Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Song of the Day #246 - Thom Yorke - Atoms For Peace

So feel the love come off of them and take me in your arms...


This I think is the most underrated track of Thom Yorke's generally underrated album The Eraser. I felt personally validated when he named his band after this song; it felt like an acknowledgement of a specialness that I had previously suspected. It's coming off the jazzy intense "Black Swan", and the scattered and dark "Skip Divided", and leading into the closing run of the final three songs, showing a moment of simplicity and peace that feels like the heart of the album. Something about that warm, round synth line, that simple fuzzy breakbeat, it seems so organic, like it developed very naturally from a tiny idea. It is Boards of Canada-esque in that way, but then Thom's vocals fly gloriously in ways that only they can. I love the way it climbs in register so quickly... the first stanza is about the middle of his range, then "I want you to get out" warps it all the way up to a soaring falsetto... it's like, the purest essence of what he alone is capable of.

Like uhh most Radiohead songs, I think it's about depression, about the sort of transcendental feeling of sadness that runs orthogonal to all causality or consistency. The imagery of "wormholes", "leaky brains", and artichoke-esque layers lend something to the raw physicality that sometimes accompanies these sorts of bad feelings... it's that low level, and inescapable, and unbearable. But then song is actually fairly optimistic? It feels like Thom reassuring himself: despite all of this stuff, which he acknowledges the awfulness of, he's gonna try to make something great. And he succeeds - the final line, "I'll be ok", is a more direct and simple message of hope than almost any other Radiohead song. But where does this come from?

Since the song doesn't make any mention of the titular atoms, we can think of the entire song carrying this message? There's a few different ways to think about it. The first one, which is the most intended one, is the reference to the famed rhetoric regarding the peacekeeping power of mutually assured destruction etc. Is Yorke critiquing this ideology? Embracing it? How does it relate to the message of the song? Is it something like... he is aware of the powerful self-destructive forces within himself, but his anxiety around creation keeps them in check, leading to a sort of mental stalemate from which some productivity can emerge? Or maybe there's actually no connection, and he just really likes the phrase (this is something he's noted to do, obsess over phrases that he attributes no specific meaning to... "In Rainbows" being another example), and thus used it on this special track, and eventually named his band after it? I honestly have no idea.

Alternatively, if we move past the allegorical meaning and think about the phrase more literally, it becomes very interesting in the context of depression-type contexts. There's two sort of perspectives you can take: either Thom is one of the titular atoms (this reading reinforced by his later band naming), or he's writing about the existence of some literal atoms. Both seem at first despairing: either these people, vying for peace, are as small and insignificant as atoms; or, despite things being made of fundamental particles that wish for peace, they still exert war and unhappiness. But in both of these readings there is hope. Even if these people are as insignificant as atoms, it takes very few atoms to begin a fusion reaction of unimaginable power (a peaceful power, though, we somehow assume). And despite it feeling like your very organs are rebelling against the very idea of happiness or productivity, it may be comforting to imagine that the very atoms that made them are trying their best to help you overcome. It's a nice feeling, it's a nice song. A very fun song to sing along with, even if you know your voice is some awful butchered version of the original hahhaa.

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