“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.

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