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.