Radiohead’s “If You Say the Word” Is a Song Unstuck from Time

The red cover of Amnesiac with a poorly drawn figure on it beginning to fade out as the mountain like image from the cover of Kid A fades in

Radiohead’s “If You Say the Word” feels a bit like a song outside of time. Recorded during the sessions that gifted us with Kid A and Amnesiac and released in the runup to the 20 year anniversay combined deluxe Kid A Mnesia, one can’t help but place the track mentally in relation to those records. And from this point of view, it doesn’t quite hold up.

One can almost imagine “If You Say the World” fitting in—perhaps somewhere around “Morning Bell”—but it frankly feels a cut below all of the songs on those two masterpiece albums, so it makes sense that it didn’t make the final version of either of Kid A (which is one of the best albums of all time) or Amnesiac (which coheres less as a whole but nonetheless has some tracks that outshine any on its sister).

“If You Say the Word” is simply too straightforward for either record, yet it takes us almost to an alternate timeline where Radiohead innovated along the same lines, but somehow less, or a bit differently. Melancholic and enigmatically somber, the track is actually quite solid taken on its own—Yorke’s vocals are more intelligible than on later records, but yet less defined than on previous ones.

The lyrics are beautifully simple and yet rife with ambiguity. It’s unclear whether to inflect their meaning positively or negatively, or whether saying the word would be to the good or the bad.

If you’re in a forest, out of your mind
Harpies in the branches breaking your arms
If you’re stuck in rainbows, shattering glass
Where you miss the moment, watching it pass

If you say the word, if you say the word
If you say the word, if you say the word

When you spend your life wishing on a twinkling star
When you forget how lucky you are
Buried in rubble, sixty foot down

If you say the word, if you say the word
If you say the word, if you say the word
Then I’ll come running

When you change your friends like changing your clothes

And the instrumentals, though less experimental than most of the work that made it onto Kid A and Amnesiac, are nonetheless effective in evoking this kind of space of indecision, where the word has not been said but yet might be. The rhythms undulate underneath, punctuated by quiet syncopations, as Thom Yorke’s voice kind of floats over the top, as though the song can’t quite decide what its beat will be.

In strange way it is better to hear this song now than it would have been 20 years ago. It adds a layer to the symbol of being in rainbows, and feels unstuck from time in a way that resonates with its themes.

I have always thought that Kid A and Amnesiac stand best apart, with the latter almost like a B-side to the former, but it’s not that. It’s more like a collection of A-sides that didn’t fit on the album.

“If You Say the Word” is a B-side in spirit, but the more I listen to it, the more it sucks me in. In the Kid A era, Radiohead were clearly at the top of their game. This unreleased track is better than a lot of what their contemporaries were putting out at the time. I can’t wait to hear more when Kid A Mnesia comes out in a couple of months.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

Caesar non est supra grammaticos

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