So The Quietus asked me to write about two of my favourite Radiohead tracks for a piece they published today about the band beyond the hits. The piece is here, and this is the first song I wrote about.
An anxious clanging kicks this track off, propelling it forward as if in mid-stride. The sample - a metallic drumming, with the tonal ring and off-kilter pattern of metal wires involuntarily thrust against hollow masts in a weather-beaten harbour - is overlaid with a crisp drum machine beat, all snare and mid-range. A two-tone keyboard melody appears, hanging from a middle D played over and over as the bassline follows a downward progression. Thom starts singing from the same middle note, his lyrics building a sense of time counted yet unfathomable. "After years of waiting, nothing came". The keyboard and vocal parts weave in and out of each other as a soured, grizzly guitar curls in with extended harmonium-style notes, creating an almost medieval polyphony that is poked and flicked at by clicks and cuts, static rhythms and electronic interference. Playful breaks, created with EQ changes, flashes of reverb and staggered delay, open it all out, as sampled voices sneak into the undergrowth. One growls and purrs, stuttering, the panning shifting back and forth. Another intones "please don't stop" repeatedly, like Kubrick's HAL on the verge of hyperventilation. Thom chants "get off my case" again and again. The melody returns. And then it's done. A second of quiet before the falling depths of the 'Pyramid Song'. 'Packt Like Sardines' sets the tone for an album uneasy from start to finish, holding its breath with watery eyes and Thom's own spasmodic shaking of hand.