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.

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Underappreciated Albums #2: Radiohead – Hail To The Thief (2003)

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NME: 7/10 (“a good rather than a great record”)

The Guardian: 3/5 (“Its bleakness – expressed in fragmentary, elliptical lyrics – seems to hold the album back”)

Q: 7/10 (“comes dangerously close to being all experimentalism and precious little substance”)

Blender: 6/10 (“like an hour-long sigh”)

3.73 on Rate Your Music (Artist average = 3.77)

Radiohead don’t make concept albums. They make thematic ones, showing off the album unit as individual parts connected by interweaving ideas to a greater extent than most of their competitors. Hail To The Thief is arguably their greatest achievement in this regard. Fairy tales, mythical creatures, childhood fables, vampires, genies, rabbits, sirens, and wolves all make appearances. The album uses the language of imagination, myth and story-telling while offering a contentious title which, despite the band’s protestations, is about as politically direct as they come. This thematic unity is my defence against some of the criticisms of the album, then and now; it is schizophrenic (even by Radiohead’s standards), rushed, lacking identity in comparison to its genre-defining brethren, What would make it a concept album would be to try too hard and write a libretto for the music, rather than allowing the songs to spark off each other with respectful distance for their own status as individual units. One could imagine another band grappling with the same ideas and coming up with a frame narrative of a bedtime story, with interludes and other production tricks in the place of compelling material that found unity through its own artistic strength. The album’s original title was The Gloaming, meaning the period before sunset, and that has a metaphorical application referring to the point just before sleep – Yorke described the album’s structure as working in this manner, with ‘A Wolf At The Door’ as waking up to the realisation that reality is even worse in a piece of typically Yorkean cynicism. There’s a microaudience of Yorke’s son Noah, who prompted feelings of generational accountability in his father, and a macroaudience of the world at large, being lulled into paralysis by ignorance and fear.

It has my favourite album artwork from Stanley Donwood – compressing Yorke’s technique of manipulating other people’s soundbites into a purely visual form. The cover is based on a street map of Los Angeles. The greens are carefully placed to capture your attention which, in conjunction with the bluish sky above, give the impression of flying above the patchwork quilt of an English landscape. Or maybe the collage quality is a nod to Elmer the Patchwork Elephant, one of many children’s’ fiction characters that lurk around the periphery of the album. That sort of vastly abstracted impression of English scenery – like what Andrew Marvell called ‘a green thought’, albeit in a black rather than a green shade, as Stanley Donwood uses colours taken from the petrochemical industry – accompany the intensely vivid and non-specific pastoral locales invoked by the album, which oscillate between dream and reality, between a chance to escape political control and an acquiescence to simplified neoconservative rhetoric. Listen to the penultimate track ‘Scatterbrain’, where the first line of the song has Yorke’s vocal notes rise with ‘I’m walking out’, into what you expect to be a contemplative walk beloved in the English poetic tradition, before they are see-sawed down again with the shuddering ‘in a force ten gale’.

For once the band tried to avoid tampering with the live quality of their sound, recording a song per day in sessions in Los Angeles, hoping to circumvent the arguments that had threatened to tear the band apart when it came to editing and sequencing Kid A. Accordingly there is a last hurrah for the straight-up rocker in their songbook, from ‘2+2=5’, – a bonsai ‘Paranoid Android’ – through the tight guitar work on ‘Go To Sleep’, to the snaking crescendo of ‘There There’.

The album is full of stylistic throwbacks. ‘Where I End And You Begin’ is a swampy Joshua Tree style giant, with Jonny’s Ondes Martenot filling in for The Edge’s infinite guitar. I remember reading Pitchfork’s review of The Bends re-release where they described ‘Planet Telex’ as the first song that could have been released on any of their albums; ‘Where I End And You Begin’ may be their last song which could have nestled onto Pablo Honey, though the disaffection of an unrequited love in ‘Creep’ has morphed into 21st century Yorke’s cannibalistic urges (cf. ‘Knives Out’) to ‘eat you alive’. ‘Go To Sleep’ kicks off with a rootsy, Americana guitar riff that is accompanied by Yorke’s rather caustic attempt at a blues refrain, a refreshing song to listen to now, when the eight years of using America and its politicians as a punchline has given way to a pinnacle of untouchable liberal cool. Before that, Bush Jr followed in Regan’s wake in appropriating a particular image of rugged American nationalism, which is satirised in ‘Go To Sleep’, one of the band’s most underrated songs. Yorke in the song becomes a Rip Van Winkle mark 2, this time escaping from the Iraq War rather than the American War of Independence. Jonny Greenwood’s Max/MSP solo at the end is sometimes treated as a gimmick – and its strangely low place in the mix doesn’t do much to deter that assumption – but is one of their best sonic artefacts, a real crystallisation of the band’s themes of the self ripped apart by greater forces, to the point of possible insanity. Much is made of the album’s ‘raw’ quality but there is still the same sensitive awareness of the music’s status as a recorded entity; the first sound heard on the album is of a guitar being plugged in, and the last line of the last verse in closer ‘A Wolf At The Door’ is an anguished request to ‘turn the tape off’.

As well as looking backwards, there is innovation too: ‘A Wolf At The Door’ has Yorke give a demented spoken word-cum-rap-cum-singing performance, the vocal equivalent of Jonny Greenwood’s corrupted exit stage right at the end of ‘Go To Sleep’. It’s so wonderfully fitting of his lyrical style it’s a wonder he hasn’t recaptured it again. ‘Skip Divided’ comes close but is more melodic and too clubby, without the fractured angst of 2003. ‘Myxomatosis’ is the band at their most overdriven, the ‘swagger’ that Ed O’Brien talked about in recording the album disintegrating into a shabby, leprotic mass.

With what has happened to Radiohead since, Hail To The Thief seems like not just the end of their EMI years, but also the closing chapter in their tetchy rocktronica period before The Eraser gave Thom Yorke a platform to make his music to become weirdly sexy, with Colin Greenwood letting his soul influences really flow into his bass playing for the first time, taking Phil Selway with him. Occasionally the mantras on Hail to the Thief can get repetitive to the point of banality (‘Sit Down. Stand Up.’ can lose its inherent tension after so many listens), and it is hard to disagree with the band’s sentiment that the album is simply too long and would have benefited from more rigorous mixing (‘A Punchup At A Wedding’ doesn’t need to be there, and ‘We Suck Young Blood’ could be punchier). The passing of time has helped Hail To The Thief in one way though, as the initial concerns that Radiohead had directed their creative energy into making a petulant protest album has ossified into something closer to what Jonny Greenwood diagnoses within the album, simply ‘what it feels like to be around in 2003’. The album is as a memento from the front line of a paranoid time.

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.