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Message 317: Harry Patch (In Memory Of)

Radiohead has released a single titled: “Harry Patch (In Memory Of).” It is available for purchase and download from W.A.S.T.E.

Thom Yorke posted the song’s lyrics and comments on Dead Air Space. The lyrics read:

“i am the only one that got through
the others died where ever they fell
it was an ambush
they came up from all sides
give your leaders each a gun and then let them fight it out themselves
i’ve seen devils coming up from the ground
i’ve seen hell upon this earth
the next will be chemical but they will never learn”

Yorke mentions the song was inspired by “a very emotional interview with him a few years ago on the Today program on Radio4.” Mike Thomson interviewed Harry Patch on December 24, 2005 for BBC 4’s Today program. That day’s audio archive does not correctly link to the original audio. However, this recent BBC Today audio clip contains excerpts from the 2005 interview.

Some lyrics are almost verbatim from the interview, a practice in keeping with of Yorke’s composition methods. This aside, the directness of the lyrics and the clarity of the song’s purpose–to memorialize Harry Patch–seems new for Radiohead. The song’s speaker is clear: it is Harry Patch. The lyrics are clear: war is horror. This may be Radiohead’s first threnody. “Harrowdown Hill” memorializes David Kelly, but the band has yet to produce a song with the directness of “Harry Patch (In Memory Of).” The song’s lyrics and music recalls, in part, Wilfred Owen‘s posthumous preface: “This is in no sense consolatory.” The song, too, is in no sense consolatory.

Yorke’s voice sounds fragile throughout. Cracking at times, seeming unable to transition between, for example, the song’s opening syllables: “I am.” This same crack or dissonant transition mirrors somewhat the music’s relation to the lyrics: it never quite matches up. In typical Radiohead fashion, the music has a comforting, swaying start at odds with the lyrics’ imagery. The music climbs to a joyful height when the lyrics suggest we give leaders guns to fight it out themselves, as if the suggestion might work, but the song falls into a despairing sound and then returns to Yorke singing along with the opening sway–devils are coming up from the ground and leaders will not learn from past mistakes: the next will be chemical. At this point the lyrics conclude but the swaying music continues for a minute or so longer.

The music’s sway speeds up and turns into a solid dissonant sound. The song, at this point, doesn’t end so much as it stops. The music’s opening and close are opposed. Lull, almost lullaby, versus and an ending that seems to come too soon without a feeling of resolution.

To quote Owen again: “All the poet can do to-day is to warn.”

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