If you’re not in the mood for melancholy, you may want to skip A Moon Shaped Pool.
Themes include societal repression, failed idealism, dread, separation, regret, panic, emptiness, global warming, love in vain, abandonment and, above all, various manifestations of loss. It also features Radiohead’s saddest song, as determined by a data scientist whose findings were published in NME. No doubt troubled by the end of his 23-year relationship with life-partner Rachel Owen, Thom Yorke delivers his vocals in a somewhat detached and comparatively subdued manner. As Mike Diver pointed out in his review of the album on The Quietus, the album clearly lacks “something to grab hold of that has that same roughness, that singular feel, of this band at its best.” Electric guitar takes more than a back seat—it’s stuck way up in the balcony, replaced by Jonny Greenwood’s orchestral arrangements. While The King of Limbs was relatively low-burner in comparison to In Rainbows, Radiohead shuts the burner off entirely on A Moon Shaped Pool, leaving what Diver called “barely glowing embers.”
It’s also harder to listen to A Moon Shaped Pool today than it was at the time of its release. Unintentionally, A Moon Shaped Pool reflects the generally down mood felt today by people all over the world as they see hatred on the rise and any past progress in the direction of greater world unity obliterated in an atmosphere of distrust, paranoia and sickening greed. Since November 8, 2016, there hasn’t been a single day when I haven’t felt a sinking feeling that something is terribly and possibly irreversibly wrong with the world, and I ache for music that is uplifting, energetic and confident about the future. When I reach for my headphones, I want a break from Trump, Brexit, the Front National and all the awful shit I read in the news today. A Moon Shaped Pool is not the place to go if you’re seeking temporary relief from worldwide insanity.
Still, it wouldn’t be fair to judge A Moon Shaped Pool based on its accidental proximity to an era of human madness, and the album has much to recommend it. First and foremost to my ears, the melodies are exceptionally strong throughout and stick in your head for days, weeks, months. While many of the songs are sad, those sad songs are particularly beautiful and emotive. Jonny Greenwood’s orchestral and vocal arrangements are superb (and if you really want to hear Jonny at his best, listen to the soundtrack of Phantom Thread and skip the movie). In the context of the entire catalogue, A Moon Shaped Pool is clearly unique, but hardly surprising: Radiohead simply had to produce a more orchestrally-oriented album someday, given their musical aspirations and Jonny’s exceptional talent.
So, while I think Mr. Diver makes some fair points in his less-than-positive review, it’s pretty obvious that his expectations interfered with the evaluation. This is a common and very human error in criticism, and particularly dangerous when it comes to Radiohead, a band with a wide playing field and a long track record of defying expectations. Nobody expected OK Computer, and nobody expected they would completely abandon the guitar-heavy emphasis on that extraordinarily popular album in favor of the electronic instrumentation that dominates Kid A. After the more introverted The King of Limbs, I’m sure that most people thought that Radiohead would kick some ass on the next album; instead, A Moon Shaped Pool doubles down on the introversion, creating a mournful yet often beautiful series of introspective soundscapes. While not immune to commercial considerations, Radiohead is more willing than most artists to abandon formulas and follow their artistic instincts. Radiohead albums nearly always reflect what is happening with the band members in the present tense, when new and old songs yet to find a home meld together around an organizing principle or theme. At this moment in time, Thom Yorke was reflecting on loss and change while Jonny Greenwood was blossoming into a terrific composer and arranger. A Moon Shaped Pool is an album that manages to resolve the opposing forces of retreat and growth, resulting in a work that may not be for everyone or for every mood but deals with very real and essential aspects of the human experience.
And yeah, sometimes it sucks being human.
The album opens with Jonny Greenwood front-and-center with the attention-grabbing string arrangement that introduces “Burn the Witch.” The technique used for the violins has been inaccurately labeled col legno, where the violinists strike the strings with the stick on the bow; instead, Jonny gets even greater intensity by having the players use guitar picks. The deep growl that provides the bottom for the arrangement provides ominous, contrasting color to the bright tone of the violins, a mood further intensified by the dark opening verse:
Stay in the shadows
Cheer at the gallows
This is a round-up
This is a low-flying panic attack
Sing a song on the jukebox that goes
Burn the witch
Burn the witch
We know where you live
Societies have created witches and heretics for centuries as a means of oppressing those who think different, look different or happen to be saddled with vaginas. Accusations of witchcraft have proven to be effective tools for the elites to redirect the frustration of the lower classes away from them and towards those who dare to be different. The consensus view is that the “witches” in this song are the Muslim immigrants who fled their war-torn homes for the alleged safety of the territories in the European Union; the historical effectiveness of the demonization strategy manifested itself in Brexit and the election of Trump (but thankfully came up a cropper in France). The music dominating the intro and the first verse reflect this boiling, burning tension. Just before the second verse, the higher strings shift to a descending legato, more important for the descent than the continuity associated with that musical form. In that second verse we see humanity descending into fearful isolation, secretly ashamed of their enabling behaviors but lacking the guts to do anything to defend the demonized, instead treating information that contradicts the rationale for hatred as “fake news”:
Red crosses on wooden doors
And if you float you burn
Loose talk around tables
Abandon all reason
Avoid all eye contact
Do not react
Shoot the messengers
This is a low flying panic attack
Thom Yorke’s understated vocal works exceptionally well in this piece, achieving a sotto voce effect that simultaneously draws our attention to his voice while reflecting the near-whispers that comprise conversation in a paranoid society. The terrifying ending is achieved through a combination of increased intensity from the strings, dissonant figures in the background and the bottom literally dropping out until the sudden demise. “Burn the Witch” is a marvelously structured piece, and while it serves as a reminder that we’re in the fight of our lives against fear and ignorance, it’s a problem that humanity has had to deal with for centuries . . . and perhaps this too shall pass . . . or maybe not.
The “maybe not” caution comes from the first verse of “Daydreamers,” reminding us that the endless pursuit of perfection that is part of the human psyche can also be a psychological trap.
They never learn
They never learn
Beyond, beyond the point
Of no return
Of no return
And it’s too late
The damage is done
The damage is done
”I fear those big words,” Stephen answers, ”which make us so unhappy.” That line spoken by Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses illuminates the downside of the pursuit of perfection: it is unachievable, and the failure to achieve it frustrates and damages the spirit. Ironically, religions have found a more practical way of dealing with the urge: perfection will never happen here, but in the hereafter. Total bullshit, of course, but such a notion has allowed many stupid people to feel comfortable with existence while absolving themselves of any responsibility to their fellow human beings in the here-and-now.
Emerging from a warped tape that transitions to the sound of soft chimes, the music of “Daydreaming” is based on a simple piano three-note pattern in waltz time. Thom Yorke’s voice is attenuated to express the fragile nature of human striving and the inevitable search for some sense of security in an insecure world, often found through the higher urge to serve others—an urge that can manifest itself as either sincere devotion or crass submission:
The white room
By a window
Where the sun comes
Just happy to serve
Just happy to serve
It has been suggested that the white room by the window could be a reference to a hospital room, possibly the room where Rachel Owen recovered from cancer treatments during the period when A Moon Shaped Pool was recorded. It’s possible, but the talent of any poet or author lies in the ability to turn a personal experience into a universal experience the rest of us can appreciate. What I get from this verse is a series of gestalts: vulnerability, life beyond the day-to-day, essence. Thom Yorke’s faint, fragmented background vocals add to the sense of fragility—the fragility of the quest for perfection, the fragility of life itself.
The music that follows the verse is a wondrous melange that carries forward the vocal fragments and blends them with other vocal layers to create a choral effect, mixing those voices with ambient electronic and orchestral effects and detuned cellos. Oliver Coats’ sudden, swooping cello figures dominate the second half of the passage . . . a sound that feels like . . . uncertainty . . . a combination of strength and tentativeness . . . Sisyphus and the boulder . . . It’s a fantastic, rich sound, and “Daydreaming” is a fantastic piece of work.
From a lyrical standpoint, “Decks Dark” is much more elusive, highly symbolic, or simply insane—take your pick. “And in your life there comes a darkness/There’s a spacecraft blocking out the sky.” I’ve had a lot of weird shit happen to me but a spacecraft has yet to darken my day. Perhaps the song is about people obsessed with conspiracy theories or with evil aliens; most likely it’s metaphoric for the strange but general anxiety that exists in the wealthier countries on the planet. Though I have no idea what the hell Thom is talking about, the music is fantastic, combining a highly active melody with exceptionally strong rhythms and as diverse and complementary a set of fills you’ll find in any Radiohead song. Sometimes there are dueling pianos in opposite channels, one reflecting the melody, the other tinkling at a high pitch and speed, contradicting the more soothing runs on the other channel. Ambient choral sounds add to the other-worldliness of the piece, while the fade is a seriously sexy set of vocal, piano and guitar riffs that lighten the overall darkness.
Songfacts has a brief entry on “Desert Island Disk” where they make a completely unfounded and highly misleading conclusion: “The song finds Thom Yorke reflecting on his break-up from Rachel Owen. Now the couple are going their separate ways, the Radiohead frontman feels ‘totally released’ as he can now love Rachel with a different type of love.”
The link above does not take you to the source for the interpretation, as one might assume, but sends you instead to the Daily Mail (!) story of their break-up. There you can find Thom’s brief, fuck you, stay-out-of-my-private-life press release: “After 23 highly creative and happy years, for various reasons we have gone our separate ways. It’s perfectly amicable.” Hmm. Why would Thom feel “totally released” after twenty-three HAPPY YEARS? If those years were indeed happy, why would he sing, “Waking, waking up from shutdown/From a thousand years of sleep?” I realize Thom Yorke tends to the morose with greater frequency than your average bloke, but are you actually trying to tell me he’s chosen to seek a relationship more on the miserable side? Shame on Songfacts for spreading rock-star gossip instead of providing song FACTS.
In truth, people can actually grow, change and have major life breakthroughs within a relationship, and the lyrics are much more supportive of that possibility. Healthy relationships leave room for spaces, where each party allows the other to get away for a while to recalibrate and rebalance. Those separations may lead to a reconfiguration of the existing arrangement or it may lead to even greater closeness. What I read in the lyrics is the story of a person who simply has to split for a few days or weeks, does so, has a few revelations about self-and-other and returns embracing new possibilities within the relationship:
Waking, waking up from shutdown
From a thousand years of sleep
Yeah you, you know what I mean
You know what I mean
You know what I mean
Standing on the edge of you
You know what I mean
You know what I mean
You know what I mean
Different types of love
Different types of love
Different types of love
It sounds to me like the narrator flew the coop believing “you’ll never understand me” and arrives at the revelation that the other understands them perfectly. If that results in a “different kind of love,” so be it. Maybe it’s about Thom and Rachel, maybe not— but you’re going to get a lot more out of the lyrics if you relate the experience TO YOURSELF AND NOT YOUR FAVORITE ROCK IDOL. “Desert Island Disk” is also a mesmerizing, sweet-flowing song built around Spanish guitar tropes with gentle ambient sounds sweeping through the left channel. After a few guitar-synth teases from the right channel, the song goes full stereo at the revelatory moment (“You know what I mean”), fading to Thom-only on guitar and verse until the final repetitions of “are possible,” when the left channel ambience gently returns. Just enough, not too much—my Count Basie Theory lives on—in a Radiohead song, of all places.
The first half of “Ful Stop” is like . . . well, imagine two trains running on parallel tracks. The first train is driven by an electronic beat-bass synth combination that mimics a chugging train and eventually forms the foundation for the vocal; the second train is a mix of what sounds like flugelhorns and phased guitars organized around a musical theme that contradicts the melody we hear from train #1. Oh no! The tracks are merging up ahead! The trains are going to collide! [Screams!] [Close up of panicked faces.][Man with a mustache desperately reaches for the emergency cord, has a heart attack and croaks.] and then . . . NOTHING HAPPENS. Just like in a Monty Python skit! The molecules of the trains have magically merged together on contact! At the quantum level! Just like in Star Trek! Wow! This sounds fucking great!
Too bad about the dead guy.
The second half of “Ful Stop” is a rhythmic delight, featuring a persistent pulsating beat accented by (yay!) layers of electric guitar counterpoint and Thom’s myriad vocal contributions. Even when they take it down a notch, the pulse remains strong, guiding us through the final build and fade. The lyrics are a pretty straightforward accounting of those grungy moments when you’ve said or done something stupid that has put your relationship at risk. Your partner has made it clear that the conversation is over and all you have left is the “but, but, but” of a side of the story destined to remain unheard for all eternity. The mood you’re in after your failure is the music you hear in “Ful Stop”: agitated, grumbling, helpless, lost, hopelessly defensive.
This is a good time to introduce one of the more curious aspects of A Moon Shaped Pool: the tracks are arranged in alphabetical order. According to a Reddit post, Jonny Greenwood allegedly attributed this phenomenon to “too many arguments over what should go where,” adding “and when it was in alphabetical order it just worked fine.” Given Radiohead’s penchant for intense debate, the explanation rings true, though I find it incredible luck that “Burn the Witch” is a killer opener and “True Love Waits” the ultimate closing track. I find the story even more incredible when considering the juxtaposition of “Ful Stop” and “Glass Eyes,” which to my ears form a cohesive narrative. In “Ful Stop,” our hero is immersed in internal dialogue oscillating between blaming other and blaming self; in “Glass Eyes,” he gets off the train (literally) and makes an awkward move in the direction of reconciliation, largely by ignoring the original conflict:
Hey it’s me
I just got off the train
A frightening place
Their faces are concrete grey
And I’m wondering, should I turn around?
Buy another ticket
Panic is coming on strong
So cold, from the inside out
No great job, no message coming in
And you’re so small
Glassy eyed light of day
Glassy eyed light of day
He abandons the conversation for a stroll through nature, but this side trip without direction doesn’t amount to much. The music supporting this sad story is a lovely arrangement of gentle romantic strings, an occasional drone from bass or detuned cello and warm patterns of keyboard and synth. The shortest song on the album, “Glass Eyes” is an incredibly beautiful piece, a subtle yet impactful demonstration of Jonny Greenwood’s gift for arrangement.
“Identikit” begins with distant vocals that will soon compete with the main vocal line for the listener’s attention, and while that may sound like musical chaos, it actually works well with the concept of an identikit: a face of a suspect constructed from the differing perceptions of the purported witnesses. The electronic beats have a pleasant Latin flavor and I find the unusual mix rather intriguing. Unfortunately, Radiohead shifts to what sounds like another song entirely, a song based on one line repeated seventeen-and-one-half times (“Broken hearts make it rain”), delivered in the second go-round by a choir in a performance that defines the word “overdramatic.” By the time they return to the original theme, they’ve lost me entirely. “I have no idea what it means, or what it’s about, or anything like that,” said Thom Yorke about “Identikit,” and honey, that makes two of us.
I’m even less fond of “The Numbers,” a global warming protest song saddled with weighty instrumentation far beyond its inherent capabilities. This is the one song where I think Jonny’s arrangement qualifies as a poor fit, but I don’t think the song works as an acoustic number either, as demonstrated by Thom’s performance of what was then called “Silent Spring” at Le Trianon in Paris. The best protest songs avoid excessive abstraction and keep symbols and metaphors fairly simple, and I guarantee that if you played this song for a random sample of people and asked them what it was about, I don’t think “global warming” would be the first words out of their mouths.
Things get back on track with the bossa nova “Present Tense” and its superb use of background vocal loops that support rather than compete with the primary vocal. The guitar duet with Thom and Johnny is a magical display of finger picking and tight rhythm; the high-pitched background vocals that enter the soundscape just before the melodic shift of “In you I’m lost” blend beautifully with the supporting ambient music. The arrangement is rich without becoming too busy, and there are dozens of tiny moments that spark delight. The song is a melancholy account of how we get locked in a pattern of self-defense about past slights that have nothing to do with the here-and-now, a pattern that invokes the terror of losing a relationship that has become essential to our sense of identity:
As my world
Comes crashing down
Deaf, dumb, and blind
In you I’m lost
In you I’m lost
I won’t turn around when the penny drops
I won’t stop now
I won’t slack off
Or all this love
Will be in vain
On an album with more than its fair share of beautiful songs, “Present Tense” is an exceptionally moving and memorable piece, even when heard in a cleaner, guitar-dominated arrangement, as demonstrated in the video below:
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” has more to do with the children’s counting game than with the shorter-titled film, though no one gets tagged as “it.” The lyrics seem to describe a seduction, but the ponderous music portends a really slow, boring fuck by a guy who has had way too much weed to do much of interest. The best part of the piece is clearly Jonny Greenwood’s cinematic string arrangement, and I’d much rather see that movie than listen to this song again.
A Moon Shaped Pool ends with another song that waited a long time to come to fruition (twenty-one years, no less), the heart-ripping “True Love Waits.” The original 1995 version is dominated by guitar strummed at high speed, slowed by long gaps between chord changes and the underlying rhythm. Here the guitar is a distant memory, replaced by a dominant four-note motif on piano that is eventually supported by multiple pianos riffing off the main theme, creating a polyrhythmic fragility that accentuates the fragility expressed in the lyrics. I find it fascinating that after twenty-one years the lyrics hadn’t changed at all except for the flip of the second and third verses. That tells me that Thom Yorke knew he had captured something essential and timeless about human nature and was therefore willing to wait as long as it took to find the right arrangement.
Simply put, “True Love Waits” deals with the human dread of loneliness. What separates it from the thousands of other “don’t leave me” songs are the vignettes he uses to demonstrate the soul-twisting power of that fear. In the first verse, we find a woman willing to sacrifice beliefs and body and trade her adulthood for child-like devotion, all to avoid abandonment:
I’ll drown my beliefs
To have your babies
I’ll dress like your niece
And wash your swollen feet
Just don’t leave
The second vignette could describe one of two situations: the male perspective on the relationship described in vignette #1 or a different relationship of convenience, where the man settles for a woman who transforms herself into a kitten, playing to the libido while failing to engage the soul:
I’m not living
I’m just killing time
Your tiny hands
Your crazy kitten smile
Just don’t leave
We’ve now had two tales of adults locked in self-and-other denial in their quest for what can only create a superficial sense of security—the mere presence of another human being. Both situations demonstrate how the fear of abandonment can twist our personalities and turn us into practitioners of deceit. The last tale takes abandonment to another level, where parents abandon a child. Thom Yorke had read a news story about parents who had left their kid alone for days; the kid managed to survive the physiological aspects of abandonment by filling himself with junk food. That junk food was as empty as the experiences described in the first two vignettes—we can never nourish the soul by engaging in relationships built on pretense and insecurity. The child’s needs, however, are less complex and more innocent:
And true love waits
In haunted attics
And true love lives
On lollipops and crisps
Just don’t leave
Oh, how that last verse breaks my heart. Children come into the world trusting that mother and father will care for them, provide for their needs and teach them things they need to know. I don’t know how any parent can abandon a child, forget about a child, or traumatize a child, and this round of “Just don’t leave/Don’t leave” hits me in the gut every time I hear it. It is the sound of shattering the most essential bond of life, the bond between parent and child . . . there simply are no words for the anguish I feel when I listen to this terribly beautiful song.
By all accounts, the recording of A Moon Shaped Pool was an arduous process. The band wasn’t sure they were ready to record or what they wanted to record, and while Thom Yorke was dealing with his loss, producer Nigel Godrich lost his father. There were no rehearsals, and progress was made in “fits and starts.” Radiohead did not tour immediately after the release, and no one in the band had much to say about it. Some time later, Ed O’Brien told the NME, “We weren’t in a position to really talk about it when it came out. We didn’t want to talk about it being quite hard to make. We were quite fragile, and we needed to find our feet.” He went on to add: “I don’t want to talk about it anymore, if that’s all right. I feel like the dust hasn’t settled. It was a hard time.”
There are as many tales of awful recording experiences that produced masterpieces as there are of pleasant recording sessions that resulted in garbage. A Moon Shaped Pool is as difficult for the listener as it was for those who created it, but difficulty is a removable obstacle. Radiohead obviously overcame the challenges of A Moon Shaped Pool through dedication and professionalism, and listeners can overcome the natural tendency to avoid unpleasantness and use the opportunity provided by A Moon Shaped Pool to expand heart and soul to encompass aspects of human experience that are often trivialized by daily existence.
Truth, after all, is beauty, no matter how painful, no matter how frightening, no matter how real.
Let me say up front that while I appreciate Radiohead’s ongoing support for once-struggling-now-Grammy-winning artist Stanley Donwood aka Dan Rickwood, I do not like any of the artwork on Radiohead albums. None. Zero. Zip. I will agree to use the neutral word “distinctive” to describe the Radiohead approach to album art, but if you visit me in Nice, don’t expect to see any Radiohead covers plastered on my walls.
When I first saw the album cover for The King of Limbs, I’m sure that my face must have looked like I was sucking on a lemon . . . just like Thom Yorke’s face as he grumbled his way through the OK Computer tour. I was almost afraid to open the sleeve, wondering if some kind of creepy-crawly thing was going to slither its way up my blouse. When I finally managed to overcome my phobia, I placed the record on the turntable, listened to it intently without distraction, and at the end I had absolutely no reaction at all. None. Zero. Zip.
I shrugged my shoulders, placed the record back in the sleeve, may have said something like “You can’t win them all,” and moved on with my life.
I didn’t pull it out of the collection until last summer when I decided to start reviewing all of Radiohead’s studio albums. I thought I’d begin the process by going through the albums in chronological order, from Pablo Honey to the recently-released A Moon Shaped Pool so I could take a fresh look at their progression over the years. I will admit that once I finished listening to In Rainbows, I had little desire to take the next step in the journey, so I decided to put off The King of Limbs for a little while.
That little while turned into a long while. Summer was long gone, autumn had disappeared and we were well into what passes for winter in Nice—February, to be precise. While our winters are still full of sunshine, on that particular day an icy fog had crept into the city, soon to be followed by a burst of heavy rain—the kind of gloomy, miserable day when you just want to snuggle up on the couch with a warm blanket and let the outside world go to hell. Instead of reading, I spent my afternoon listening to The King of Limbs.
“Wow!” I thought when the music had ended. “This is way better than I thought!”
I think two things skewed my initial perception of The King of Limbs (three things, if you count the cover). Mood is always a factor, and I vaguely remember my mood before the first go-round as “trembling with excitement.” What I heard on that first pass of The King of Limbs was “slow and subdued,” offering very little that could accommodate my excitement and sense of anticipation. And though I forever warn against it, the common bias of comparing this album to the last was probably in play. In Rainbows had greater sonic range and plenty of punch, whereas The King of Limbs operates more on the subtle side of the ledger.
Several critics had the same initial reaction of disappointment; some got over it, some still haven’t. I noticed a snippet by Ann Powers (then writing for the Los Angeles Times) that may account for my late embrace of The King of Limbs. ” . . . fans and critics have already been registering wildly divergent reactions: some think it’s one of the band’s best efforts; others find it too low-key or similar to previous work; a few consider it awfully doomy, and a few others wish it were less abstract.”
Awfully doomy. My reunion with The King of Limbs took place in February 2017, one month after Trump’s inauguration. If there was ever a time to feel “doomy,” that was it. The theory that The King of Limbs is at least partially a pre-apocalyptic expression of despair is supported by Neil McCormick’s comments on “Give Up the Ghost” in The Daily Telegraph, where he described it as “A campfire song for the end of the world.” Thom Yorke has long despaired (and rightly so) the continuing destruction of the natural environment by our relentlessly wasteful species, another reason to lend credence to doom theory. Whether it was the relatively subdued music (perfect for a rainy day) or the evocation of feelings that were in sync with mine, my mind was now open to exploring this unusual and fascinating piece of work.
Another complaint lodged against The King of Limbs has to do with Radiohead’s approach to the recording process. Essentially, most of The King of Limbs is built from drum samples, instrumental loops, nature sounds and a whole lot of software manipulation. The boys used the smaller pieces to put together blocks of music, then handed them over to Thom Yorke to write the lyrics and vocal melodies. Musical Legos! The greatest challenge that arose from the building block process was that it took months for the band to figure out how to perform the songs live, delaying the supporting tour. The very idea that good music can be achieved through software code offends many purists, but to imply (as Stephen Erlewine did in his review for AllMusic) that all this newfangled software automatically results in something “cold” and distant is old-fart thinking. Digital technology is as much a creative tool as a piano; recording software is in fact a human product; and whether or not music comes out “cold” has more to do with the skill of the musicians than the tools they used to create and perform the music. The King of Limbs is hardly lacking when it comes to emotional impact, and some of the songs are strikingly beautiful.
Many Radiohead fans have noted that the songs get better as the album progresses, and while I don’t agree with the first-half-weak/second-half-great summation, it is true that most of the impact comes later. The opening songs establish the basic musical premise, as voiced by Ed O’Brien: “Rhythm is the king of limbs.” If you read that and associate “rhythm” and “dance rhythm,” you’ll be sorely disappointed (unless you associate “dance” with Thom Yorke’s heavily-memed, choreographed performance on the “Lotus Flower” video). The first three tracks use rhythm in unique and varied ways—contrasting rhythms to highlight tension, slipping rhythms to communicate a sense of uncertainty, shifting rhythms to draw out disconnection.
“Bloom” opens with a lovely piano loop quickly truncated and overwhelmed by drum and bass loops featuring quick, crowded beats that communicate a state of “busy-ness,” or “hyperactive brain buzz.” Thom Yorke’s vocal, however is heavy on elongated notes, seemingly moving forward at half-speed in comparison to the still-busy beats. The contrast is a perfect aural representation of that feeling you get when you’re dog-tired but drank too much caffeine, and while your body’s ready to crash, your brain is going a hundred miles a minute. Thom Yorke’s comments about the origins of the song describe a similar experience while watching the BBC’s The Blue Planet: “It was me lying on the sofa trying to go to sleep after being up too late with my young son and it was just coming in and out of my subconscious,” and the lyrics capture those semi-conscious images (“A giant turtle’s eyes/As jellyfish float by”). The first verse melts into an extended instrumental passage where the words melt into breaths and vocalizations, fading beautifully into a well-layered cascade of flugelhorns (arranged by Jonny Greenwood), all while the busy rhythm runs unabated. The horns provide additional contrast when the vocal resumes, but we are always drawn to the ever-present rhythm. While “Bloom” isn’t exactly your classic opener, it’s a well-constructed piece of colliding rhythms and textures mirroring real life experience.
“Morning Mr. Magpie” had been lying around in the Radiohead pile for some time. It started out as a raw acoustic number, then apparently went through several transformations, none of which worked. The acoustic version (you can find it on YouTube) has the virtue of chord diversity and clarity, but clearly lacks something, most apparently in the awkward rhythmic shifts. While The King of Limbs version certainly resolves the rhythmic problem—using the nervous rhythm to amplify the narrator’s frustration with his inability to write music—I find this application of a “busy” beat more annoying than insightful. I’m also not sure why Thom Yorke would fall back on the silly myth of the magpie’s penchant for thievery as an explanation for writer’s block. Even more curious is Thom Yorke expressing frustration at losing his gift for melody; after all, he told Q Magazine in a piece on Kid A that “I’d completely had it with melody. I just wanted rhythm. All melodies to me were pure embarrassment.” Oddly enough, the song that bemoans the loss of the melodic touch became a rhythmic playground in its “final” manifestation—and my least favorite song on the album.
My ears do perk up to the opening passages of “Little by Little,” with its reverse acoustic strum and layered guitars climbing the scale with falling note patterns over a salsa-influenced rhythm. My ears shut down as soon as I hear Thom Yorke’s vocal, one seriously lacking in intent, commitment or both. While still not perfect—fundamentally, I don’t think the song is one of their best—the live and televised versions of “Little by Little” feature an edginess that is completely missing from The King of Limbs version.
And in case you’re wondering, yes, this is a favorable review. I made a full consumer-oriented disclosure at the start—it does get better! A lot better!
The good times begin with the instrumental “Feral,” a piece that gets so little attention or respect that there is a Reddit thread called, “Where’s the Love for Feral??” From my perspective, if Radiohead had come out with a 5-song EP that opened with “Feral” and included the last four tracks on The King of Limbs, I would have pronounced it the greatest fucking EP ever released.
I don’t think it’s accurate to say “Feral” has an opening passage, for it feels like we’ve walked into a performance in progress. Without any introductory fanfare, the energetic beats and the simple G-minor pattern (first variation low, second through fourth variations an octave higher) establish the center of the vortex around which the other blocks of sound will revolve. Thom Yorke enters slightly off-center, singing a descending scale-friendly pattern of blurred lyrics, then reappears further off-center on a higher plane, his voice drenched in the kind of natural reverb you might hear in a cathedral. The effect is positively ecclesiastic, giving the piece a ghostly, supernatural tinge. At the end of the next vocal pair, the synthesized bass enters, giving us a brief foretaste of what is to come. The vocal loops then become more scattered, creating a sense of disturbance reinforced by varying levels of loudness. When the beats fade further into the background and the vocal sounds like someone running out of breath, the ominous, sustained sound of a synthesizer slowly fills the background while the bass re-enters the mix, further crowding the soundscape. The pressure becomes quite intense, and the feeling I get is “pleasant claustrophobia,” similar to the weird delight we feel when viewing the scene in the horror flick when the evil monster is closing in on the innocent young lass. When the band backs off and cuts the bass, it’s almost like “whew, that was a close one!” When the basic pattern returns, it feels almost like relief—almost because of the natural melancholy inherent in a minor chord. But like in any decent scary movie, a more frightening manifestation appears when the pressure from the bass returns and Thom goes full ecclesiastic. In the fade, everything disappears except for the sound of a computerized metronome and that something-wicked-this-way-comes bass run. Given the song’s title, it wouldn’t be illogical to connect that wickedness to a wild animal, but personally I find the ecclesiastical vocals much more disturbing. I can deal with wild animals or werewolves, but cathedrals, chapels and churches freak me the fuck out (Sainte-Chapelle excepted). Whatever your personal sensitivities, “Feral” is a thrilling listening experience—and if you love bass as much as I do, check out the even more ferocious manifestation on the From the Basement version.
“Lotus Flower” is better known as a video than a song thanks to a series of satiric video memes. Sadly, none of them made the Top 30 Most Popular YouTube Memes of All Time on Wondershare, losing out to a baby laughing at the sound of ripping paper, a dramatic chipmunk and a couple of World of Warcraft gamers.
Moving on from the Who Gives a Shit? List of Useless Lists, all I’ll say about the video is that Thom Yorke has fantastic control of his body parts.
Here we’re more concerned with the music, and “Lotus Flower” is a sinuous, sexy beauty of a song, and anyone who thinks loop-based musical construction results in cold and abstract music is a fucking idiot. The drum and bass loops form to create a groove I could dance to forever, while the subtle off-beat handclaps shake up the pattern and awaken the listener (or dancer) to rhythmic pockets beyond the obvious. Thom Yorke attacks the song largely at the upper end of the range with perfect dynamic command of his falsetto, occasionally supported by emphasizing loops (on the keyword “heart,” for example). Musically speaking, “Lotus Flower” is as close to perfection as it gets.
The lyrics appear to tell a story of an illicit affair (“We would shrink and then be quiet as mice/And while the cat is away/Do what we want/Do what we want”); what keeps the affair going is the sheer beauty of the sexual connection; what endangers it is a combination of guilt (his) and narcissism (hers). He is willing to shape himself into her pocket, and even shrink and disappear as a human being, but there is a limit to his submissiveness:
There’s an empty space inside my heart
Where the weeds take root
So now I set you free
I’ll set you free
That may be true, but he can’t deny the beauty they create together, and the what “could be”:
Slowly we unfold
As lotus flowers
Cause all I want is the moon upon a stick
Just to see what if
Sadly, reality intrudes in its usual annoying fashion . . . and in the end he’s the Tin Man singing, “If She Only Had a Heart.”
Just to see what is
I can’t kick your habit
Just to feed your fast-ballooning head
Listen to your heart
In the last verse, he still feels the pull of the lotus flower, but the dangers outweigh its attraction (“I dance around the pit/The darkness is beneath). While sometimes Thom’s lyrics seem like deliberate attempts to befuddle, the lyrics to “Lotus Flower” are spot-on.
Since everyone in the universe has seen the official music video, I will give readers a choice. You can take another look at Thom’s dancing, or you can watch a time-lapse video of a lotus flower unfolding (a wondrous experience).
“Lotus Flower” would be a hard song to follow in almost any circumstance . . . unless you happen to have “Codex” handy, a work of humble majesty and awesome beauty.
The word “codex” refers to ancient manuscripts, often with the implication of ancient wisdom. The sacred act of “washing the filth away” exists in texts as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh. Marcus Aurelius encouraged his audience to “Look round at the courses of the stars, as if thou wert going along with them; and constantly consider the changes of the elements into one another; for such thoughts purge away the filth of the terrene life.” Closer to our times, Picasso claimed that “the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Thom Yorke told Rolling Stone that “Codex” was “about washing yourself clean in a world of dirty water.” The filth that Enkidu washed away was the dirt and dust from a long journey, symbolism grounded in the natural world. Over time the filth we need to remove has become more spiritual and symbolic, whether it’s the Christian preacher ranting about filth of sin that blackens the soul or the modern experience of the grunge that contaminates our beings through the simple act of living in an often dishonest, manipulative world. “Codex” is a quiet celebration of the longed-for moment when we once again feel in touch with our innocent selves.
Opening with an onrushing sound that ends in a truncated human cry, we shift immediately to the dominant piano chord pattern that resolves in D minor. I love this pattern—and it’s not the chords that grab my attention but the touch. The chords feel like they’re floating above the arrangement, with just the right amount of sustain and percussive pressure. And no, I don’t give a rat’s ass whether or not this effect was achieved through human fingers or through software—the sound is simply beautiful, whatever the source. Sometimes when I start to practice, I’ll begin with the “Codex” pattern to work on my touch and pedal skills (which always need work because I have a tendency to overplay when I get excited).
Over that floating pattern, Thom Yorke enters with a vocal that captures the tiredness of the soul gazing longingly at the clean, clear water. His deliberately understated vocal pairs perfectly with the restrained piano and the slow, metronomic beat. A brief flugelhorn passage follows the second verse, combining a touch of melancholy with a splash of clarity. The narrator who has guided our lost soul to the water’s edge offers final words of encouragement, repeating the inviting line, “The water’s clear and innocent.” At this point, the song proper disappears, replaced by a string section courtesy of The London Telefilmonic Orchestra. I’ve always heard this transition as one between the air and the water, the shift from exhaustion to cleansing, and as we reconnect with the dominant pattern, we emerge from the pool to the lovely sounds of singing birds that we probably ignored before the soul cleansing.
The video does a wonderful job of uncovering the filth inherent in the daily experience and the lies we tell ourselves and others in our soul-crushing efforts to survive in a heavily contaminated world.
“Codex” transitions directly into “Give Up the Ghost,” a song notable for its subtle but persistent acoustic strum and its perpetual haunting refrain of “Don’t hurt me.” One interpretive path is to view “Give Up the Ghost” as a continuation of “Codex,” for a person who rediscovers lost innocence becomes extraordinarily vulnerable when re-engaging the living world. Another is to view the message as the result of the enlightenment experience of “Codex” and the emerging awareness that we are one, regardless of station, and that together we can achieve the impossible.
Gather up the lost and sold
In your arms
Gather up the pitiful
In your arms
What seems impossible
In your arms
However, neither interpretation solves the puzzle of the last two verses, which seem to express despair (“I think I have had my fill/In your arms” and “I think I should give up the ghost/In your arms”). The clues in the music are encouraging—a chord structure heavy on sustained chords without a hint of minor or diminished chords supports the more positive interpretation—but all expressions of hope for a better world are by necessity tinged with melancholy because of the unacceptable present that sparks the dream. We wouldn’t hope if the world wasn’t such a mess.
Thom Yorke is again at the top of the game with his lead and background vocals, which come together in completely mesmerizing fashion. The supportive touches of synth and guitar never distract from the core patterns, and as in “Codex,” the beat support is stripped to essentials. Another beauty!
We end with “Separator,” a song that beautifully synthesizes many of the musical and lyrical themes on The King of Limbs. The lyrics revisit the resurrection/cleansing theme of “Codex,” the bonding urge of “Give Up the Ghost” and the challenges of relationships noted in “Lotus Flower.” Here, Thom leaves the world of the waking dead by making an affirmative, assertive choice—the blessed act of liberation par excellence:
It’s like I’ve fallen out of bed from a long and vivid dream
Finally I’m free of all the weight I’ve been carrying
And as that woman blows her cover
In the eye of the beholder
I’m a fish now, out of water
Falling off a giant bird that’s been carrying me
I fell open, I lay under
At the tea parlour
I lost your number
And once it’s over
Hid back under
If you think this is over, then you’re wrong (4)
The glorious ending cry of “Wake me up” is such a delight to hear in a world where it seems there are more and more people yearning to sleep forever with their heads firmly stuck up their asses.
The music is remarkable for the wonderful build, a slow progression where additions accumulate piece by piece over the always steady beat. The orgasmic moment is heralded by four measures of relative stillness leading to the tea parlor verse, when Thom’s vocal receives counterpoint support from sweetly melodic stereo guitars. Those guitars give me the chills every time I hear them, and when you know something is coming but it still gives you the chills, that’s great fucking music, my friends! From this point forward the challenge for the listener is to select a focal point in a smorgasbord of delightful sounds—the guitar patterns, Thom’s lead vocal, Thom’s background vocals, the suddenly assertive bass—the collective sound is so captivating it’s almost overwhelming. “Separator” provides both a satisfying sense of completion and ringing confirmation that “Videotape” wasn’t just luck, but definitive proof that Radiohead had finally mastered the art of the album closer.
I’ve pointed out in other reviews that sometimes Radiohead’s seeming obsession with slow songs drives me to distraction, but after indulging myself in the wonderful slow-tempo songs that dominate The King of Limbs, I have—what is that bullshit line politicians use? Oh, yes—my position has EVOLVED. Now I see that the earlier attempts at slow-song perfection demonstrated just how difficult it is to achieve, and given the overwhelmingly successful results on The King of Limbs, we should be very thankful that Radiohead continued on their quest. The King of Limbs may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re in the mood for rich, reflective and evocative music featuring marvelous rhythms at relaxed tempos, I guarantee you a beautiful experience.