by Ian Newman on Feb.27, 2011
The third track on Radiohead’s King of Limbs, Little By Little, opens with a snare drum hit followed by more of the South American percussion that was a feature of Morning Mr Magpie. A jinky bongo, cowbell, and maraca groove underpins the track, but rather than the band jamming along, this time the percussion is in at odds with the dance. A plodding bass line relentlessly conforms to the beats of the 4/4 time signature, a drudgery mildly alleviated by a guitar that curls around the bass, filling in some rudimentary rhythmic interest. Against this an acoustic guitar is strummed in a manner reminiscent of a Western. The effect is disorienting and discomfiting. Are we at a Brazilian carnival, in a dusty street in the American west, or sluggishly walking home from the office on a grey rainy day?
Thom Yorke’s vocals don’t help to clarify much. The melody is based on the bass and guitar duet, but the words are obtuse “Turn so nasty now, the dark cell, the pillar of my soul.” Whatever is going on doesn’t seem good. The bossa nova percussion seems like the echo of a world we don’t inhabit, a faint dream of the exotic drowned out by the misery of a soul trapped in the mundane. “The last one out the box,” Yorke continues, “the one who broke the spell.” The imagery hints at the mythic – Pandora’s box, the magic of the Arabian Nights – but if this is a myth, it’s a myth of a world that no longer has faith in exotic fantasies to structure life’s meanings. Whatever else these images might refer to they’re images of confinement and constraint.
A reverse loop of noise sounding like an irritable cricket introduces the chorus. The percussion drops out land we’re left with drums, the bass and guitar pluckings and Yorke’s emaciated falsetto. Stripped of its percussion the song assumes a more ethereal quality. The interweaving bass and guitar lines that had been dreary against the carnival percussion seem more delicate in this intimate setting, their falling suspensions more yearning. “Little by little, by hook or by crook,” opines Yorke, “I’m such a tease and you’re such a flirt. Once you’ve been around you’ve been around enough.” We’ve shifted from the grand mythic dramas and extravagant metaphors of the opening – the spells, boxes, and cells of the soul – to something altogether more private; the coy wit of sex that slowly, inevitably resolves into disillusionment and the tedium of repetition.
“Little by little by hook or by crook.” Yorke repeats, emphasizing the incremental predictability that quietly asserts itself, slowly, steadily grinding you down. “Never be in earnest, never get judged,” he continues. Little by little the coy flirtation that seemed like it might be productive of something meaningful exposes itself as tedious cynical posturing. It’s the familiar dilemma of the postmodern moment. The hip irony, the witty skepticism used to shield our vulnerability has left us alone in a world in which nothing means anything, in which we can no longer even believe in the possibility of meaning. But now the desire for belief has reasserted itself; now we have to find a way to move beyond the emptiness, but there are no structures of belief for us to work with. Sounding like a lost child Yorke laments, “I don’t know where is it. I should look.” But there’s no indication that he will find anything, even if he does begin the search.
The percussion starts up again, its purpose clearer now. It’s the dance, the posture of fun we have assumed to conceal how lost we are. Yorke then delivers some of those slurred incomprehensible lyrics that he has developed a spectacular knack for. One website I consulted transcribed the lyrics as “your clue on hold, snapped up, crawling with my love.” More probable to my ears is “you could want it all, the flag and pole, I’m curling with my love.” But my favorite suggestion is, “the clue won’t hold this little bolt, the curl in me nylon.” By this point, though, it hardly matters what he’s singing. The song is about the impossibility of finding meaning. Even if we were to understand the words they wouldn’t get us any further towards understanding. They’re just a smear on a pane of glass. “The last one out of the box, the one that broke the seal, “ Yorke repeats. It’s an odd phrase on repetition. How can the last one out of the box be the one to break the seal? Surely the first one is the seal breaker. And why is leaving the box so bad? It’s an image of emancipation, not constraint, after all, but one that nevertheless registers as painful, as if being free of the prison house of meaning, has left us somewhere worse. But there’s a sense here too that the lyrics don’t stand up to careful scrutiny. They’re a series of fragmented paradoxes and parallelisms that we can enjoy for the sake of the form, that can be admired as artifacts or shiny little perversities that we’re encouraged to ponder, but that don’t cohere into narrative.
The sound textures are stripped back to a bare bass and guitar with carnival percussion that gradually crescendo as Yorke wearily laments over a new set of fragments: “Obligation, complications, routines and schedules. A drug that’s killing you .” Newly exposed, the percussion sounds distinctly mechanical, not so festive after all, like a drum machine set up to establish a tempo that now can’t be turned off. The obligation that Yorke sings of might be the responsibilities of a banal routine, or it might be the compulsion to go on making music, returning to the recording studio after seven albums to do it all over again. Make some more songs, sell some more albums, keep creating. The drum machine can’t be turned off. Radiohead have become the voice of the inorganic world, mechanically producing songs, turning out lyric fragments. They try to write something meaningful, but they don’t believe in meaning. The song is just another routine.
A spliced sample of Yorke’s voice echoes in the background rendering the words more anxious, more frantic. On another go around of the bass and guitar duet followed by the chorus, the percussion feels relentlessly desperate like the smile on a carnival dancer after an 4 hour procession. Yorke’s voice is saturated with sad defeat. But it’s not just the woes of humanity that have got him down again. This time there’s a lingering sense that it is the music that has defeated him.