Listen to this track by primo rock deconstructionist quintet from Oxford, Radiohead. It’s their 2001 single “Pyramid Song” as taken from their second release of that decade Amnesiac, a record that served as a sister album to 2000’s Kid A.
The song and the album off of which it comes had tremendous impact even after the previous tremendous impact of Kid A. That album certainly subverted expectations, much to the delight/revulsion of many at the time. Shedding guitar-driven tunes as established on Brit-pop era The Bends and on the neo-prog watershed OK Computer, and instead embracing laptop technology and treated sounds was the stylistic shift that stole the headlines at the time.
Even still, during this period in the life of the band, that shift was too simple to be the whole picture. And “Pyramid Song” helps to fill in the gaps, with those computer-generated textures being tempered with sumptuous and hypnotic strings, disorienting time-shifted piano lines, wordless vocal backing (a sign of the song’s origins, inspired by Charles Mingus’ “Freedom”) and with Phil Selway’s fantastic jazz drumming.
But besides a number of musical ingredients out of which they were fashioning the sound of their newest single using the latest technology, the band was also exploring some very old, and eternally pertinent themes while they were doing so.
Those themes would be underscored by how this track actually sounds. The darkness of tone is the first thing that I notice about “Pyramid Song”. It carries an ominous, unfathomable sense of dread, abetted by a sort of langourous wash of sound in the background, with the heavy piano chords way out front, played in a broken and unpredictable rhythm. The strings (courtesy of The Orchestra of St. Johns) drifting into the mix add another level of otherworldly uneasiness. Thom Yorke’s high, choirboy voice is nothing short of spectral, which sets the thematic stage even more so.
Jumping in the river and swimming with black-eyed angels is as good a description of death and the afterlife as any other, a reflection of Thom Yorke’s inspiration of an Egyptian underworld art exhibition he’d seen, specifically of a depiction of an aquatic journey into the afterlife. And yet, it also evokes images of being in the womb, surrounded by water, an interpretation that perhaps underscores Yorke’s attempt to communicate the Stephen Hawking concept of cyclical time, and that human beings ideas of death, and birth, are connected in ways that bring pasts and futures into a common space.
A further subversion of expectations is of course that a layer of this song to be appreciated is the very optimistic and comforting nature of the song, lyrically speaking. Despite the dread hinted at by what’s happening around the lyrics, this song talks about connectedness, about being with loved ones, and experiencing eternity together, seeing it for what it is, even with a little tongue in cheek “we all went to heaven in a little rowboat”. Yet, perhaps this is yet another layer, with all of that being a comment on the wish-fulfillment nature of religion, with the fearful musical backdrop arguing the point against the “nothing to fear, nothing to doubt” lyrical insistence.
That’s really the great thing about this song. It just doesn’t stand still for inspection. What you’re left with is a number of forks in the road instead. Is it a comforting song, or a morbid one? Does it adhere to a belief in continued existence after death, or does it send the idea up instead?
Like the nature of life and death itself, the answer just isn’t conclusive.
Radiohead are a going concern today, of course. Check out Radiohead.com for all kinds of online goodness from a band who understands the Internet.