Radiohead's 'A Moon Shaped Pool' Is a Tone Poem to Oxford, England

The band's hometown has found its new soundtrack.

Collage of Radiohead rock band members
Alex Lake

When I lived in Oxford, England for a year, I never glimpsed its most famous residents. It was 2003 into 2004 and the members of Radiohead were touring the world behind Hail to the Thief. Before I went abroad, I’d seen them at Red Rocks and, then once overseas, flew to Dublin in December for two nights at the Point (now 3Arena). (The London shows had sold out instantly and, anyhow, it was a good excuse to drink the some Guinness and hear thousands of prideful Irish citizens sing, “I float down the Liffey” during “How to Disappear Completely”). Even as I took personal advantage of the group’s robust touring schedule, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that I didn’t get to see to one my favorite bands strolling around the small town.

I spent my time there drinking in pubs, riding my bicycle, studying philosophy and theology at Mansfield College (the University of Oxford is made up of 38 different colleges), and traveling. I returned the U.S. having never caught peeped Thom, Jonny, Colin, and Phil around town (Ed lives in London). I thought — delusion taking hold — we could’ve really hit it off, and talked about George W. Bush over a few pints. I returned the following year to visit old friends and, to my jealousy and dismay, discovered that that year’s study abroad students had gotten a full course load of Radiohead-about-Oxford. Driving old cars, wearing ridiculously large coats: the guys weren’t touring and were a fixture. (In March of 2005, they began work on In Rainbows.) I’ve been back to Oxford several times since and have always kept one eye open — in and around the Jericho Tavern or downtown near Westgate Shopping Centre — for members of the band.

Now, A Moon Shaped Pool is out, in its utterly Radiohead manner: teases, surprises, and, $87 later, a collector’s edition heading my way at some point. But as I listened to the album for the second time, I couldn’t help but notice that it’s the group’s most Oxford record. It’s cerebral, depressing, orchestral: Many of the things that make the town what it is. Twelve years — almost to the day — after I left Oxford, it’s as if the band has wrapped the essence of its hometown in an audio package and delivered it right back to me.

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The first thing you hear on A Moon Shaped Pool are strings. It’s the London Contemporary Orchestra’s intro on “Burn the Witch” — the classical elements, arranged by Jonny Greenwood, only expand from there. It’s here — out of what is much of the base of the album — where the Oxford feels really set in. Nicknamed “the city of dreaming spires,” Oxford is breathtakingly and ornately constructed in Gothic style — and there as many churches there as bodegas in New York or bars in Chicago. As they say, you’re always looking up — toward the heavens — in town, as college halls and their respective chapels ascend. You can’t help but feel history there, and the soundtrack is classical music: orchestrations, chorals, etc. Songs like “Daydreaming,” “Glass Eyes,” “The Numbers,” and “Tinker Tailor” would feel at home at in many churches of Oxford, just as Dorchester Abbey — just outside of town — served as host to orchestral sections for Kid A and Amnesiac. I wouldn’t be surprised, when all of the information is out, if some sections of A Moon Shaped Pool — which was mainly recorded in France — were at least practiced in a high-ceilinged sanctuary.

Many moments from those tunes — and some of them outright wholesale — are dark, depressing dirges. Surely there were many influences which made them so, not the least of which was Thom Yorke’s separation from his partner of 23 years, Rachel Owen. But, Oxford, itself, can be bleak: It’s difficult to imagine how that doesn’t bleed into the recording process. It rains a lot, you can hole up in a darkened basement pub for hours and lose track of the day. Cavernous bookstores and libraries steal you away from the outside world. Suffice it to say, if the members of Radiohead lived in Southern California, they’d have a different sound.

And there’s the intellectual element, too. As always, Yorke has written lyrics chock full of despair, heartbreak, paranoia, and anxiety. This is the the breathing life-force of Oxford. Sure, there is plenty of fun to be had there, but it’s also a town brimming with scholars too smart for their own good. Many go there to question the world around them — and end up questioning themselves. If I could muster one image from my time there, it would be of me walking down a cobblestone street smoking a cigarette in the rain — considering Schopenhauer and what (or who) my ex-girlfriend was doing stateside — on my way to the pub, too early in the afternoon. It might sound pretentious — in fact, I’m sure that it is — but pondering is the oil in the tank of that town.

Think A Moon Shaped Pool has a slow pace? So does Oxford, the kind of place where residents don’t own cars, know the names of the their butchers, and spend hours on park benches. These days, Radiohead likes to release a record every four or five years which is — not coincidentally — about the same amount of time it takes to get a sandwich made in an Oxford deli.

There’s another element at play: something the locals call “town and gown.” The former represents the townies, non-students. Many have little association with the University and consider themselves to be Oxfordshire blue collar. “Gown” is for the pupils — many are upper class — who are known for their gowns worn at “formal hall” dinners and graduation. (I wore one and still have it in my closet, like a real fancy boy.) The fractured relationship has caused many a dust-up over the years, and remains very much an issue. Radiohead’s members didn’t attend the University (Jonny briefly attended Oxford Brookes, which isn’t associated with its older, narcissistic neighbor) — they were just born in and around Oxford. Radiohead, on paper, is totally “town,” but its music screams “gown.” There’s hardly anything gritty or hardscrabble about A Moon Shaped Pool or, really, any of the group’s post-Pablo Honey canon. It’s not surprising, though. Oxford is the kind of place where your cab driver might have a doctorate and the lunch lady knew C.S. Lewis. The streets just breathe thoughtfulness, whether the “town” would like to admit it or not. Grand ideas and characters are fashioned there, from hobbits to Narnians.

Three years ago, a few of us went to Oxford for a 10th anniversary bender. One of the crew got overly feisty the first evening and went missing the next morning. We woke up to urgent phone calls from his roommate and went on a way-too-early hungover search through town. (He was actually at the hospital, a little banged up by not missing any major limbs or organs.) Oxford, like many college towns, isn’t exactly bustling at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. But there was something about walking through town that day that was majestic: It was typically overcast and foggy, and the quiet made it haunting. (Not knowing if our friend was alive, dead, or bound up in some kind of an English hillbilly basement heightened the experience). If I could pick a perfect soundtrack for the moment it might just be “Identikit,” with its ghostly background vocals and a chorus of “broken hearts / make it rain” — an apt summation of Oxford life.

It’s not that other Radiohead albums don’t have Oxford written all over them, it’s just that this one echoes the town’s vibe best. The experimentalism and electronic-heavy directions of earlier efforts aren’t a nod to Oxford, at all. Modern architecture and, really, large changes of any kind are an uneasy fit there. Sure, there are plenty of complex arrangements on A Moon Shaped Pool — and plenty of electronics, too, but they’ve mostly been relegated to the background. What might be the most Oxford thing about the album is that it’s gorgeous, just like the town. It’s an awe-inspiring place to visit and if you live there — it gets in your veins. Now, that’s come through in Radiohead’s music as clearly as can be.

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