Our Take: Radiohead’s “Daydreaming” Twists the Ordinary into Extraordinary

Recommended if you like: Radiohead, Claude Debussy, Pink Floyd, Brian Eno

Dreamers, they never learn
Beyond the point of no return
And it’s too late; the damage is done

Doors. They keep others out, and keep us in. They shield and protect; they divide and separate; they provide for transfer between worlds. Doors allow for mystery and wonder; what lies on the other side? Doors create false boundaries and foster real ones. Doors are man-made. Doors connect today and tomorrow; doors isolate today from tomorrow. Doors are the link between our past, our present, and our future. Doors inhabit an eternal limbo; they are both here and there, yet they are neither here nor there. Doors are exits and doors are entrances; they are the means, but never the end. Doors are a vessel for the human experience; doors are the human experience.

"Daydreaming" single art - Radiohead
“Daydreaming” single art – Radiohead

It is customary – expected, even – for a Radiohead song to contemplate the “human experience;” the band’s modus operandi is to observe life through a lens, thereby exposing us to ourselves. Critical thinkers and consistent engineers of musical innovation, Radiohead have forever been ahead of their time, trailblazing a sophisticated, deceptively cogent path mired in music, technology, and philosophy. It comes as no surprise, then, that the band’s new song/music video “Daydreaming” reads like Oxfordian poetry. Injecting meaningful thought over ponderous music, Radiohead question life, time, and perspective with some of their most personal, yet impossibly universal lyrics to date.

This goes beyond me; beyond you
The white room by a window where the sun comes through
We are just happy to serve you

Thom Yorke’s delicate falsetto is weighed down by the burden of knowledge and a lack thereof as he softly, calmly sings an oracle’s soliloquy. Yorke pays special attention to every word; his melismatic singing draws the listener’s focus as he conjures hauntingly beautiful cascading syllables that linger in the ear and resonate in the mind. “Dreamers, they never learn… beyond the point of no return… and it’s too late; the damage is done.” It takes a minute for Yorke to expel those twenty-three syllables (acknowledging some repetition), but the meaning of these words takes much longer to digest. Is the way we see the world and live our lives worthwhile? Are we misguided by false hopes and unrealistic aspirations – by “dreams” that exist only in our mind’s eye, but never in reality?

The words, “It’s too late; the damage is done,” are especially heavy: Time exists in all dimensions, but consciousness exists within a singularity. We are prevented from any forward or backward movement, constrained to the “present” moment. The ‘now’. From the perspective of a band on its ninth studio album and of humans in their late forties, “Daydreaming” warns of the inescapable passage of time. Radiohead remind us of how everything we have and everyone we know are transient memories in the making: “This goes beyond me; beyond you.” The concept – the truth, dare I say it – is universal and all-encompassing.

Radiohead deliver what essentially becomes a mortal man’s advisory sermon, keeping their presentation vague and broad enough to serve a variety of interpretations across the masses. Yorke’s steady, emotive vocals are poignant, but never lamenting: “Daydreaming” is not an overtly ‘sad’ song, so much as a surreal presentation of reality.

Watch: “Daydreaming” – Radiohead

Directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, the “Daydreaming” music video further explores the human experience through the distortion of realities, all separated by doors. The video features Thom Yorke passing through the myriad physical settings one may expect to traverse in life: He passes through an underground warehouse, a hotel hallway, a living room, a school, a foyer, a hospital, a kitchen, a laundromat, a convenience store; across a dimly-lit basement corridor, and outside into a sun-kissed wooded green; up a staircase, and out upon a sandy beach; up an elevator, through a garage, another house. The video speeds up as Yorke passes through more and more of these doors, making a conscious decision as to which one he chooses every time, but never seeming certain of the outcome of his elected choice.

Isn’t that the constant uncertainty we have in life? One never knows with full assurance the consequences of one’s actions. Yorke does not know the worlds he’ll find behind any of the doors, but he has to make choices, leaving his comfort zone as he continuously opens a door and steps through, opens a door and steps through.

 Life is a series of decisions that we make and have to live with. What a simple thought.

Screenshot from Radiohead's "Daydreaming" music video
Thom Yorke walking through a door in Radiohead’s “Daydreaming” music video
Screenshot from Radiohead's "Daydreaming" music video
Thom Yorke walking through a hotel hallway in Radiohead’s “Daydreaming” music video

Yorke’s journey eventually finds him wandering, seemingly aimlessly, through a dark and snowy tundra. He finds a cave glowing with the light from a fire within, and ventures inside. Cozying up to the fire, Yorke lays down his head in exhaustion. The music fades as Yorke stares into the fire, and eventually only his voice remains. He repeats a whispered mantra with his final breathes as sleep takes hold: When reversed and sped up, the audio appears to say “half of my life.”

Reality and surreality truly converge on “Daydreaming,” and PT Anderson could not have chosen better a symbol than the door through which to express life’s singular directionality (and a plethora of other meanings).

Screenshot from Radiohead's "Daydreaming" music video
Thom Yorke walking through a snowy tundra in Radiohead’s “Daydreaming” music video
Screenshot from Radiohead's "Daydreaming" music video
Thom Yorke huddled next to a glowing fire in Radiohead’s “Daydreaming” music video

But “Daydreaming” is as much a musical exploration as it is an existential one. A slow ballad for piano and vocals that Claude Debussy would be proud of, “Daydreaming” achieves depth through simplicity. Electronic noises and airy pads provide a bed of background textures from which Radiohead develop their full experiential soundscape: Echoes from unknown aural sources enchant and arouse. Strings rise and fall with supportive grace, and quiet electric guitar licks gently mirror the piano’s hypnotic arpeggios. Tension grows slowly, if at all – Radiohead seek to relieve, rather than to ignite; “Daydream” is a soundtrack, after all.

And Radiohead are its masterful composers.

Radiohead Rorschach
When you think of Rorschach, think Radiohead.

“Daydreaming” has the electronic ambience and the orchestral character of OK Computer, yet its melancholic tenor stems from a fresh disillusionment: Yorke could not have written so vulnerably about the bitterness of time in 1997 as he can nearly twenty years later, in 2016. Much has happened for Radiohead since then, but the already-iconic group refuse to accept time as an impediment to creativity: “Daydreaming” is an immersive display of musical genius that blends everything from classical to electronic influences into a powerfully stirring and hauntingly soothing sonic experience.

The band’s forthcoming ninth album (out May 8th via XL Recordings) may indeed herald a new era for Radiohead – but then again, hasn’t every successive studio album heralded a new era for Radiohead? “Daydreaming” feels like a back-to-basicsfull steam ahead-type of song: The sort of thing that heralds a masterpiece. Perhaps the band have finally put their nuts and bolts in order after the experimental journey that was 2011’s The King of Limbs. Time will tell.

Speculation aside, “Daydreaming” is itself a musical masterpiece: Simple yet complex, it provokes thought, mystery and wonder as Radiohead twist the ordinary into extraordinary, the plain into elaborate, the real into surreal. Radiohead are about to step through a door of their own, and we are ready to embark on that journey with them.

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“Daydreaming” by Radiohead

A Moon Shaped Pool - Radiohead album art
A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead


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