Radiohead – Separator

There is certainly no shortage of deep dives into Radiohead tracks out circulating on the internet. That said, if I had to pick one tune that hasn’t quite gotten the love it deserves, it would be “Separator,” the closer from 2011’s The King of Limbs. You can listen to it here:

Spencer Kornhaber describes the song in an article as “the happiest Radiohead song ever.” There’s not a lot of competition, but I’m still not quite sure I hear it. What I do find revealing in the article is Kornhaber’s interpretation of the song as a moment of clarity:

“Things appear the same—’exactly as I remember, every word, every gesture’—but something’s changed: A weight has been lifted, and the ‘sweetest flowers and fruits’ surround him.”

Kornhaber sees “Separator” as relieving and transfiguring the gloomy weight of the preceding tracks on the album. While I don’t disagree (even if the epiphany is only bittersweet), I want to focus on how this process takes place within the song itself–without reference to the rest of the album. And there’s plenty to work with here: at five minutes and twenty seconds, “Separator” is the longest track on the record. Rather than focus on the lyrics, I’m especially interested in how Radiohead–along with producer and longtime collaborator Nigel Godrich–use mixing and production techniques to build a narrative and shape the form of a song.

For example, one way of hearing “Separator” is as a process that builds slowly, gradually sprawling into space. The opening is spare, yet by the end individual melodies are overwhelmed by cascading waves of sound. A song that is and is about a transformation. But not everything changes. The drummer’s crisp and contained breakbeat hardly varies at all over the course of the song. Does this mean that the transformation is less complete? Or maybe the drums are an implicit point of comparison, helping us to hear how much things really have changed?

We might listen to that process again. Starting from the beginning, the track unfolds slowly. When the vocals enter around 0:25, the melody seems to rise and fall over a narrow range, circling the same few notes. The bass guitar accompaniment is a syncopated two-bar riff hovering around a single harmony, rather than a chord progression. The drums are relentless. The whole thing starts to feel, well, claustrophobic.

Another factor is the distinctive sound of the vocals. Thom Yorke’s (characteristically mumbled) lead vocals are heavily processed with a delay effect. The delay is at the eighth note: too long to feel natural, but short enough that successive syllables overlap and accumulate. The vocals are also masked by the drums–their roles in the mix seemingly reversed. As a vocal performance, it’s more landscape than protagonist. Without a protagonist, it’s hard to feel like we’re moving forwards.

The first sign of something new on the horizon is the backing vocals in the right channel at 1:39 (and again at 2:15). They are louder than we might expect, competing with the lead vocals for the foreground of the mix. While they are also running through a delay, the delay time is much longer and, at precisely five eighth notes, causes the repetition of the backing vocals to overlap irregularly with the regular beats of the pulse. It is as though the musical texture is slowly being pulled apart.

Not everything that changes, changes gradually though. It is in the wake of this potential unravelling that the lead guitar enters (2:32), ushering in the second half of the song (narratively, if not quite mathematically). As it turns out, a lot seems to hinge on this moment. The sound immediately feels “bigger,” the result of a wider stereo image in the mix and the presence of a longer, more cavernous reverb tail.

As Yorke sings, “If you think this is over, you’re wrong”–a new line and a new melody–the backing vocals return (3:14), rhythmically intertwined. The delay effect has been removed and, even more jarringly, the backing vocals have been panned hard to the left, instead of the right as before. Even though we have heard this melody before, the production alerts us that something, narratively speaking, has changed.

Around 3:30, a spacey wash of guitar swells behind the vocals and begins to gently pulse every quarter note. It’s not actually a delay, but it’s the same gesture: a sound reasserted as it gradually gives way. To me, it sounds like the guitars have picked up, absorbed, and transformed the delay effect that was applied to the lead vocal throughout.

Sure enough, when Yorke returns to the phrase “Wake me up” at 4:13, the eighth-note delay is completely gone. It’s a chilling moment, and, for me, the most compelling transformation of the whole song. Here amidst the fullness of the pulsing guitars Yorke’s voice sounds small and exposed for the first time. The sobriety of hindsight? Resigned acceptance? Something really has changed.

Of course, that something is up for debate, and that ambiguity is what makes multiple listenings of a song like “Separator” so rewarding. Are the pulsing guitars “remembering” the sound of the voice from the opening? Could one hear the moment at 4:13 as the backing vocals standing alone–the echo split from the source? Or, more baroquely, were they really the lead vocals all along, shifting from right to left in the mix in search of the foreground? Play it again, and you never really have to decide.