The minimal backing and misheard confessions of Radiohead’s ‘Present Tense’


For a band as ornate and precise as Radiohead, watching them strip down one of their songs to the bare bones around a campfire can be at once disorienting and thrilling.

So it goes with “Present Tense,” one of several opaque compositions that made up their 2016 record A Moon Shaped Pool, and it’s simultaneously liberated and given additional weight in a video version released about a year ago. In this reading, Thom Yorke, Johnny Greenwood and a drum machine are parked around a campfire for Paul Thomas Anderson’s camera. Greenwood flicks the switch on their automated drummer, plucks a guitar pick out from behind his telecaster’s pickguard, and he and Yorke begin feeling their way through the song.

It’s not an easy number to get to the bottom of, either. If a criticism of Radiohead is that their music can be difficult, then A Moon Shaped Pool was easy fodder for detractors. It took months of intense listening before I even felt like I had my bearings, and I was motivated.

But I was motivated because of past history, and because I could sense something mysterious and exciting in what I was hearing. And though “Present Tense” stood out early, it was in this new, minimal version that more life was breathed into the song.

And that life was already haunting. Yorke and Radiohead have had a knack through the years of painting vidid pictures with the bare minimum of words, and watching him quietly croon with his eyes closed, “In you I’m lost/in you I’m lost/In you I’m lost...” gave the entire production an additional gravitas that even the studio version doesn’t quite carry. His voice soars through a single microphone, aided by nothing but the proper reverb.

The song itself didn’t need any additional heft, either. Before this intimate version, the tune already felt spare and exposed, as the singer hedges his bets against revealing everything in his soul while still confiding that he won’t stop, won’t let his love die in vain and letting his subject know how lost he is without and within them. Take it down to just him, Greenwood and a beeping box on the beach, and the effect becomes overwhelming.

And through the first year that A Moon Shaped Pool was out and in my headphones, I was mishearing the entire first verse. It wasn’t until really digging into the song that I discovered that I’ve been just applying my own spin and point of view to it.

Which isn’t against the spirit of music necessarily. The listeners bring their own perspective to everything, take what they need and keep the spirit of the thing vital in the first place. But in trying to break down and understand why a song works or why it’s so effective, it’s important to have at least an idea of intent down.

And that brings us to this dance and its distance. When I heard Thom Yorke singing against a reserved salsa beat and the muted, fingerpicked guitars, I heard him saying, in short:

Is like a weapon
Is like a weapon
Of self defense
Of self defense
Against the present
Against the present
The present tense

And that made total sense. Separation from a problem, or a point of passion, is what is keeping the singer from confronting the issues at hand, the ones staring him in the face, preventing any kind of confrontation with the present and the uncomfortable issues it brings.

But it’s not “Distance.” It’s “This dance” — not an abstract yet very real obstacle, but an act that is also within the present, fighting it within the very same moment to meet the same ends. And it makes more sense within the context of the song and it’s samba rhythms. Now, instead of just an interesting backing, the two halves are working together to form a greater whole. It is of a piece, as they say.

It probably doesn’t really matter. They have their version, and I have mine, dueling interpretations and pieces of poetry within the same five minutes. The end result may even be the same, but the journey, from their pen and the recording process to our ears, warps and takes on the shape we need. And we have two versions of the song that travel different roads to meet the same terminus. Distance is still a weapon. So is this dance. We’re all fighting the present in some way.

Nov. 10, 2017

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