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What cats tell you about Thom Yorke’s soul: A Moon Shaped Pool lyric analysis

Since 2003, Radiohead have found their soul. It seems improbable for a band to spend so long looking for it, but it is only since leaving their former record label EMI that their music has felt comfortable in its own skin rather than a prickly, vicious, beast to be wrestled with every few years. Think about cats: on 2003’s ‘Myxomatosis’ we’re dealing with a shaggy, ‘mongrel’ bastard, with fresh food in its mouth. The natural world on Radiohead’s first six albums is usually described either in relation to death and decay (‘cracked eggs, dead birds’), food (‘frozen food and battery hens’), or as cartoonish, Animal Farm-style satires (‘Gucci little piggy’/‘hammer-headed sharks’/the ‘wolf at the door’). They’re always sketched as part of much bigger systems, rather than having qualities of their own worth exploring. After the EMI period, something changed. There’s still the skeleton of Yorke’s fondness for cliche I’ve written about before, but he’s more happy to talk about felines outside of that conceit of nature as a mechanical, murderous cycle. So in ‘The Eraser’, the addressee is ‘like a kitten with a ball of wool’, on ‘15 Step’ he asks ‘Did the cat get your tongue?’, and on ‘Lotus Flower’, it’s not even you or I any more but a collective, ‘We will shrink and we’ll be quiet as mice/And while the cat is away/Do what we want’. What is there on A Moon Shaped Pool? A straight-up metaphor, the enigmatic ‘crazy kitten smile’ of ‘True Love Waits’.

A few caveats. One can never be too confident assigning dates to Radiohead songs as, by the band’s own admission, they can float around as ideas long before they are committed to tape. ‘True Love Waits’ goes back to before The Bends, but given how much the band sweat over the tracks they include on each album and how they order them, it’s not outlandish to think about their date of publishing, rather than composition. ‘True Love Waits’ hasn’t been included on any studio album previously because it is far too lyrical and personal to fit in with the worldly, angsty subject matter of their back catalogue. In any case, the inclusion of tracks from all points of their history on A Moon Shaped Pool offers some intriguing compare and contrast studies within Yorke’s lyrical progression.

Burn The Witch’ dates from the Kid A period and is vintage turn-of-the-century Yorke, with the song’s lyrics effectively a list of cliches: the title being one, ‘we know where you live’ and ‘avoid all eye contact’ being others. ‘Decks Dark’ carries several echoes of ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’, not least the third track position on their respective albums. Still, there are developments. The ‘spaceship’ in the earlier song is definitely just a spaceship. It’s used as a vehicle (pun semi-intended) to offer a vantage point on the Earth, as part of OK Computer era Yorke’s global eye. ‘Decks Dark’ gives us a ‘spacecraft’ instead. The shift from ‘ship’ to ‘craft’ is itself quite revealing; a ‘ship’ is a form of transport, whereas a ‘craft’ could be anything – a satellite, space junk, a machine of war. It is  evocative, yet vague. The juxtaposition of that eerie chorus with much more personal verses (‘It was just a laugh/’it was just a lie’) suggests a metaphor at work. It helps that the song carries the band’s harmonic signature: chords which float ambiguously between major and minor (in this case D). Consequently, you’re never sure where the centre of the song is – an intergalactic battle or something more personal? Do the verses serve the chorus or vice versa? Or both? Radiohead creating an uncertain mood through their choice of chord pattern is not unusual, but to see it working in tandem with lyrics eliding from Big Things to Little Things, is.

As with cats, trains have been a recurrent motif for Yorke. Particularly when you watch Meeting People Is Easy, you understand how they fit in with the band’s aesthetic: vast arteries moving people from place to place in metal cylinders which they have no active control of. Yorke described his inspiration for ‘Backdrifts’ as images of snow through the window of a stranded bullet train in Japan. Furthermore, his solo effort ‘Black Swan’ commands ‘Buy a ticket and get on the train’; an invocation of the classic heads-down, commuting transport system. So when ‘Glass Eyes’ opens with ‘Hey it’s me/I just got off the train’ the whole thing is turned on its head as the train is no longer of central importance: it’s delivering the singer to a person, it’s not anonymous transit any more. Yorke described his lyrical approach in 1997 as ‘taking Polaroids of things happening at high speed’; there is much more stillness to the music and words of A Moon Shaped Pool

A 2008 article in Mojo detailing the pained genesis of In Rainbows offers some clues as to why Yorke’s lyrics became more soulful around that time. The man himself identified the increased time spent with his children as crucial in getting him out of his head space, and ‘switching off’. He also pinpointed something which happened during the creation of his solo album, The Eraser. Working with Nigel Godrich, it became apparent that his voice was what provided the anchor to the song fragments he created, and was what allowed others to enter into the sonic world he had in his head. Subsequently, he garnered a newfound confidence in his voice and didn’t shirk from its ‘feminine’ qualities. The logical pattern follows that as if was more willing to be fluid with his vocal melodies, then his lyrics would be more supple as well.

One of the few faults I have with the lyrics on A Moon Shaped Pool is the overuse of the verb ‘mess’, as in ‘you really messed up everything’/’truth will mess you up’ (Ful Stop) and ‘messing me around’ (Identikit). It works very powerfully as part of that aching R ‘n’ B style chorus in the latter song (does anyone else hear Mario Winans?), but the fact that it has already been used several times in ‘Ful Stop’ means the impact is dulled. It comes across as a bit of a duff Americanism. Still, it allows you to see how it is different from the ‘messing’ done by the Karma Police and the Wolf at Thom Yorke’s door at the close of Hail To The Thief. In those cases the mess-age is a threat: don’t bother trying to fight against a system. On A Moon Shaped Pool the messing is done by ‘truth’ and ‘you’; again, very personal origins. On ‘Ful Stop’, it’s not clear whether that opening ‘You really messed up everything’ is directed by the singer towards himself, or someone else. If you take the first view, then, with respect to the chorus, it offers a more self-excoriating analysis. Yorke uses a chiding, slang sense of the verb ‘mess’ before the chorus returns to that more conventional, systematic, headfuck definition.

Something ‘Identitkit’ has which is very unusual is Thom turning to address a large audience, represented in the music by a choir, with the line ‘Broken hearts/make it rain’. Previously rain has been used by Yorke as a metaphor for apocalypse, with the parallels to Noah’s Ark on the first half of Hail To The Thief, the Canute story on The Eraser, and some sort of Waste Land-style purging on ‘Paranoid Android’. Here it seems like – whisper it – rain equates with tears, provoked as they are by ‘broken hearts’. It might still be apocalyptic, but it’s a personal apocalypse, just as ‘Decks Dark’ has a spacecraft which only the singer can detect. Even here though Yorke maintains a delicious ambiguity: it’s not clear if the line is descriptive, or imperative. In other words, is he describing how broken hearts make it rain, or is he asking them to do so? He’s not going to step out from behind the curtain for us so easily. (There is also the lesser spotted third interpretation: he could be asking the broken hearts to shower strippers in bank notes as they gyrate in the club).

In some respects Thom Yorke’s lyrics haven’t changed that much, because part of Radiohead’s popularity is his ability to write words which straddle the personal and political, and that lingers on A Moon Shaped Pool, with its allusions to ragdolls, spacecraft, and crucially; control. You could apply them to a partner, or to a political structure. If you feel estranged from one or the other – or both – the lyrics will appeal. But on A Moon Shaped Pool there are hallmarks of Thom Yorke’s early career style, resettled in a more personal, organic, emotional home. Maybe Yorke’s historically obsessive self-analysis has been muted, and he trusts the words that he writes more. There’s less of an inclination to summarise the world, and think of language, in terms of systems, and in so doing dismiss introspection as I’ve detailed elsewhere. In its stead is a propensity to explore language and the natural world in a more symbolic way. It’s as if the ‘transport, motorways, and tramlines’ of ‘Let Down’ reach an hour long hush for this album to blossom. The lyrics to ‘Tinker Tailor…’ are some of Yorke’s strongest and are the most apt comparison in this case, as they speak about a hive of activity, but it is amongst the ‘birds’ and the ‘fishes’, with elusive references to insects and wild animals which is all very fluid and a bit…sexy.

Thom Yorke’s Clichés: Part 2

A few weeks ago I put up a blog post detailing some of the details behind Thom Yorke’s lyrics, and why they’re successful, despite appearing childishly simple on the surface. Since then there’s been a surprise album drop from the man himself (yes, another one), and a few tweets that hint at his compositional process in more detail than the scatterbrained websites Radiohead have maintained in years past. Here’s my update.

Twitter

Via the magic of social media, we’ve been granted an insight into the way Thom Yorke writes his lyrics, the sort of insight that was previously restricted to the gatekeepers (as Yorke might call them) of a BBC documentary series like Arena. In any case, it’s safe to assume these notes represent an early brainstorming, one of the first points at which he commits pen to paper. It’s an unconventional approach, dividing the page into columns down which he seems to be transcribing thoughts and phrases as they come into his head, and then paring them down to cut out the chaff. Instead of plotting the lyrics along the linear path of a narrative, there’s a scattergun approach, firing words at the page without discriminating, and then trying to unlock a coherent pattern among them. The overall system is like the embodiment of apophenia. It’s a helpful writing tool, but it also says a lot about Yorke’s persona poised against the system -even drafting lyrics requires a negotiation with overwhelming, faceless ‘data’, and trying to understand if any inherent patterns have value, or if they are completely arbitrary. It’s quite Pynchonian in that respect, and shows a measure of influence from that author which goes beyond the band name-dropping him with W.A.S.T.E (the name is lifted from an organisation in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49). As I mentioned in the earlier article, you have to sideline your expectations of one persona speaking to you, of telling a story from their account. Yorke is what DH Lawrence might have called a ‘pipe open at both ends’, allowing all parts of the system to emerge from his larynx. Here’s a transcription, with idioms also highlighted in red:

taxpayers Traffic jams All of us A broken spell I’m no saint
managers Cheques to sign Have turned to stone A dried up well Clutching straws
Catching up Call waiting Don’t slack off Holding patterns No idea
Britney spears Book onlines Or the penny drops In a queue Where to start
All his work Burned out lights And taken away Rotten fruit Why ask me?
Will have Flames to fan All the names & vegetables As if i’d know
Been in vain Warrantees All the names Leaves that fall Waiting outside
Coming at you coming [?] for you What’s the warning On leaves that fall The swimming pool
From beyond From beyond Who can hear? On leaves that fall As if it helps
The trees The trees On leaves that fall As if it helps
Beyond the trees Beyond the trees Click your fingers More hot air
I have indeed

 

Yet more shit Tickertape Then up in smoke In the balloon
Your holiness

 

I do not want need Message reads A teleport Disconnected
Chasing tales Stomach cramps Voice [?] looking at you A sick joke Frightened
Borrowed time Chattering teeth From beyond the trees Any which way Reverberating
Fossilised

 

Hollow words Beyond the trees Just don’t stop Hollow sounds
Specks of dust

 

On the breeze Big deal so what? Don’t give in Strict demands
Glowing orbs Vessels to fill The present tense Don’t let up Upon my time
Twisted frames

 

Vessels to fill Is all you got Self-improvement Responsible
Weakest links

 

Hovering [?] birds of All his work Life coach Adult
All this time Birds of prey Will have been in vain Motivated Stay in line
Struggling Can’t let go Multiplied Coming at you Motivated Stay in line
Fighting for On motorways From beyond the grave Sales force Need to fulfil
A little patch Teenagers Beyond the grave Sales force Deadlines
A little earth On my tail Tooth and nail Don’t slack off deadlines
With wood & stone [slime] They [?] think it’s a race Agoneeze [?] Or the penny drops Musst make
Wood store [slime] All this love Platinum cards All this work best
The present tense Will have been Freebees Will come to nought Use of my time
Is all you got

 

In vain Stamps 2 lick Mirrors in Robots in
Why waste time

 

Can be taken Checking lists Changing rooms In disguise
Breaking up?

 

from you Decisions decisions We think we In disguise
Lights that dance

 

At any time This with this [?] Have an opening Never here
Around your eyes At any time Such & such Come but next Somewhere else
You won’t know where Wants this by when? A better break Waiting here
You won’t know why Yesterday A better break Wait for you
Feed the greed Yesterday Hollow fake Waiting for
Don’t stop now yesterday Reverberate The states to change
Don’t turned around All this talk Wind 2 change
All this mouth Bottomless pit
The truth is love Bottomless pit
I’m uncertain

Even at this early stage you can see some of the subversion at work, as ‘chasing tales’ continues the invective of ‘The Daily Mail’ into a pun that sends up journalists let off the leash to find stories, who only end up chasing their own tails and perpetuating a cycle. Most of the notes are nowhere near what ended up in the final version, but it’s telling that one of the few that did is ‘the penny drops’, showing that the idiom provides the foundation on which the song rests – it is one of the few phrases which made it from ‘early notes’ into the final version, indicating that Yorke does find them an interesting sub-section of language. There’s a lot to be mined from the list, but just to mention one more thing at the moment: the refrain of ‘beyond the trees’ hasn’t been sung in any performance (yet), but it’s circling around the idiom ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ – saying ‘beyond the trees’ several times over shows the wilful attempt to escape from the labyrinth of pre-programmed language. On that note, something incredibly simple that I missed last time is just how many times phrases are repeated on Hail to the Thief compared to Radiohead’s other releases. I’ve tallied them below, not counting the occasions where lines are delivered in pairs (see ‘Myxomatosis, ‘A Wolf At The Door’ and ‘The Gloaming’ for this)

Song Phrase Tally
2+2=5 Paying attention 13
I’m not 11
Sit Down. Stand Up. Sit down, stand up 11
Anytime 4
The rain drops 46
Sail to the Moon Sail us to the moon 4
Backdrifts You fell into our arms 5
Go to Sleep Over my dead body 4
Were I End And You Begin I will eat you alive 15
There’ll be no more lies 12
The Gloaming They will suck you down to the other side 4
They should be ringing 12
There There Don’t reach out 4
Someone on your shoulder 4
I Will Eyes 15
A Punchup At A Wedding No 44+
A Wolf at the Door The flan in the face 4
Put me inside 5
No I have no idea, but a lot

It’s proof that Yorke’s pessimism about political control of language reached its saturation around the time of their sixth album, particularly as he hadn’t used repetition in such a heavy way before, or since (outside of choruses, obviously).

Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes

Brain In A Bottle  I just keep bouncing back
Guess Again  As one door shuts/Another opens
Mother Lode  Your truth is out of their league + hits the ground running

Quite aside from giving us the most Yorkesque album title yet, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes gives us three more instances of idioms. All of the idioms here are ostensibly used in a positive context, but the fact that they are idioms in the first place negates the effect. Yorke has already deconstructed the optimism of ‘bouncing back’ back in 1997 with ‘Let Down’ (bouncing back and one day/I am going to grow wings/A chemical reaction/Hysterical and useless…), and ‘As one door shuts, another opens’ is another positive-sounding phrase, but given that the song has already described ‘all my nightmares’ and ‘wild dogs’, there’s something else going on. The phrase moves away from an Apprentice style soundbite into a domesticated labyrinth, where another door opening is not an exit, but another layer of confusion that helps the ‘mind blow up’. Same with ‘Mother Lode’: ‘hit the ground running’ is particularly loved by corporate employers, so recalibrating the phrase is another middle finger to Yorke’s favourite nemesis, the middle management. In the context of this song, hitting the ground running is like the doors in Guess Again – a myxomatosic twitching, trying to escape from surrounding darkness. If you look at the grid above that I transcribed from Twitter, it does seem that Yorke is particularly interested in deconstructing such corporate language which deigns to help the individual achieve their potential, but really only perpetuates a system full of suited drones.

Notes for ‘The Present Tense’ include ‘self-improvement’ and ‘life coach’. I worried over the last few years, as Thom Yorke grew his hair, spent more time in Los Angeles, and hung out with cool EDM artists, that he would drift from the acid-tongued, alien looking man I idolised in my youthful naïveté. Still, it’s helpful to know that while he seems a much more contented soul now, he’s still capable of piercing the particularly Los Angeles brand of vapid personalised bullshit.

Thom Yorke is the most cliche-ridden songwriter we currently possess. That’s why he’s so important.

In an interview with HUMO magazine, Thom Yorke described the composition of ‘Fitter Happier’, the sequential and thematic centre of OK Computer, in the following terms:

“I had writer’s block for three months. In that period I could only make lists of words. It took me a long way to figure out that the only way I could translate my thoughts was with these lists”

Yet ‘Fitter Happier’ is not eccentric in its lyrical style, particularly for post-2000 Radiohead songs. Indeed, it seems as if Yorke has adapted this style of writing in his later career to slightly different, yet complementary circumstances. Much of his recent work reads as long ‘lists’ of idioms, clichés and generally familiar phrases. Pay particular attention in the quotation above to the two implications of the adverb ‘only’: it means that he realised he should stop thinking about songwriting as an introspective, cohesive manner in favour of a more fragmented approach, but also that the way in which language has been used from the 1990s onwards means that writing in such a manner is inevitable, the true way of marrying form with content in a new age. Yorke wonderfully channels the broadcasts of the modern world, not commenting as a privileged observer but allowing all of the vastness of data to penetrate through the stereo. Yet his use of cliché as a device is often missed or misunderstood (see the Neil McCormick review below). There is scope to examine it from the political angle, and utilise the agitations he has brought to light in interviews, but I am more interested in what it says on a more purely linguistic level, about how language is constructed and disseminated between people. Clearly there is an overlap here, and indeed political themes are unavoidable given the subject matter of Radiohead’s music. Nevertheless, I hope that this encourages a more appreciative look at lyrics which have been unfairly dismissed.

Bold = in Oxford idiom dictionary

Italics = other phrase of note

Pablo Honey  (2)

Pablo Honey + Drill + Itch

The Bends (3) The Bends + My Iron Lung OK Computer (5 + 3, not including Fitter Happier) OK Computer + No Surprises/Running From Demons + Airbag/How Am I Driving? Kid A/Amnesiac  (6 + 8)  29 songs Kid A + Amnesiac + I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings Hail to the Thief (13) Hail to the Thief + COM LAG (2plus2isfive)
Blow Out – “all wrapped up in cotton wool”

 Inside My Head – “hold my peace

Planet Telex – “dry as a bone”

The Bends – “blow me sky high”

“High and Dry”

Paranoid Android – “off with his head” + “first against the wall”

Subterranean Homesick Alien – “folks back home”

Exit Music – “all hell breaks loose”

Electioneering – “I trust I can rely on your vote”

“Climbing Up The Walls”

Lucky – “I’m on a roll”

Pearly

In Limbo – “you’re living in a fantasy world” + “I’m lost at sea”

Idioteque – “women and children first” + “take the money and run”

Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box – “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case”

“Knives Out”

Like Spinning Plates“feed me to the lions”  + “cloud cuckoo land”

Life In A Glasshouse – “chew the fat”

You and Whose Army?”

Kinetic “you’re being took for a ride

Trans-Atlantic Drawl – “light at the end of the tunnel

Cuttooth – “tanks roll into town

2+2=5 – “put the world to rights”

The Gloaming – “genie let out of the bottle, it is now the witching hour”

Go to Sleep – “over my dead body”

Backdrifts – “damaged goods

There There – “accidents waiting to happen”

I Will – “white elephants” + “sitting ducks”

Myxomatosis – “ate me up for breakfast”

A Wolf At The Door – “take it with a pinch of salt”

A Punchup At A Wedding – “bull in a china shop” + “pot will call the kettle black” + “piss on our parade

I Am a Wicked Child – “straight and narrow

The Eraser (6 + 1) The Eraser + Spitting Feathers In Rainbows (9 + 4) In Rainbows (2CD version) + ‘These Are My Twisted Words’ + Harry Patch (In Memory Of) + ‘Supercollider/The Butcher’ The King Of Limbs (10 + 2)  The King Of Limbs + songs debuted since then Amok (3 + 4) Amok
Analyse – “self-fulfilling prophecy

Black Swan – “blind spot” + “dead horse”

Harrowdown Hill – “walk the plank”

Drunkk Machine – “spitting feathers” + “speaking in tongues” + “splitting hairs”

15 Step – “eyes off the ball” + “cat got your tongue”

All I Need – “waiting in the wings”

Faust Arp – “rise and shine” + “elephant in the room”

“House of Cards”

Jigsaw Falling Into Place – “wound up like a spring”

Videotape – “the pearly gates”

 Down is the New Up – “what’s up buttercup” + “you’re so last week” + “chink in your armour

Last Flowers – “tread on your toes

Up on the Ladder – “puppet on the strings

Little by little, by hook or by crook”

“Give up the Ghost” + “had my fill

Good Morning Mr. Magpie

Lotus Flower – “while the cat is away” + “kick the habit

The Butcher – “spare the gory details

The Daily Mail – “the lunatics have taken over the asylum” + “pig’s ear”

I Froze Up – “like lambs to the slaughter”

 Open the Floodgates

Default – “will is strong, but the flesh is weak” + “slipped my mind” + “made my bed I’ll lie in it

Ingenue – “know like the back of your hand” + “fools rushing in

“Judge, Jury, and Executioner

Amok – “penny for your thoughts”

graph 0

graph 1

I’ve attempted to provide some sort of statistical basis upon which to work from. I went through the corpus of lyrics of Radiohead, Atoms For Peace and his solo releases, finding phrases that were in The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, edited by John Ayto. Graph A demonstrates how idioms and ‘extras’ have formed the backbone of Yorke’s lyrics since Kid A/Amnesiac, with slight dips for The Eraser and Amok because there is simply less material. Graph B shows a more accurate breakdown as an average is calculated based upon the number of idioms and ‘extras’ added together and divided by the total number of songs from that particular chapter of the band’s career. My definition of ‘extras’ is of course subjective, but I’ve tried to include all the phrases which strike me as being employed because of their familiarity, rather than their originality. As the table shows, very frequently Yorke employs a metaphor not because it is a new, powerful way of perceiving a particular thing, but because it is a metaphor that now lacks imaginative penetration. It should also be noted that I tried to only count idioms that were employed verbatim, so as an example I didn’t include the line ‘Your ears should be burning’ from ‘House of Cards’ because I felt that there was enough originality in the twist of phrasing. The statistical trend to be observed is a steady growth until OK Computer, where by his own admission Yorke’s lyrics became less introspective and more cryptically worldly, taking up the perspective of “taking Polaroids of things moving around [him] too fast”, with another growth up to Hail to the Thief, and then re-emerging even more prominently in his more recent work.

One of many such scenes in Meeting People is Easy. Credit: Parlophone

One of many such scenes in Meeting People is Easy. Credit: Parlophone

Yorke’s words underscore his divergence from some of his songwriting predecessors; namely Bono, Morrissey and Michael Stipe. Even when Bono (Zooropa) and Stipe (Up) updated their style to fit similar themes explored by Yorke from OK Computer onwards, they are still using the technique of putting their own unique stamp on the language – as a very brief exercise, compare lines like ‘My night is coloured headache grey’ (R.E.M – Daysleeper) or ‘Your wheels are turning but you’re upside down‘ (U2 – Stay (Faraway, So Close!)) in how they depict modern life and overwork compared with Radiohead’s ‘Kinetic’, which puts forward snatches of second-hand language like ‘you’re being took for a ride’ and ‘don’t fall asleep at the wheel’. Stipe and Bono remain as Jeremiahs in the wilderness, while Yorke is more willing to embody the persona of the disoriented participant. There is a subtextual point to develop here too, as using such a device is not only artistic but also allows Yorke to sidestep the pressures of being valorised as a generational voice, with an audience of impressionable minds hanging off an artist’s every word, particularly given the repetitious overexposure through interviews et al demonstrated in Meeting People is Easy. Yorke is much more multifaceted in his approach, as his words are delivered in a disoriented manner, with no real indication of where they emerge from and how much the singer is a mere vessel; invisible speech marks float around, resisting a distinctly first-person interpretation. Yorke feels he cannot emancipate his subjectivity and is therefore constantly trying to navigate out of his complicity while persistently being trapped by language. A helpful visual corollary is the video to ‘There There’: the golden boots that promise escape contrive to leave him trapped. Broken branches trip him as he speaks.

The winged shoes become rooted. Credit: Parlophone.

The winged shoes become rooted. Credit: Parlophone.

The gradual shift from introspective and personal lyrics to more abstract and generalised compositions was embodied in the method he used in the Kid A/Amnesiac period; the ‘cut-up’ style, whereby Yorke would compose lyrics by selecting random phrases from a hat. It is interesting that while such a method was perhaps most famously employed by the Dada artists in the early 20th century in order to strike out against bourgeois rationality (which led the Western world to World War One), Yorke’s use of the device is more of a belated integration into a system which favours the soundbite (which helps palliate war, particularly Iraq).  Language, particularly in the world of political ‘spin’, no longer follows a referential function. Instead, language is manipulated, usually to dampen any emotional responses to an event. Yorke commented on the lyrical style of Hail to the Thief in a Rolling Stone interview:

“When I started writing these new songs, I was listening to a lot of political programs on BBC Radio 4. I found myself writing down little nonsense phrases, those Orwellian euphemisms that our government and yours [America’s] are so fond of. They became the background of the record. The emotional context of those words had been taken away. What I was doing was stealing it back”

When the literal meanings of idioms are lost, they become ripe for appropriation. Yorke’s personal burglary is not entirely successful, however – it’s rare he makes a clean getaway. The brilliant line ‘we are accidents waiting to happen’ in ‘There There’ could be a celebration of spontaneity or inevitability, depending on whether ‘accident’ or ‘happen’ is stressed. The fact that ‘waiting’ is repeated twice in the song inclines me to the latter. Likewise, the cry of ‘over my dead body’ in ‘Go to Sleep’ is alternately defiant and prostrate.

Great example of a Dada poster, by Theo Van Doesburg, advertising 'Kleine Dada Soiree' in 1922.

Great example of a Dada poster, by Theo Van Doesburg, advertising ‘Kleine Dada Soiree’ in 1922.

kid a frozzen

From one of Radiohead’s old sites, a page called ‘FroZZen’ – contains lyrics from Kid A, Knives Out, and others. You can almost hear the fury of letters being typed on the keyboard, drowning out the possibility of sending a coherent message. Credit: Radiohead.

Nevertheless, the continuity of this device in his lyrics has a marked social connotation as well, one which has become increasingly relevant following the rise of social media, and helps explain why the device re-emerges following the Orwellian paranoia of the Bush/Blair years. The coalescence of technology with social networks has cultivated new forms of communication which compel semantic near-misses, decontextualisation, and constraint. Character limits facilitate an appeal to common wisdom, often in the form of idiomatic phrases, as the most persuasive form of argument. There is a corollary here with what John Fuller described as the rush to wit in the English sonnet: the presence of a rhyming couplet which closes the poem encourages a summarising epigram within a 14 line space that stands on its own as an example of insight and decorum. The fact that a sonnet consists of 14 lines, and that Twitter’s character limit is 140, has always struck me as an eerie parallel. As such, the inherent limit of the medium requires using language with a summarising function, as well as a referential one. Idioms are thus extremely propitious, because they appear to grant instant authority, utilising a familiarity embedded within the language which effectively draws upon more than just the characters of the immediate tweet. The tonal ambiguity of online messaging similarly facilitates idioms, as stock phrases are used like a safety mechanism, to ensure that meaning can be transmitted without the paralanguage of face-to-face conversation.

Twitter search for 'made my bed, I'll lie in it' - line in 'Default', by Atoms For Peace

Twitter search for ‘made my bed, I’ll lie in it’ – line in ‘Default’, by Atoms For Peace

Twitter search for 'lunatics taken asylum', from 'The Daily Mail' by Radiohead.

Twitter search for ‘lunatics taken asylum’, from ‘The Daily Mail’ by Radiohead.

The pictures I’ve attached to this piece demonstrate this – look at the way in which the same phrase of ‘made my bed, I’ll lie in it’ is applied to a number of different circumstances, like a funnel through which thoughts are directed to the same common end point. The fact that ‘The Daily Mail’ is one of the biggest culprits is strong evidence that Yorke’s lexicon is evolving with the times, rather than ossifying with age as Neil McCormick suggested in the Telegraph when he reviewed Amok:

“Yorke seems to have become increasingly conflicted about the very idea of communication, his fondness for cliché indicating a tendency towards self-sabotage.”

The use of cliché in ‘The Daily Mail’ is a riffing exchange with the acute mixture of colloquialism and Daily Hate espoused by the newspaper, drawing up panic and condemnation in equal measure by using language that is malleable because it has been shorn of context while appearing conversational. Hence, Yorke’s lyric ‘The lunatics have taken over the asylum’ on one level describes the newspaper and culture of the British press in general; that newspapers are now vehicles to transmit impulsive, emotive messages of political contingency that are best equated with lunacy. And yet the only language Yorke is capable of using is that which could be taken from a headline of the newspaper, which makes the pun on ‘asylum’ so telling, given the paper’s denigration of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. Headlines and slogans are, of course, another aspect of language which have become more prevalent with the diffusion of mass media; ostensibly neutral but in many cases coded to suit a particular agenda.

You don't tend to see it as much now, but this was not an uncommon sight in the Blair years. I remember wooden signs declaring 'NO ASYLUM SEEKERS', as there was a mooted proposal to build an asylum seeker accommodation centre on an old RAF site not far from where I live.

You don’t tend to see it as much now, but this was not an uncommon sight in the Blair years. I remember wooden signs declaring ‘NO ASYLUM SEEKERS’, as there was a mooted proposal to build an asylum seeker accommodation centre on an old RAF site not far from where I live.

The overall fairy tale feel of Hail to the Thief, with recurrent images of folk creatures (wolves, vampires, rabbits) and story-telling frames like lullabies and bedtime stories, represents another dimension to the Yorkean cliché: language as inheritance. That is, soundbites that are experienced at an early and susceptible age, to the extent that they become part of a linguistic backdrop without ever really being examined; the curious phenomenon where as a child you pick up such constructions from the people around you and use them without being fully aware of their meaning. The interweaving themes of children’s stories act as a vehicle for trying to explore alternative spaces to this inevitable inheritance, emphasising the mental capacity of the listener, rather than becoming passive to the manipulation of language. Children’s stories represent the unique imagination of the child and ability to free the imagination from the constraints of worldly thought and language that idioms represent; a long-exhausted metaphor. In researching this, I read an article by M. Chiara Levorato about an experiment in the childhood acquisition of idioms. In one experiment they tested children 10 years of age (younger children generated different results), with an exercise where they had a choice of 3 answers in order to fulfil the global coherence of a text; one answer was idiomatic (e.g. break the…ice), another was literal (break the…crayon), while a final answer was figurative, but not related to the idiom (break the…fear, when translated from Italian, the language the study was conducted in). The results showed that most of the children actually plumped for the last option, demonstrating that acquiescence into idioms involves a suspension of some original insight into language as it becomes ‘conventionalised’.

Think about how often conversations halt at the apparent insight of an idiom which is never critically examined, where the semantic sense of the idiom has become irrelevant. I’m guilty of this all the time – a particular favourite is using ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’ as justification for anything (usually helping myself to a lot of finger food), ending a debate about the merits of performing a particular action with a well-timed idiom. There are some situations in which employing such an idiom is the best option for the conversation, but is often like a termination of internal logic, as these disembodied ghosts of language don’t really connote anything, and yet they appear to represent some great inherited wisdom from the past. This gives a more insidious angle to the albums produced in the wake of all of the band’s members having children; not just a sense of emerging into a politically corrupt world, but also one in which stock phrases dictate a particular world view. The imagery of storytelling and imaginative escape form a tense opposition to this throughout, which is what makes Hail to the Thief an excellent and underrated album within their oeuvre. The band at once tries to build a cocoon from the world narratives being constructed around them with the emergent War on Terror, trying to retain some sense of imaginative autonomy, while being forced to gaze at the newspaper walls within.

Since ‘Fitter Happier’, Thom Yorke’s lyrics have been peppered with idiomatic phrases and cliché. Yorke’s persona is of an individual whose attempts to carve their own niche in language are mollified by the presence of language as a series of recurrent images and ideas which communicate no particular meaning other than their vacuous second-handedness. This semantic gap strikes a chord with the body of their work as a whole, as Radiohead have, for the last two decades, been at the vanguard of music in trying to identify where the individual ends and the system begins. Thom Yorke presents a speaker who has enough know-how to question the system he is a part of, while being unable to vocalise it in anything other than re-hashed terms.

The influence of Keats on The Smiths’ ‘This Charming Man’

The Smiths – This Charming Man

Punctured bicycle
on a hillside desolate
will Nature make a man of me yet?

When in this charming car
this charming man

Why pamper life’s complexities
when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat?

I would go out tonight
but I haven’t got a stitch to wear
this man said “It’s gruesome
that someone so handsome should care”

A jumped-up pantry boy
who never knew his place
he said “return the rings”
he knows so much about these things
he knows so much about these things

I would go out tonight
but I haven’t got a stitch to wear
this man said “It’s gruesome
that someone so handsome should care”

This charming man
this charming man

A jumped-up pantry boy
who never knew his place
he said “return the ring”
he knows so much about these things
he knows so much about these things
he knows so much about these things

John Keats – La Belle Dame Sans Merci

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

The Morrissey – Keats relationship goes beyond the name-check in ‘Cemetry Gates’. The Smiths’ most famous single, ‘This Charming Man’ is structurally and conceptually influenced by Keats’ classic ballad ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, as the former’s ‘hillside desolate’ harmonises with Keats’ ‘cold hill-side’

Arthur Hughes - La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Arthur Hughes – La Belle Dame Sans Merci

I hasten to add at this juncture that this piece is in no way concerned with what Morrissey’s place is, if any, in the canon of English writers, or indeed whether song lyrics can truly be considered as poetry. Those are debates which have been discussed in greater depth elsewhere. I am focused on giving a close analysis on one of the finest pop songs this country has ever produced, and elaborating upon it with the assistance of a poem which is suggestive of being inspirational to Morrissey, but which has not been picked up in any articles I have read.

What happens when you search for the archaic words in This Charming Man in Google's Ngram viewer.

What happens when you search for the archaic words in This Charming Man in Google’s Ngram viewer.

Although the narrative of the lyrics is of a young man (possibly) being picked up in a car, Morrissey deliberately employs archaic language, which helps ground the song in the lexis of 19th century literature. The language is not just generically ‘old-fashioned’ but associated with a particular period of English social history, as Google’s Ngram viewer demonstrates. My inspiration for writing this was the connotations of the deeply poetic phrase ‘hillside desolate’, and as well as this, the phrase ‘pantry boy’ (borrowed from the play Sleuth) which portray the narrator as an indentured servant within a Victorian household. Moreover the adjectives – charming, handsome, gruesome – in turn portray the titular figure as a graceful aristocrat whom the narrator feels he exists in an inferior station to. Keats’ knight-at-arms is by definition aristocratic, but the dream sequence still places him as inferior to another group, in this case the spectre of ‘kings’ and ‘princes’. Moreover, the questing subtext of the poem, which I will discuss in more detail later, means that the knight still needs to prove himself.

Google’s statistical information shows Morrissey using language to form a kinship with Keats’ period, but it is further complicated by the fact that Keats’ own poem is a throwback, a poem with a deliberately blurred sense of place and time where the ‘knight-at-arms’ is suggestive of medieval literature and the quest. The most famous quest of all was the quest for the Holy Grail, which was originally narrated by a number of English and French writers such as Chretien and Malory, before achieving a 19th century renaissance, culminating in Tennyson’s epic Idylls of the King. Quests often lead to trouble at home: the Arthurian court was eventually undercut by Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot. Sexuality and women provide the digression which upsets its linearity and masculine bonhomie. Hence the importance of the question of whether ‘nature’ will ‘make a man’ of the narrator: the narrator is situated on the desolate hillside, poised between carrying on up a hill symbolic of his development to a particular goal (cf. The Pilgrim’s Progress), or coming back down along a different path via the mysterious invitation of a stranger, to become derailed from that initial goal. Should the man’s appearance be considered a threat, or perceived as a fortuitous piece of providence? Morrissey wonderfully leaves it ambiguous as to whether the definition of becoming a man, and thus realising the quest, is achieved through the former or the latter. Likewise, the Floralia of the music video leaves it unclear as to whether it signifies a blossoming or a deflowering, whereas the knight-at-arms ‘withereth’ like a dying flower, deflated from the early promise of the ‘meads’

Credit: Rhino Entertainment

Credit: Rhino Entertainment

The composer Richard Wagner was obsessed with mythic themes and epic narratives; not just composing operas based upon the Grail quest, but also interpreting old materials into his own mythos for the Ring cycle. Morrissey’s use of the rings as a symbol is thus a clever and self-conscious evocation of artistic precedent. It has been astutely commented that the line may be a reference to The Picture of Dorian Gray, where the tempter Lord Henry convinces Dorian to break off his engagement, but they are also a symbol of deeply mythic power, as the charming man further persuades the narrator to abandon his questing of those ‘rings’ in favour of relinquishing himself to the allure of forbidden sexuality. The fifth stanza of Keats’ poem is comparable because the imagery of the quest has been transplanted to the ‘belle dame’, as the ‘garland’, ‘zone’ (here synonymous with ‘girdle’) and ‘bracelet’ are ironically evocative of unity and completion, because the implied quest is abandoned and the knight is left in an incomplete state at the end of the poem. It’s also present in the poem’s structure, as the last line of each stanza is much shorter than the rest.

Wotan holds the ring in a production of Wagner's Ring Cycle

Wotan holds the ring in a production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle

As well as dwelling in the realms of symbol, Morrissey alludes to the powerful trappings inherent in aristocratic militarism – the punctured bicycle becomes both a detumescent weapon and a parallel with a knight losing his horse, and the excuse not having a ‘stitch to wear’ is an appeal to the protection of a suit of armour. The narrator wants to be prepared and outfitted for his quest, but the charming man’s appeals penetrate through. It is assumed that Keats’ solitary knight has long since lost his ‘pacing steed’, which substantiates the reading of the horse as emblematic of male sexuality given in the innuendo ‘set her on my pacing steed’ and ‘sidelong would she bend’, before it is drained by the ‘belle dame’.

To provide a succinct comparison, Morrissey narrates a landscape redolent of the north of England, but also of Keats’ eerie medieval/fantastical world. Both present men who are confronted with a threat to the loss of their sexual agency, but while Keats’ poem is a post-mortem, presenting a figure lost in purgatory having lost his sexual autonomy, Morrissey’s narrator’s situation is unresolved by the end of the song, though the influence of the original poem does mean that a similar ending is implied. The best example of this is the second verse of the song: the first line creates the expectation of a verb to provide the sentence with semantic sense, but none is provided. Agency has been shed from language, and placed entirely in the hands of the charming man.