbs, tweeted photos of the band recording with a string orchestra. The strings and choir sections were arranged by Greenwood and performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra with conductor Hugh Brunt; the orchestra had previously worked with Greenwood on his score for the 2012 film The Master. The strings were recorded at RAK Studios in London. Cellist Oliver Coates said: "Nigel, Jonny and Thom all have this awesome relationship, and were so animated during the recording. I remember we were laying down the cello part at the end of 'Daydreaming' and Thom said, 'That's it – that is the sound of the record.'" Greenwood had the cellists detune their cellos for the song, creating a "growling" sound. Additional string and choir parts were recorded but cut from the album.
In December 2015, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, Yorke performed three Moon Shaped Pool songs: "The Numbers" (then known as "Silent Spring"), "Present Tense", and "Desert Island Disk". On Christmas Day, Radiohead released a new song, "Spectre", on the audio streaming site SoundCloud. It was written for the James Bond film of the same name but rejected, according to Greenwood, for being "too dark".
A Moon Shaped Pool has been described as an art rock album. It combines electronic elements such as drum machines and synthesisers with acoustic timbres such as guitar, piano, and Greenwood's string and choral arrangements. According to Pitchfork writer Jeremy Larson, "while lite orchestrations are nothing new for the band, A Moon Shaped Pool brings them to the fore of the songwriting, and Greenwood's arrangements do more heavy lifting than on any other album." The songs are sequenced in alphabetical order, which Greenwood stated was chosen only because the order worked well.
"Burn the Witch" features col legno strings, whereby the players strike their strings with the stick of the bow rather than bowing them, creating a percussive effect. "Daydreaming" is an ambient song with a "simple, sad" piano motif, "spooky" backmasked vocals, and electronic and orchestral elements. "Identikit" features a jam-like opening, choral vocals, and "spacey" electronics, and ends with an "agitated" guitar solo. "Ful Stop" features "malevolent" synthesiser, interlocking guitars, and a "bustle" of rhythms.
The Guardian felt that the strings, bassline and funk rhythm of "The Numbers" were a homage to Serge Gainsbourg's 1970 album Histoire De Melody Nelson. "Present Tense" features a Latin shuffle beat. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief" combines strings with electronic percussion and a distorted synthesiser. "True Love Waits", first performed on acoustic guitar over 20 years prior, is performed on piano, with additional overdubbed pianos building as the song progresses. The special edition contains two additional tracks: "Ill Wind", featuring a bossa nova rhythm and "icy" synthesisers, and "Spectre", a piano ballad with "decaying orchestral sweeps".
Many of the lyrics discuss love, forgiveness, and regret with, according to Larson, "a sense that beyond tectonic heartbreak there is an anaemic acceptance that is kind of beautiful if you don't get too sad about it." Several critics felt the lyrics were coloured by Yorke's recent separation from his partner of almost 25 years, Rachel Owen, noting that the backmasked vocals of "Daydreaming", when reversed, resemble the words "half of my life". Spencer Kornhaber of the Atlantic was hesitant to describe A Moon Shaped Pool as Yorke's "breakup album", but wrote that it "makes the most sense when heard as a document of a wrenching chapter for one human being." Other themes include climate change on "The Numbers" and the dangers of authority and groupthink on "Burn the Witch".
The artwork for A Moon Shaped Pool was created by Yorke and Stanley Donwood, who has worked with Radiohead since 1995. Donwood worked in a barn with speakers connected to the studio where the band recorded nearby, allowing their music to influence his art. Wanting to move away from figurative art and create work that was more a product of chance, Donwood initially conceived a "painting Dalek" that would squirt paint at canvases, but this proved too technically difficult. Instead, he experimented with weather, leaving canvases outdoors to allow the elements to affect the paint. Donwood continued the weathering process in Oxfordshire during the band's winter break, with "completely different results", before photographing the works and editing them in Photoshop with Yorke.
A Moon Shaped Pool was released as a download from 7 pm BST on 8 May on Radiohead's website and online music stores including iTunes Store and Amazon Music, as well as Google Play Music, where it was accidentally released hours early. It was also released on paid streaming services including Google Play Music, Apple Music, Groove Music and Tidal. CD and LP editions were released in Japan on 15 June through Hostess Entertainment and in other countries on 17 June through XL Recordings.
A Moon Shaped Pool was made available on the streaming service Spotify on 17 June 2016. Yorke and Godrich had made headlines in 2013 for their criticisms of Spotify, which they believe cannot support new artists. Spotify had been in "advanced discussions" with Radiohead's management and label to make A Moon Shaped Pool the first album available exclusively to the service's paying subscribers, and not those listening to the free service, but the deal fell through. Spotify spokesman Jonathan Prince said: "Some of the approaches we explored with Radiohead were new, and we ultimately decided that we couldn’t deliver on those approaches technologically in time for the album's release schedule."
A Moon Shaped Pool debuted at number one in the UK Albums Chart, becoming Radiohead's sixth UK number-one album. It reached number one in Ireland, Norway and Switzerland, and the top ten in several more countries. It was certified gold in the UK on 24 June 2016. Following the physical release in June, the album returned to the top of the UK album chart with combined sales of 44,000, 39,000 of which were physical units and 10,500 vinyl, making A Moon Shaped Pool the week's best-selling vinyl record in the UK. It was the UK's fourth-best-selling vinyl album of 2016, behind David Bowie's Blackstar, Amy Winehouse's Back to Black and the Guardians of the Galaxy film soundtrack. "Burn the Witch" was also the year's 26th-best-selling vinyl single in the UK.
Radiohead also sold a special edition of A Moon Shaped Pool from their website, shipped from September 2016. It contains the album on CD and two heavyweight 12" vinyl records, plus an additional CD with two extra tracks: "Ill Wind" and the previously released "Spectre". The special edition features packaging inspired by the albums for 78rpm shellac records in the La Fabrique studio, 32 pages of additional artwork by Donwood, and an original piece of master tape, less than a second in length, from one of Radiohead's past recording sessions. As tape degrades over time, the band decided that "rather than it ending up as landfill we would cut it up and make it useful as a part of the special edition."
In a departure from industry practice, Radiohead did no interviews or touring in the months preceding the release of A Moon Shaped Pool, teasing the album only as it was about to be released. On 30 April 2016, eight days before release, fans who had previously made orders from Radiohead received embossed cards with lyrics from the album's lead single, "Burn the Witch". On 1 May, Radiohead deleted all content from their website and social media profiles, replacing them with blank images, which Pitchfork interpreted as symbolic of their re-emergence. Donwood said the idea had been "a way of getting rid of all of what [sic] had gone before ... It was like being some sort of evil Bond villain or something, in some lair, pressing buttons ... It was creatively brilliant fun."
After releasing excerpts on Instagram, Radiohead released "Burn the Witch" as a download on 3 May. It was accompanied by a stop-motion animated music video which homages the style of the 1960s English children's television Trumpton Trilogy programmes and the plot of the 1973 horror film The Wicker Man. On 6 May, Radiohead released a second single, "Daydreaming", accompanied by a music video directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, for whom Greenwood has scored several films. The video was projected in 35mm film in select theatres. On the same day, Radiohead announced that their ninth album would be released the following Sunday, but did not reveal the title until its release.
BBC Radio 6 Music played A Moon Shaped Pool in its entirety on the day of release, presented by Tom Robinson. The following week, Radiohead released the first in a series of video vignettes set to short clips of music from the album by directors and visual artists including Adam Buxton, Richard Ayoade and Ben Wheatley. On 16 July, after releasing the final vignette, Radiohead announced a fan competition to create a vignette for "Daydreaming" using an alternative version of the song with additional strings. On 15 September and 20 October 2016, Radiohead released videos of Yorke and Greenwood performing "Present Tense" and The Numbers" respectively, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
On 17 June 2016, the day of the album's physical release, a promotional event — "Live From a Moon Shaped Pool" — was held in participating record shops around the world. The event featured a "day-long" audio stream of playlists curated by Radiohead and a recording of their recent performance at the London Roundhouse, along with competitions, artwork, and other activities. A participating record shop in Istanbul closed following an attack by a gang angered by customers drinking beer and playing music during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fast. Radiohead released a statement saying: "Our hearts go out to those attacked tonight ... We hope that some day we will be able to look back on such acts of violent intolerance as things of the ancient past. For now, we can only offer our fans in Istanbul our love and support."
Radiohead toured Europe, North America, and Japan from May to October 2016, joined again by drummer Clive Deamer. They begin a second US tour in March 2017, culminating in a headline slot at the April 2017 Coachella festival in California. A European tour in June and July will follow with several festival shows, including Radiohead's third headline performance at the UK Glastonbury Festival.
A Moon Shaped Pool has a score of 88 out of 100 on the review aggregator website Metacritic, based on 43 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim." Patrick Ryan of USA Today wrote that "the brooding, symphonic and poignant A Moon Shaped Pool ... was well worth the wait." Chris Gerard of PopMatters felt the album was "worthy of Radiohead's peerless catalog, a rich addition to what is the most vital and important string of rock albums of the last 30 years." Jamieson Cox of the Verge praised the album's string arrangements and "emotional magnanimity". Andy Beta of Rolling Stone described it as "a haunting, stunning triumph" and Radiohead's "most gorgeous and desolate album to date", praising its timbres and melodies. Fellow Rolling Stone critic Will Hermes wrote that "it's Yorke's voice that holds the emotional center, and it's never been more affecting ... [A Moon Shaped Pool is] one of their most musically and emotionally arresting albums."
Sam Richards of NME described A Moon Shaped Pool as "an album of eerie, elusive beauty that is strange, shimmering and uncertain all at the same time." Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote for AllMusic that "there's a melancholic comfort to its ebb and flow, a gentle rocking motion that feels comforting; it's a tonic to the cloistered, scattered King of Limbs and even the sleek alienation of Kid A." Pitchfork editor Jayson Greene felt the album was coloured by Yorke's separation: "The impact of trauma, a sort of car crash of the soul, is palpable. The music here feels loose and unknotted, broken open in the way you can only be after a tragedy." At the end of the year, Pitchfork named "Daydreaming" and "True Love Waits" the 24th and 9th best songs of 2016 respectively.
Eric Renner Brown of Entertainment Weekly praised the album's variety and scale: "By nature, Radiohead albums will always be somewhat epic, but this one is more consistently grandiose than any of the band's releases since 2000's masterpiece Kid A." Jon Pareles, writing for the New York Times, wrote that A Moon Shaped Pool was perhaps "[Radiohead's] darkest statement – though the one with the band's most pastoral surface." He praised Yorke's vocals and Greenwood's string arrangements, writing: "Both Mr. Yorke and Mr. Greenwood are relentlessly inquisitive listeners, lovers of melody and explorers of idioms, makers of puzzles who don’t shy away from emotion." Chris Barton of the Los Angeles Times described A Moon Shaped Pool as "a rich and engrossing listen that somehow finds more undiscovered territory for a band that has built a career on doing just that." MTV's Simon Vozick-Levinson wrote: "A Moon Shaped Pool provides a thrilling answer to the existential concerns that confront any band that's made it this far ... After all this time, hearing these five old friends challenge themselves into a new phase of evolution can still blow even a jaded fan's mind."
Justin Joffe, writing for the New York Observer, praised the album as "a stunning display of naked vulnerability and a notable achievement ... Radiohead remain dedicated craftsmen of strange new sonic universes." Like Joffe, Nina Corcoran of Consequence of Sound praised the inclusion of older songs such as "True Love Waits", writing: "Waiting five years to hear previously released tracks is worth it precisely because Radiohead finally feels connected enough to perform them with meaning ... waiting to release a studio recording of a song over two decades old allowed Radiohead to peel its words when riper than ever." Mike Diver of the Quietus, however, felt the inclusion of older songs gave the album the unwelcome feeling of a compilation album, writing: "Certain tracks feel less than fully fleshed out, really given the treatment that their age warrants ... There's simply so little spark here, barely glowing embers and blackened dust where once Radiohead blazed a fascinating, furious trail for others to attempt to follow."
Jamie Milton of DIY felt that the album needed "another breakneck force shock to the system" similar to "Ful Stop", and that it contained some unnecessary elements, such as the "over-tinkering echo" of "Present Tense" and the "jagged closing section" of "Decks Dark". Nonetheless, Milton concluded that "every inch of this record has been meticulously crafted, tailor-made to fit the strengths of every member. Not once does a song sit out of place or come across as unfinished. These are gorgeous, human, complete works - some of the best of [Radiohead's] remarkable career." Alexis Petridis of the Guardian criticised the "suffocating gloom of the lyrics", but felt the album was an improvement over The King of Limbs, writing that Radiohead had "[achieved] something they've never achieved before ... Alone among their commercial peers, Radiohead are held to not just release albums but make grand artistic statements worth dissecting and poring over."
A Moon Shaped Pool was the fifth Radiohead album to be nominated for the Mercury Prize, making Radiohead the most shortlisted act in the award's history. It was nominated for Best Alternative Music Album and Best Rock Song (for "Burn the Witch") at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards.
All songs written and composed by Radiohead.
Adapted from the album liner notes.