“In Rainbows: Thom Yorke’s ‘Sea Change’”

by Sam Buntz

“He grows disenchanted with the intellect, disenchanted with ideas, disenchanted with consciousness…  And whatever arises, dependent on the intellect, experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain – he grows disenchanted with all of this.  Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate.  Through dispassion, he is fully released.”  -Buddha, “The Fire Sermon”

“I’ll hit the bottom… / Hit the bottom and escape… / Escape.”  -Radiohead, “Weird Fishes”

In Rainbows is a journey from disenchantment through enchantment, back through disenchantment, and into a zone where the two mingle.  Its hopes and despairs are so deftly intertwined that it may prove almost impossible to disentangle them.  Not a music critic, but Brad Pitt made what I think is actually one of the most perceptive comments on Thom Yorke’s lyrics by comparing them to Samuel Beckett’s work.  Like Beckett, Yorke has a true taste for the negative – for the vision that leads us to realities by subtraction.  Yet in In Rainbows we can sense the negative vision giving way to strange and unexpected affirmations—Yorke credits this hopefulness with his immersion in environmentalism and ecology, but I sense a strong Buddhist strain in the lyrics, as well — Yorke has said that he “shamelessly dabbled” in Buddhism and is an avowed fan of Sogyal Rinpoche’s “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.”  Before this album, no one would’ve thought that the words “I get eaten by the worms” could occur in a song that actually has a quite hopeful message.  That song is “Weird Fishes,” in which York begins by addressing a woman, who appears, in the classic mode, to be some sort of muse-lover, leading the song-writer up to a higher vision, Beatrice-style, pulling him out of the mundane world:  “I’d be crazy not to follow / Follow where you lead… Your eyes / They turn me.”  Yorke refrains from saying “Turn me on,” like some eighties hair-metal dipshit – he deftly modifies the expression.  In the song, as it is actually sung, this all plays hauntingly, achingly, longingly…

But what does this woman turn him on to?  The “on” is permitted to enter into the refrain, but strangely: she “turns me on to phantoms / I follow to the end of the earth… / And fall off.”  Yet, he gets picked over by the worms and the weird fishes at the bottom of the sea, where his fall terminates.  End of story?  Deluded by a woman again?  By no means—this physical death is but prelude to transfiguration. What is of literary interest here is that Yorke is using the classic image of the “sea change,” which finds its famous definition in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Full fathom five thy father lies / Of his bones are coral made; / Those are pearls that were his eyes: / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange. / Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell.”   He hits the bottom and escapes – or tries to…  In the context of Yorke’s newfound quasi-religious environmental enthusiasm and also the experience of fatherhood, this seems like a poem of resurrection, couched within the characteristically dark imagery of a Radhiohead track.  In a sense, it merely recapitulates the beats of the hero’s journey from life to death-in-life and back to life – the new life to which his muse has led him.  Like Beckett, Yorke’s way is to go down and out—not to reach the truth by scooping foam from the crests of the waves, but by diving down to the bones littering the ocean floor.  “The bottom of the sea is cruel,” as Hart Crane reminds us – yet, in Shakespeare as here, it is also the setting for a wonderful and unexpected transfiguration.  In “Faust ARP,” the same “sea change” is referenced with a new metaphor: “Watch me fall like dominoes / In pretty patterns.”  Yorke’s death/collapse is connected and even co-incident with an artistic re-birth, with the creation of aesthetically pleasing forms.

One of the things that makes Yorke a great lyricist is that he is beset by anxieties that most post-modern people have abandoned.  He feels guilty about sex – and is also beset by Cartesian anxieties: “I’m trapped in this body and can’t get out.” This is a timeless emotion, uniquely felt in our era, since no one seems to express this rather natural thought/feeling in the perhaps too-physically-comfortable West.   These painful and almost anachronistic emotions—which would be more at home in, say, the Christian monastic communities of the Fifth Century Egyptian desert—make for good art.  In the mode of Eliot’s The Wasteland, Yorke laments botched sexuality and material existence with negative gusto.   I would single out “House of Cards,” “Jigsaw Falling into Place,” and “Nude” as particularly good places for locating these themes.  In “Nude” we see the muse turned inside out – here, she is still Yorke’s “interior paramour” but not as one of the three Graces.  She is the representation of his own ignorance and confusion: “You paint yourself white / And fill up with noise / But there’ll be / Something missing…”  This condemnation of desperate club-life horniness and its weakly felt life-eagerness as a repetitive and destructive cycle is echoed in the refrain of “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”: “The beat goes round and round / The beat goes round and round.”  Yorke offers a strong Theravada Buddhist-style condemnation of his generation, which is “dead from the neck up,” alive only in the muscles and glands: “Now that you’ve found it, it’s gone. /  Now that you feel it, you don’t. / You’ve gone off the rails.”

But Yorke finds solace in the possibility of creative transformation.  The title of the album In Rainbows may signify this – one finds the full spectrum of color in a drizzling mist.  As Mephistopheles reaches up to drag him down to hell, Yorke takes solace in the fact that he’s recorded his complete artistic vision on his “Videotape,” which helps save him – ““You are my center, when I spin away / On videotape, on videotape…”  The videotape is, I think, just a synecdoche for art, for the process of getting it all down.  Rather surprisingly, after all these swings from liberating sea-changes to the pit, Yorke signs off by asserting (with maybe a little irony) that this has been “The most perfect day I’ve ever seen.”  What he’s recorded, what’s he’s put on tape—like Beckett in “Krapp’s Last Tape”—provides a saving guard against the hell of ignorance, particularly ignorance of one’s self.

In Rainbows is obviously a great album—I avoided talking about the actual music, in order to focus on the significant literary value of the lyrics.  But it’s interesting that so many people like this music or find something personally resonant in it, when externally our age seems to espouse attitudes that run directly counter to it.  Our post-modern world is supposedly healthy about sex, is fun-loving, party-going – look at all the pictures of nice double-layer cakes your friends just baked and posted on Facebook!  But Yorke rejects all these consolations, like St. Augustine or a Hinayana Buddhist: “You can’t take it with you / Disavow the pleasure.”

So it’s strange that people found this album so appealing – as a freshman, I remember “Reckoner” (the source of the lyrics just quoted) playing in my dorm all the time, keening its counter-song against everything else that was going on.  Yorke expresses a thwarted spiritual longing, a desire to break free from his body, but also from the mesh of grossly constricting circumstances, in general.  In “All I Need”, Yorke—likely unconsciously—echoes Alfred Lord Tennyson.  As in “Weird Fishes,” this song also cries out to a woman/God-like presence for renewal: “ I’m just a moth/ Who wants to share your light / I’m just an insect / Trying to get out of the night.” This bears a certain relationship to the Laureate’s “So runs my dream, but what am I? / An infant crying in the night / An infant crying for the light / And with no language but a cry.”  Yet Yorke adds the very Yorkean line “I’m an animal / Trapped in your hot car.”  The metaphor is disturbing and clear-cut—more effective than the rather traditional and clichéd moth-circling-light metaphor (which I like nevertheless.)  Maybe the contemporary collegiate affection for this album, has something to do with the “return of the repressed” –  or perhaps the mingled spiritual despair and hope characterizing these lyrics strikes something in the inner selves of people who aren’t quite sure what those inner selves are feeling or dictating.  The fact that in an age so consciously non-ascetic, so many college students took to music filled with ascetic anxieties, indicates something important about our capacity for knowing ourselves.  To paraphrase “Reckoner,” In Rainbows spreads strange ripples in our reflections.


One thought on ““In Rainbows: Thom Yorke’s ‘Sea Change’”

  1. This is a fine post, Sam. I remember listening to this album a lot freshman year, sometimes twice a day. Kids down the hall were often playing it, too. I thought I was only in it for the music, but I have a new appreciation for the lyrics now. It doesn’t quite fit, but I couldn’t help but think of Orpheus when you were analyzing the “I’d be crazy not to follow…they turn me” from Weird Fishes. I’ll have to give In Rainbows another listen soon.

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