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.