With the inclusion of ‘Pyramid Song’, I’ve written about Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac three times on this site in the last two years but I have zero qualms about doing so because I honestly believe they are some of the best records of the 2000s. This was a fact further reinforced when I ticked one of my lifelong bucket list boxes earlier this week as I saw the band in the flesh for the first time in my life (you can read about that here.) Nestled in the middle of the first encore, ‘Pyramid Song’, which brought humanity back to perhaps the most electronic and disturbing electronic efforts of the Oxford quintet, was a revelation all over again. Perhaps it was seeing Thom Yorke sit down at a real grand piano or maybe it was something entirely different, but this song made my night and pretty much sealed the deal as far as the show was concerned in my opinion. Though both the other tunes we’ve talked about – ‘Everything In Its Right Place‘ and ‘Idioteque‘ – would close out the 2+ hour performance, I’m still stuck on this one. So now I’m going to try and find out why.
For a piano ballad (matched on Amnesiac by ‘You and Whose Army?’), ‘Pyramid Song’ really is as unconventional as they come. Finding the locus of the beat is frustratingly difficult, as the piece seems to sway from 3/4 to 4/4 and 5/4 before turning back again, using additive rhythm and the insistent push of the chords to oscillate freely. Even when the drums snap the pulse into place, it’s still pretty much impossible to count your way in or out of it, unless it’s some sort of ridiculous 16/8 situation subdivided into 3s and 4s, which frankly wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. This idea of not knowing something as simple as a time signature is apt, I feel, given the murky, dark romance of the harmonic and lyrical material. Fantastical and otherworldly, ‘Pyramid Song’ houses some of Yorke’s best poetry outside of ‘Paranoid Android’, aching under the weight of black angels swimming underwater, moons full of stars and lovers, past and future, present in the river. With only two stanzas and some exceptionally well-placed chords, Yorke manages to paint an entire planet for the listener, who, thanks to the loping stop-start of the piano, has no idea where one section ends and the other begins. Though it’s got skeleton instrumentation, ‘Pyramid Song’ is really a trial-by-immersion, complex and bottomless in a way that few other Radiohead songs ultimately manage to be.
‘Pyramid Song’ remains so engaging for Radiohead, er, heads, like myself because it’s this weird intersection of the styles that the band were trying on in the early noughties that actually works. You’ve got the jazz stylings (most noticeable in the triplet fills and ride cymbal swing of Phil Selway’s entry) of ‘Life In A Glass House’, the deep blackness of ‘Kid A’ and the avant-garde, violin-being-slowly-asphyxiated groans of Greenwood’s Ondes Martenot (that’s an early electronic instrument, thanks to Green Plastic Trees for the tip) that also characterises ‘How To Disappear Completely’. None of those have the same impact as this, which manages to synthesise countervailing genre ideas without any of them disturbing an uneasy and intriguing balance. As such, ‘Pyramid Song’ becomes less of a piece of music and more of a piece of performance art, albeit one led by a man who has vocal talent unqiue to both his generation and the one that has followed it. Only Radiohead could turn the phrase ‘There was nothing to fear, nothing to doubt’ into a latent pop chorus. I continue to be in awe of this band, and I hope they write music forever.
Radiohead – ‘Pyramid Song’