“True Love Waits”

"True Love Waits" (found)

“True Love Waits” (via, originally via)

This is the eleventh and last in a series of posts that look at individual tracks on Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.

After the self-loathing breakthrough of “Tinker, Tailor,” the last place you’d expect A Moon Shaped Pool to end up is a twenty year old song famous for never being on an album. But that’s where we are with “True Love Waits.”

Easily the most achingly sad work in Radiohead’s repertoire, the song has been celebrated in its previous live incarnation, anchoring the live album I Might Be Wrong and appearing as the title track of Christopher O’Riley’s first album of Radiohead transcriptions. But it’s never been heard like this. Like the O’Riley version, this version of the song eschews the acoustic guitar that accompanied the original version of the song for piano; but unlike the O’Riley version, which tends like all his early Radiohead arrangements toward busy fills, this version strips everything back: a single echoing piano line that wouldn’t be out of place on a Brian Eno/Harold Budd ambient album, supplemented by a two-note bass pattern and some higher piano excursions high and distant, supporting the voice of Yorke’s narrator.

A narrator trapped. The piece lays bare the tragedy of the album as a whole, for Yorke’s narrator cannot embrace the epiphany and self-discovery he’s found. He is left with the realization that he’s “not living / I’m just killing time,” but he cannot bring himself to let go of his former love either. He pleads, “Don’t leave,” even as the relationship is destroying him. Like a frame of 8mm film stuck in front of a lens—pictured on the cover of the album?—he is caught, immobile, and being slowly destroyed. It’s gorgeous desolation, but it’s desolation nonetheless.

It would have been easy for Radiohead to close this album in a happy place. By depicting the awful finality of Yorke’s narrator’s dilemma, they’ve done something more honest and created a portrait of self destruction on the smallest, most intimate scale possible.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Thief”

Radiohead: "Something happened." (via)

Radiohead: “Something happened.” 

This is the tenth in a series of posts that look at individual tracks on Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.

We are on the home stretch of our review of A Moon Shaped Pool as we consider “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Thief,” hereafter “Tinker Tailor.” The electric piano intro and drum machine playing a slow dirge tip us off from the opening: we are back in the land of low flying panic attacks, as Yorke’s narrator imagines creatures leaving their holes looking for prey. We are also back in the land of unhappy nature, which goes in this song from indifferent to actively hostile.

As the track builds, with strings, acoustic piano, guitar and live drums adding to the arrangement, so does the sense of foreboding doom. But why? The narrator is not concerned about traditional animals; they “stay up in the trees” and “swim down too deep and lonely” to  avoid what’s coming. Instead, he begs his lover, “come to me before it’s too late.” And he warns “the one you light your fires to keep away / is crawling out…”

At this point, the confrontation between the narrator and his fear is complete and he acknowledges it for what it is: it’s not hostile nature, it’s the narrator himself, or something inside him. But he has the power to end the confrontation: “all you have to do is say / yeah.” The track works, in the context of the rest of the album, as a powerful bit of Jung, a breakthrough of the walls the narrator has built to avoid confronting himself. But now he must if he is to be able to act on the insights he achieved in “Desert Island Disk,” “Present Tense,” and “The Numbers.” He has succeeded in opening himself; now he has to confront the behaviors that lurk inside and seek to destroy him.

“Present Tense”

This is the ninth in a series of posts that look at individual tracks on Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.

Present Tense” keeps the dread and guilt of much of the rest of the album at a distance, with effort. Opening with a description of the narrator’s coping mechanism (“Distance / Distance / It’s like a weapon / Like a weapon / Of self defense / Self defense / Against the present / Against the present / Present tense”), the lyric gradually unfolds until we see what’s really at stake.

Yorke’s narrator seeks to keep the consequences of his past actions, the “world crashing down,” from stopping him from living and moving on. He recognizes that if he allows himself to be caught up and trapped in the negative emotions of his collapsing relationship he will not be able to move on. And so, he dances, “keeping it light.”

It’s a balancing act, one moved along by the bossa nova beat and percussion. This is the moment on the album that’s most honest, in which the narrator breaks the fourth wall and acknowledges, Yes, I know I’ve destroyed my world, but I can’t continue to dwell on that or I’ll destroy myself and any chance of future happiness.

“Present Tense” has been played for years, debuting in 2009 (above) as a Thom Yorke solo song. In the context of the rest of A Moon Shaped Pool, it’s devastating.

“The Numbers”

This is the eighth in a series of posts that look at individual tracks on Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.

The critical consensus seems to be that “The Numbers,” originally titled “Silent Spring,” is Thom Yorke’s protest song against climate change. It might be that, but it’s also a love song—just as A Moon Shaped Pool is an album about relationships gone bad and about natural collapse.

Bear with me on this for a second.

Yes, “We are of the earth / To her we do return / The future is inside us /It’s not somewhere else” and “We call upon the people / People have this power / The numbers don’t decide / Your system is a lie” are fairly bald statements of ecological protest. But compare the first verse to “Glass Eyes” and the narrator’s journey from the alienating train station only to find more alienation in nature. There’s been a transformation somewhere between then and now: “It holds us like a phantom / The touch is like a breeze / It shines its understanding / See the moon smiling.”

What is “it”? The earth? No, its touch is not like a breeze; if you’re being touched by the earth, you’re asleep on it or someone has thrown mud at you. Yorke’s narrator has found something else that reminds him of the embrace of nature, something that has broken through his isolation and despair and left him “open on all channels, ready to receive.” Why not love? What else could do this but the epiphany that “the future is inside us / it’s not somewhere else.”

“The Numbers” is the sound of the narrator breaking out of his isolated alienation and opening himself to the world; ceasing to let himself be defined and victimized by what has happened to him; taking responsibility for his actions and his happiness, “tak(ing) back what is ours,” and recognizing that he can only make progress one day at a time.

The music supports the dual nature of the song. The piano opening strongly references McCoy Tyner’s “Message from the Nile,” with the intersection of piano and struck chords (there, Alice Coltrane’s harp, here heavily treated guitar (I think)); it’s even in the same key. Both situate the listener in nature, explicitly exploring something new to bring epiphanies. Yorke’s choice of English folk-influenced guitar for the main instrument returns us again to “Desert Island Disk” and his previous epiphany about being open and totally alive. The astonishing Colin Greenwood bassline that begins its descent with “Open on all channels” reinforces the revelation and outward turning of the narrator. The string orchestra that threatens to swamp “people have the power” underpins the power of the proletariat but also the revelation that we are not personally powerless in any sphere of life. But the most significant musical moment is the brief choral interlude that supports Yorke’s final “One day at a time.” That’s not a revolutionary statement, but a statement of personal determination.

Is it possible to read the whole album in this dual light, both as a meditation on love and on ecology? Well, “Burn the Witch” is usually read as a criticism of dangerous groupthink; “Daydreaming”‘s video finds the narrator retreating to a deserted cave to escape the anomie of modern life (and his failed relationship); “Decks Dark” imagines guilt and retribution for some awful crime, perhaps personal but perhaps ecological (“have you had enough of me, my darling?” could be apostrophe to the earth); “Desert Island Disk” is that explicit natural epiphany moment; “Ful Stop” contemplates the “foul tasting medicine” visited on those who “really messed me up” and could be viewed as Earth’s reply; “Glass Eyes” is the refusal of Earth to grant comfort to the panic stricken narrator; “Identikit” contemplates the “wreck of mankind” left as the “broken hearts make it rain,” perhaps raising the sea levels?

Okay, it’s a stretch, but I don’t think too much of one to point out that there’s a profound linkage here between the state of Yorke’s narrator’s relationship with people and with the Earth. It’ll be interesting to try to trace it through the rest of the album.

“Identikit”

This is the seventh in a series of posts that look at individual tracks on Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.

“Identikit,” as its name suggests, is a mosaic built of fragments. The lyrics are snatches of thought that cut each other off and overlap with each other. The musical underpinnings—drums, bass, backing vocals by Ed O’Brien sung from the bottom of an echo chamber—live in staccato until the bridge sweeps us from F# minor into B major, a trick we’ve heard before, on “Decks Dark,” when the bass line starts to sustain and build.

(Music theory aside: I find it interesting how Radiohead pivots from minor to major at the same time they make a key change, going not for the relative minor, here A major, but jumping up a whole tone before they drop back down. It’s a neat trick. I also find it interesting how the opening of the song has been taken up a half step since its 2012 introduction—here shown on their “Austin City Limits” appearance.)

And then Yorke’s voice sharpens on the chorus line, “Broken hearts make it rain,” and suddenly as the bass line descends he’s surrounded by the women’s voices of the chorus of the London Contemporary Orchestra (Ah, to have that gig!), who take us back into F# singing the refrain. But the sustained lyrical heights of “broken hearts…” don’t last and the main tune returns, and is slowly deconstructed until a spiky Jonny Greenwood guitar solo takes us out.

It’s a neat piece of work and I find myself simultaneously enthralled and put off by it. Enthralled because the heights it reaches in the chorus are so high. Put off, a little, because it’s just a little too in control. The song, to borrow Elvis Costello’s lyric, fits its identikit a little too completely. I’d love for that moment of transcendence in the chorus to last a while longer, or to lift us to a new place.

Gigapixel

Detail of Red Cannas by Georgia O'Keefe

Detail of Red Cannas by Georgia O’Keefe, Google Cultural Institute

Slashdot: Google unveils “gigapixel” camera to preserve and archive art. While certainly no replacement for museum visits, this project, which uses a robot to take hundreds of high resolution close-up images, then stitch them together into a single zoomable image, yields spectacular results.

This is what Google does best: bring the physical into the digital in new and innovative ways that make information accessible for everyone. I wish they’d stick to their knitting a little more. We could use more gigapixel art photos, digitized books and better search results, and less of some of the distractions we’ve seen from them over the past few years.

“Glass Eyes”

This is the sixth in a series of posts that look at individual tracks on Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.

With “Glass Eyes” we are back in the sound world of “Daydreaming,” a ballad anchored by a piano heard through distortion and swimming in strings. At this point in their career, the band are too good to let it just be “strings,” though, and the performance of the string quartet isn’t just accompaniment. It underscores the dull ache at the core of the narrator, as it swells under “panic is coming on strong” and “I don’t know where it leads, I don’t really care”; climaxes before the bridge, and then turns somber for a moment as the narrator confesses “I feel this love turn cold.”

The narrator starts in an unusually direct voice, as though on a phone call, telling someone “I just got off the train” before almost immediately shifting perspective: “a frightening place / their faces are concrete grey.” In the four opening lines, Yorke’s narrator evokes both Adele and Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” though immediately freezes the warmth out of Pound’s famous “petals on a wet, black bough.” These faces are cold and stone, and they reflect the narrator’s panic back at him.

The narrator shifts in space, now going on a path down a mountain, but finds no more surcease in the dry, dead vegetation than in the train station. Ultimately he has to confess the source of his pain: “I feel this love turn cold.” The strings get the last word, as the solo cello line is underpinned by double bass.

“Glass Eyes” is the shortest song on the album and the most emotionally fraught, as Yorke’s narrator allows himself to be confronted by the full weight of the dissolution of his love.

“Ful Stop”

This is the fifth in a series of posts that look at individual tracks on Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.

With “Ful Stop,” the brief respite that was “Desert Island Disk” is gone, replaced with a menacing swarm of guilt, counter-charge and (self-)recrimination. “You really messed up everything,” sings Yorke. “Why should I be good if you’re not?”

It’s not clear from the lyric whether Yorke’s narrator is blaming himself or his erstwhile mate for the state of things, but the music makes the weight of the emotional charge clear. Opening with a muffled drum beat sounding like a heart with arrhythmia and a bassline like an incoming jet, the song carries along at high velocity in 6/8. “Ful Stop” is the nearest thing to the oddly danceable tracks on Radiohead’s nearest album, King of Limbs—that’s a performance from that 2012 tour above where the song debuted. But you’d have to be seriously damaged to dance to this, and maybe not in a good way.

The other thing that’s interesting to me is the arc of the arrangement. Opening with purely bass and (presumably synthesized, or at least heavily treated) drums, by the time Yorke declaims that he’s “to be trapped in your ful stop” the whole band is in, Selway again having seamlessly replaced the treated drums and twin guitar lines dueling behind the repeated “truth will mess you up.” Then the guitars drop out behind Yorke’s plea to “take me back again,” replaced by strings and chorus but still powered by the driving drums and bass, before the “polite” guitar line resurfaces.

The whole thing sounds like an anxiety attack. Despite its more conventional arrangement, this is one of the more difficult songs on the album—not quite “foul tasting medicine” but not pulling any punches either.

“Desert Island Disk”

This is the fourth in a series of posts that look at individual tracks on Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.

“Desert Island Disk” snaps the mood of the first three songs on A Moon Shaped Pool, and brings us to an entirely different place. It is of the few songs on the album to make an appearance in substantially final form prior to the album’s release: Yorke premiered it live and solo, along with “The Numbers” and “Present Tense,” at Pathway to Paris last December, as shown in the clip above.

The full band arrangement is still primarily centered around Yorke’s English folk solo guitar and gentle vocal melody. There’s some bass reinforcement, synth and a very subtle guitar line, but they’re very much in the background—the drums don’t even arrive until the bridge, a full 2:18 into the song. The overall effect, oddly enough for a Radiohead song, is pastoral, centered on the narrator’s epiphany as he wakes from “a thousand years of sleep”: “the wind rushing round my open heart / an open ravine / in my spirit white / totally alive / in my spirit light… Standing on the edge of you / you know what I mean / Different types of love / are possible.”

It’s about the most un-Radiohead sentiment possible, seemingly free of the guilt and dread that saturate the first three tracks. But one has to ask: is the narrator really “totally alive/totally released”? With that heart as an open ravine? We’ll see. Still, standing on its own, “Desert Island Disk” stands as one of the most unguarded, hopeful moments in the band’s whole discography.

“Decks Dark”

This is the third in a series of posts that look at individual tracks on Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.

It’s the third track on the album, following two barnburners that raise the awesome spectre of guilt and culpability. You’d be forgiven for listening past “Decks Dark” as, likely, filler. It’s certainly more restrained: it opens with a synthesized drum beat and treated piano chords after the lush orchestration of “Daydreaming,” and the vocal melody covers a range of perhaps a minor third for much of the song. But there’s a lot going on here.

First, indulge me while I talk about the drums. Phil Selway has to be the most unsplashy drummer in the history of … well, whatever camp of music you put Radiohead into. In very few other bands would the drummer seek to fit his sonic palette strictly into that laid down by a drum machine at the beginning of the track so that you can hardly tell where he starts. But one should never mistake control for lack of virtuosity—just remember the jaw-dropping skill demonstrated on “Weird Fishes”—and it’s Selway’s restraint and subtlety that give the song a platform from which all else builds, including his treated (synth?) cymbal splashes (or are they guitar slashes?) in the ultimate chorus.

The arrival of the chorus over piano, drums, polite guitar and bass in the verse (I’ll adopt the chorus/verse/chorus designation proposed by the fine folks at Genius.com) signals a building of tension, as does the key change from D major to A minor, arriving almost imperceptibly thanks to Yorke’s deceptive vocal melody, which walks a tightrope around the fifth in the original key for almost the entire verse.

And then there’s the lyrics. In addition to the “elephant in the room,” we must add this song’s “spacecraft blocking out the sun”: so enormous that it blocks out the sun, so loud that you can’t block it out with your hands over your ears, so omnipresent that you can’t escape it no matter how far you run. “But it was just a laugh,” says the narrator, and we are anchored back in the lyrical context of the album. It might have just been a laugh for the narrator, but it certainly wasn’t for the person he’s addressing. And he ultimately has to acknowledge the spacecraft, as though realizing the lie in the “just a laugh”: “Have you had enough of me / sweet darling?” he sings, as electric guitar makes its first appearance and the song settles firmly in A minor, the cracks of the guitar slashes (or are they cymbals?) hammering home the point.

And now, improbably, we’ve arrived at an almost funky outro. A lesser band would have made the jam at the end an entire song, one I’d be very happy to hear. Instead, Radiohead takes us on a journey in which the narrator shows us the tightrope suddenly falling away, the moment at which self deception falters and he sees the impossibility of the situation. “And so we crumble,” indeed.

“Daydreaming”

amoonshapedpool

This is the second in a series of posts that look at individual tracks on Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.

“Daydreaming” was released two days before A Moon Shaped Pool dropped, and so I’ve had a little time to think about it. But it eludes easy analysis. Easily the most gorgeous track on the album, it’s lyrically the most bleak, and the tension rises up five minutes into the song and tears it apart.

And yet it starts more conventionally…almost. The piano sonata that emerges at twenty-three seconds from a thicket of chimes and manipulated sounds (not unlike those that begin “Bloom,” the first track on The King of Limbs) would not have been out of place as a musical interlude opening “Pyramid Song,” “Nude,” or any other slow keyboard driven ballad that Radiohead has delivered since Kid A (to say nothing of Thom Yorke’s “Guess Again!” on last year’s hit-and-miss Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes). Yorke’s descending vocal line is cousin to “Nude” or “Codex.”

But there are important differences. Where Yorke once angrily railed against those who were “such a dreamer / to put the rights,” this lyric is more resigned: “Dreamers / they never learn / they never learn / Beyond the point / of no return.” There is no return from this dreaming.

You can (again) anchor this song in the dissolution of Yorke’s 23-year-old relationship with artist Rachel Owen: there’s few more naked statements of guilt in the band’s work than “It’s too late / the damage is done.” But Yorke points out “this goes / beyond me / beyond you.” The dreaming he is lost in is existential.The tape slip at the beginning of “Daydreaming” reminds us that we’re listening to an artifact—a recording that has been manipulated. We can be aware that existence is a dream but cannot look beyond it. There’s a fair amount of Plato’s “The Cave” peeking into “the white room / by a window / where the sun comes / through,” but never has that metaphor for life been so colored with despair and regret.

The threads of the song are married as the instrumentation (piano now joined by strings, played with the attack of the phrase at the very end of the line to sound backtracked) falls away behind slowed backward vocals (in the left stereo channel, accompanied by a bowed double bass line in the right). The line, reversed, could be saying “Half of my life,” a regretful farewell to his relationship. Or it could simply be the sounds of slumber as the daydreamer huddles behind the fire in the cave, the closing image in the Paul Thomas Anderson video for the song.

It would be enough to leave the dreamer here. But there’s that album cover. What could be an aerial landscape also resembles the sunburst of light coming through a melting 35mm filmstrip, suggesting that the artifice that gives the dreamer respite is about to be ripped away. Whatever peace he’s found, it suggests, is short-lived.

“Burn the Witch”

I can’t write about A Moon Shaped Pool in its entirety. It contains multitudes. So I’m going to try going one track at a time.

Having said that, let me open with a statement about the album as a whole: most of it is as introverted, by turns warm and claustrophobic, an album as has ever been recorded. But “Burn the Witch,” the opening, is a different animal, something that feels more like the overtly political Hail to the Thief than the darkly personal In Rainbows. We’re encouraged by the cheerily ominous strings and the bass line to simultaneously embrace and cower in fear from the witch hunt underway. “Abandon all reason / avoid all contact / do not react / shoot the messengers,” Yorke sings. The high strings gradually become more and more unhinged in the second chorus, dropping out for a bit, then coming back in to escalate into complete mayhem.

It’s hard not to interpret the song as referring to the current state of democratic political discourse. But I’m going to suggest that there’s more to it. On a much more personal level, this is the sound of someone’s life coming apart. “This is a low flying panic attack” is not a political response but a personal one. This isn’t “a roundup”; the singer is getting rounded up. The “loose talk around tables” is a personal attack.

I can’t help but think of the context of Yorke’s marriage dissolving, of his singing “I just wanna be your lover…forget about your house of cards, and I’ll do mine” nine years ago, only to follow with “your ears should be burning” regarding the gossip following infidelity. “Denial, denial” indeed. “Burn the Witch” is the sound of old hurts coming home to roost.

And yes, it’s also about unfair demonization of immigrants. Funny how art works that way.

Daydreaming

If you need me, I’ll be curled up with this album for a while.

Friday Random 5: coming out of the rain

It’s been a rainy week back in Massachusetts, and that’s contributing to a small sense of writer’s block for me this morning. So it is that I double-dip and write about music again today.

China Girl (David Bowie, Nothing Has Changed): to say that this song skirts the edge of offense today is probably an understatement, between the title and frequent invocation of “my little China girl” and the stereotypical “oriental” melody in the opening guitars, it’s kind of astonishing that it escapes the valley of offense. But it’s one of Bowie’s more interesting 1980s melodies, though the backing track, especially the bassline, is solidly 80s, and his unhinged second verse opening “I stumble into town/just like a sacred cow” is kind of brilliant.

Come the Meantimes (Elvis Costello, Wise Up Ghost): If EC is really leaving the world of albums behind, as he hints in his brilliant autobiography, he could have done worse with a parting shot than this album. The Roots seem like a counterintuitive backing band for Elvis, but then so did the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on Spike. The backing rap “you can’t beg” on the chorus makes this song feel a little like his early angry young man songs like “Goon Squad,” but the beat is a lot funkier.

This Ole House (Live) (The Statler Brothers on Johnny Cash, Live at Folsom Prison Legacy Edition): What a bass part!

Walk Alone (The Roots, How I Got Over): More Roots, but this is in their own wheelhouse. Lots of different directions in this track, unified by a great chorus sample.

Tempest (Bob Dylan, Tempest): A fourteen minute evocation of the sinking of the Titanic with fiddle band accompaniment? Sure, why not.

 

The Whole Product

One of the key concepts that’s stuck with me after reading Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey Moore’s pivotal book about marketing high-tech products in a world in which buyers react differently to innovation, is the concept of the whole product. It’s one that a lot of product companies, especially those that focus closely on the technology side of product development, don’t get, very much to their detriment.

“Whole product” simply means that which is required to address 100% of a customer’s need. Counterintuitively, it’s almost never met simply by a technology product (the “generic product”), but typically requires partner products, services and other pieces to fill in the gap. Moore cites the example of a web browser as an example of a generic product, and the web browser plus plugins, HTML5 applications, an internet service provider, a search engine, and an easy way to buy goods online as the whole product.

How do otherwise smart product companies fall into the trap of ignoring the whole product? Sometimes it’s just a question of not thinking hard enough about what the customer needs. A customer usually doesn’t need a new Android phone with a high megapixel camera; they need to take better pictures of their kids. So instead of competing solely on megapixel count and similar tech specs, whole product companies will invest in technologies to give the customers a better fit to their ultimate goal, such as image stabilization, easier ways to transfer the photos off the phone, system-wide easy access to photos so they can be shared, the ability to create books and calendars of the photos, and so forth.

But it’s so easy to fall into the “speeds and feeds” trap and not understand where the customer’s full needs are. It’s also easy to misjudge the needs of the customer and misunderstand that something that seems like “just another feature” is actually part of the whole product. Thus, the art of product management and product marketing.