(Originally posted November 24, 2009)
“Life in a Glasshouse” by Radiohead (2001)
Written by Radiohead
“Life in a Glasshouse” opens with strange, atmospheric shimmering sounds that could be interpreted as church bells tolling. I offer up that interpretation only because what follows is a slow dirge in A minor featuring trumpet, trombone and clarinet, instruments often found in New Orleans-style jazz from a bygone era, but in this case they carry a funereal flavor. Then follow the lyrics:
Once again, I’m in trouble with my only friend
She is papering the window panes
She is putting on a smile
Living in a glass house
You could say many things about these lyrics, take them in a multitude of directions, but for me, one stands out: this is mourning, pure and simple. Pure and simple, perhaps, but its effects are deep and far-reaching. It’s more than just the loss of innocence that’s being mourned, it’s the loss of something you can’t return to or improve upon; but it is something that can get worse. Celebrities pay a high price for their status. I’m sure they often read the papers and tabloids (and watch their electronic media equivalents) thinking, “Isn’t there something more important to cover than us? We’re at war; people are starving,” etc. And I’m sure there comes a point when the famous actually want to share something of substance with the world, in fact something they’re probably dying to share. But they can’t. “We are hungry for a lynching,” after all.
At the end of the second chorus, “ Well of course I’d like to sit around and chat,” is followed by a string of the word “only” repeated over and over with white-hot intensity while the clarinet wails, a soul overwhelmed with indescribable loss, a great mass of pain seeking just a drop of comfort. It’s almost a dwelling, or rather a lamenting on the fact that the singer can’t share this with you, but only if he could, it might just benefit us all as a balm for healing. But it’s never going to happen. The last line “There’s someone listening in” is delivered in an exhausted resignation, devoid of hope. The horns end on a C – F# interval, one that longs for a release that never arrives.
I don’t know if “Life in a Glasshouse” is a great Radiohead song, but it is one I will always remember because of my friend David LoPiccolo. I was driving David and two other people from my church to a leadership retreat a couple of years ago. David and I had been talking about music for several miles, boring our other two passengers practically to a state of catatonia. David had Amnesiac with him and slipped it into my car CD player. “Listen to this, listen to this,” he would say about every thirty seconds, turning up the volume and pointing out some musical or lyrical particular. I think we only made it through two or three songs, since the other people riding in the back seat were in revolt against the Radiohead seminar. But David told me to hang onto the disc for awhile. I listened to it, thinking it was great, but the last song baffled me.
When David passed away a few months later, I always associated that album with him. His brother Brian insisted that I keep the CD, that David would have wanted me to have it. Although we never got the chance to more fully discuss “Life in a Glasshouse,” I always think of David when I hear it. David’s life, attitude and outlook were as far from “Life in a Glasshouse” as you can get. He was hopeful, with a bright and joyous outlook, full of wonder. I often dwell on Radiohead’s music and this song in particular, wondering what thoughts David would have had on a particular lyric or musical choice. I can almost hear him in the car now, turning up the volume to drown out the naysayers in the back seat.
Photos: Pitchfork, Mirror