So it’s taken me a while to put this onto paper. Black and white is all so final. And real. Let’s face it, you’ve met me at a turning point in my life. Cause life isn’t all golden. It ain’t a touch, it’s real, and it’s touch sensitive and wafer thin.
When I heard that Radiohead were teasing out little snippets of tracks from what was to be a sudden and surprise release of their ninth studio album, my heart pounded a fraction faster, my breathing dipped shallow and fast, and my skin crept with a million marching millipedes.
Radiohead have always occupied a special place deep within my heart, and so many moments of mine could be sound-tracked by their early work. But this album proved to be the soundtrack to the whole of my past year. A Moon Shaped Pool is a devastatingly dejected, spine tingling take on a break up album. Written in the aftermath of Thom Yorke’s split with his partner of 23 years, it has a deeper resonance with me, in this year that I found myself falling deeper and deeper out of love with the husband that I married 15 years ago.
The rushing urgency of the first few bars of the opening track, with the string section plucked in time, remind me of the inexorable way in which life-changing events can sometimes develop. There is a pounding, unfaltering insistence within the unfolding beats of “Burn the Witch” which gradually open up and become subdued and silenced by the drawn out vocals and strings. Lyrically it’s dark and medieval in visions of witches being hunted out and drowned or burnt at the stake. One line in particular strikes a chord and if I’d had the foresight at that moment in time, my life would have a different substance and shape altogether.
Flashback to Victoria Park, East London, late September, the year 2000, and the attendance at my first (and to date, last) Radiohead gig.
“Abandon all reason, avoid eye contact, do not react, shoot the messenger” was exactly the way Thom Yorke chose to play things at the end of the set on that day. Sat at a grand piano with the gloom of night drawing in, pushed back away from the crowds, his back deliberately turned to the audience, without even the slightest acknowledgement that there was anyone else in the field, or indeed on the planet. That self-imposed distance, that detached apartness, that’s what made it so otherworldly and fascinating and caused me to lose myself within the beauty of the sound. That’s also what riled my husband-to-be, ignited the anger fuse, and meant that the rest of the evening was spent in a tentative and uncomfortable cloud of not wanting to upset the apple cart and cause more mealy mouthed stoniness in front of our group of friends, all of whom were enjoying the gig as much as me.
But it wasn’t always this way. Track two invokes gentler times in my mind, lazy summer bike rides through wooded glades, and the tenseness is dispersed. But it’s too late, “the damage is done” and even though I don’t know it yet in my pre-bridal floaty haze, it’s going to be the start of a long cycle of ups, downs, passive/aggressive love and amazingly good times which block out the niggling negativity of those nuisance-filled nights.
Even with this dreamy repetitive circular tune aptly named “Daydreaming” there’s an undercurrent of monstrosity lurking under the surface, and towards the end of it all, those suppressed demons rise up and take over again with their deep throated growls. It’s not yet irreparable because there are increasingly strong and powerful ties to bind, a flat, a tight ring of mutual friends, family approval, a cat, a house, a garden, a baby… a baby … a baby.
I’m feeling after a few repeated plays of A Moon Shaped Pool that this really is Thom Yorke’s baby, conceived under difficult circumstances, a newborn so achingly and lovingly created and gently cradled and supported as it makes it first appearance in the big wide world.
I have no idea of what happened during the writing process, but it feels to me as if these thoughts, ideas and sounds have been bubbling underneath the combined minds of Radiohead for years, yet couldn’t be released without some kind of anguish and pain to set them free. A few of the songs in this collection have indeed seen the light of day (many years) before but are now recorded with new plaintive and heart-felt arrangements.
Next up it’s “Decks Dark” reiterating the darkness in my (and Thom’s) life with a huge spacecraft which blocks the sky, hanging heavy above my head but which I stand mesmerised by. I never felt oppressed or pushed down in my relationship but it was a fine line at times. There were definitely days when I lived in the shadow. It was how I chose to be and that was the me that he loved but the other me became stifled in that lack of freeness and the desire to create, whether through writing, painting, poetry or music became too strong.
When Thom gently requests in “Desert Island Disk” to “let me go upon my way … Through an open door, across the street, to another life” I feel such communion with those words that tears spring from nowhere and flood my eyes like pools of infinity-reflecting truth. It is like waking from a thousand year sleep and a gradual realization of knowing that I can’t continue in a lie of a life.
When I tell my husband about the different kind of love that I feel for him, and then a few months later hear these lyrics it’s like everything falls into place.
“Ful Stop” takes me back to my home town of Southend-on-Sea when I was in my mid-teens, something about the driving muffled bass line on this track is so reminiscent of the lines of queued cars along the seafront on a Friday night, going nowhere but up and back and round again, no final destination other than the teenage admiration of the modified rust buckets blaring out the sounds. Was this where my inadequacies and insecurities began? This subduing of the female sex, this ornamental decoration of girlhood, where anyone with an opinion, a desire, an independent thought, was labelled, sullied and flawed.
“Ful Stop” repeats the idea of messing up but not being able to admit it, and ending up trapped within a passable, acceptable framework, by taking the easy way and not speaking out. Telling my husband that things had changed, and that despite the good times, it was no longer where I wanted to be, was one of the most difficult announcements I’ve ever had to make. But after two years of my awakening, I had to keep to my truth, even as I knew deep down that “truth will mess you up.”
His response? Not wanting to know, an imprudent mix of evasion and avoidance. He saw it as me “messing him around” and that the reason must be something external such as an affair or a sudden change in my sexuality. He couldn’t seem to face the truth that it was the result of a few key incidents that had, over time, built inside me and made me feel a mixture of mortification and miserableness. It was within him, but also within me, and I know if I had stayed the same person that I had been on our wedding day 15 years ago, it wouldn’t have caused such a chasmic rift.
But my desire to be fulfilled, as my own entity with my own true identity, overruled my need to keep the home and family life calm and stable.
Flashback time once again as I hear the opening strains of “Glass Eyes” and another of those occurrences that marked the gradual beginning of the lingering end. A small happy festival in North Cornwall, in the summer of 2013, which just happens to take place in Thom Yorke’s neighbourhood, and which sees him in attendance, along with a small entourage of his close friends and family. I’m in total awe to be standing in the same field as him and somehow manage to engineer a visit to the cider tent at the same time that Thom just happens to be passing by. As is the case with families at festivals, as much as I revel in the delighted faces of my three small children, it’s sometimes nice to be allowed a quick breather away from them while your other half takes responsibility.
So I had a ‘moment’ with Thom Yorke … I’m sure it’s engrained in his memory as deeply as it’s etched within mine.
It was a beautiful brief interlude where we sat side by side drinking our pints of cider, sharing a little ‘me’ time escaping the normality of family life. We chatted about trivialities, I was completely and utterly star-struck, and all too soon it was over and I made my way back to my family, and he to his. And on my thrilled and elated, and slightly giddy return? After being out of eye-sight for about 47 minutes? Nothing but indifferent annoyance and resentment. I was buzzing with excitement but it was stifled once again. Those eyes were so glassy, so cold, from the inside out, and I was left wondering if it was time to “turn around, buy another ticket.”
“Present Tense” is the one that got me right in the heart from the very first time I heard the soothing opening with its heavenly background of oohs and aahs and the shimmering shake of the cabasa. Thom’s reflective words ring out and I know that “I am doing no harm/As my world comes crashing down.” As he elegiacally repeats “In you I’m lost” I know absolutely that my decision is the right one. I’m lost in and with my husband, and there is no way to navigate around that. No maps or signposts could ever find the way again.
The final song on this gloriously emotive album, “True Love Waits” is one of those that has been long awaited -around twenty years or so since its first inception. This arrangement, just piano alongside Thom’s poignant voice, disintegrating like peppercorns in a grinder, is full of philosophy and with the line “I’m not living/I’m just killing time” comes my certitude that the decision I have taken is right. It may not be right in the eyes of some, but I’m relieved and content and know it’s the best move for the future happiness of us all – me, my husband, and our three little ones.
A Moon Shaped Pool met me at a turning point.
Having spent many months stuck deep within a dip, things are now on the up again, true love waited and I’m loving myself for who I am, not who others need or want me to be. I’m loving someone else too now, but that’s probably a story for the tenth Radiohead album …