A Moon Shaped Pool

August 27, 2016

A little over a year ago, Radiohead singer Thom Yorke announced that he and the mother of his two children—the woman with whom he’d spent half his life—were parting: “Rachel and I have separated. After 23 highly creative and happy years, for various reasons we have gone our separate ways. It’s perfectly amicable and has been common knowledge for some time.”

Separation also imprinted A Moon Shaped Pool through the influence of Radiohead’s longtime producer, Nigel Godrich:

Auspiciously, this spring, my mother (an illustrator and writer of childrens’ picture books) had completed a series of paintings for the story Through the Park, with Tao and Hong, in which a boy and his dragon come across a rabbit lying abandoned in a “moon puddle” and try to help her find home.

Then, in the months following the release of this album, I lost my own father to cancer.

Since first listening to A Moon Shaped Pool in May, I’ve had some inclination to write a full track-by-track review, drawing out themes, expounding on what it means to me and such. It’s been low on my priority list though and I don’t believe my opinions on Radiohead are particularly high in demand. Nevertheless, this morning I decided I’d review at least one track.

a moon shaped pool cover 1440

(If I do chose to return to this, further material will go here)

The title of the song True Love Waits is, I think, equally an earnest echo of “Love is patient, love is kind…” (1 Corinthians 13:4) and an ironic appropriation of a phrase from abstinence education. The song has been around, though unreleased, since 1995. Radiohead could never find an arrangement of True Love Waits that satisfied them and do justice to what they wanted from it.

The earliest live version is an almost ebullient ballad of acoustic strumming with an arpeggiated synth line gently reminiscent of Debussy’s Arabesque № 1 (familiar to many PBS viewers as the theme from the astronomy show Star Gazer). Presented in this manner, Yorke’s words “And true love waits in haunted attics / And true love lives on lollipops and crisps” always struck me as essentially whimsical: spiritual sustenance on sugar and empty calories, surviving desolation through escape into fantasy and memories of bright color. Certainly a bit Anne Frank. Also a bit Sakuma Drops from Graveyard of the Fireflies.

“I read an article about a child who was between 5-8 yrs old who was left on his/her own for a week in a house when his parents left on holiday and he lived on lollipops and crisps.” —Thom

The album version of True Love Waits is a black hole of grief. You rest your head on the wood body of a piano that breaks apart as it plays. Not a performance onstage at an arena, but a voyeuristic domestic wire-tap more in the vein of the Radiohead b-side “How I Made My Millions”. It becomes clear as I listen that they finally found the right way to say it.

Consider the refrain “Just don’t leave / Don’t leave” as a plea to a dying loved one. It becomes an impossible request—a prayer up against the reality that leaving isn’t always a choice.

Behind the apparent extremity of self-effacing sacrifice and pledged service in the verses “I’ll drown my beliefs / to have your babies / I’ll dress like a niece / And wash your swollen feet” is a vulnerable collapse of mere humility into humiliation—ultimately, a naked admission of need, dependency and desire not to let go of one you love.