Radiohead: Sail to the Moon
The news on global warming and harlequin frogs sent me back to this song, always my sentimental favorite off Hail to the Thief. Thom Yorke’s printed lyrics are generally very brief, and oblique in the usual fashion of modern rock; at its least effective the technique simply shunts the job of conveying emotional charge over to the music, but this song shows it at its best. Here’s the first half:
I sucked the moon
I spoke too soon
And how much did it cost?
I traveled on moonbeams
And sailed on shooting stars
The harmony, carried on block piano chords with understated help from the guitars, rests for a time on an A major seventh chord before making a pedal-point shift to C and E minor, then a two-step cadence through F major seventh back to A major seventh. This harmonic movement coincides with the vocal’s melodic climax, which in the first verse picks out the words “how much did it cost?”a disturbing suggestion of debt in what is otherwise a standard pop-song starscape. In the second half we find out why.
Maybe you’ll be president
But know right from wrong
Or in the flood you’ll build an ark
And sail us to the moon
Those star-struck enough to follow Yorke’s personal life will recognize the addressee of these lines as his infant son. In this verse the lyric over the climactic chords, emphasized by a prominent guitar arpeggiation, is “but know right from wrong”about the saddest five words I’ve ever heard committed to disc. They leap right past the grandstanding and anger with which most rock bands have responded to recent politics, instead conveying a terrible resignationthis is the present as seen from the future, as completed historytinged with a faint hope that, because so personal and bound to family, escapes the bombast that cripples most earnest rock songs about the future. The last lines carry forward this emotional mixture and link it back to the first verse; we are sailingwe might sailto the moon because we have lost the earth.
This is affecting rather than grandiose because the hope remains a private hope, and the obliquity of the lyrics is crucial to this effect. The lines are not glossed because they have no audience other than the infant boy. Of course Yorke knows that he is a celebrity and that his biography is available context, but the song is innocent of this knowledge. It implicitly indicts the people whose policies are set to lose us our world, but it does not address them, because they cannot be addressed. One might as well accuse the flood itself.
it doesn't look very good.