Thom Yorke - “Dawn Chorus”

Simply an amazing song. Three simple monophonic synthesizers panned in stereo, some delicated padding here and there, and Thom’s voice telling a complex story. Here’s what I think about it.

The most obvious meaning of the title is the loud bird song at dawn. There’s also an electromagnetic phenomenon of the same name which is used at the end of the song as the audible “dawn chorus” (compare: beginning of “Cluster One” by Pink Floyd).

I find the story in the lyrics to be written from the perspective of somebody describing a pattern of behavior. This is why they’re using second person, even though they are just talking about repetitive behavior of their own. It’s a confession, an internal monologue between two attitudes in the same person. The narrator is tired, depressed, and defeated. But deep inside there’s still “me” with a spark of fight.

Instead of summarizing the song, let me try to “translate” it verse-by-verse.

Back up the cul-de-sac

You took a wrong turn and now you’re at a dead end, you have to turn back. In other words, after a wrong decision, you’re getting back to square one.

Come on, do your worst

You are prepared to be judged for it. You challenge the accusers to give their best shot. You know they’re going to say they told you so.

You quit your job again

Commitment issues? Or maybe that’s part of the dead end you need to get out of?

And your train of thought

Oh. You don’t quit your train of thought. You lose your train of thought. So you’re saying you quit your job but in fact you were fired.

If you could do it all again

Regret. You wish it never came to this.

A little fairy dust

You realize it’s a pointless exercise to wish for a makeover. It’s too late, you’d need a miracle.

A thousand tiny birds singing

You spent the entire night thinking about it. The birds start singing, it’s dawning already.

If you must, you must

You really need another chance.

Please let me know
When you’ve had enough
Of the white light
Of the dawn chorus

(Musically this is when we hear the choir pads first.)

Here the narrator breaks the fourth wall, introduces “me”, suggesting an internal dialogue, internal conflict. The “me” deep inside asks the tired, depressed narrator if they are ready to start over, to let go of the visual noise (white light = light of all colors combined) and the auditory noise (the dawn chorus). If they are ready to act.

If you could do it all again

(Implied question:) Would you like to?

You don’t know how much

Pronto pronto, moshi mosh

There’s too much meaningless smalltalk in your life.

Come on, chop chop

There’s too much thankless work in your life.

If you could do it all again

(Implied question:) Would you?

Yeah, without a second thought

I don’t like leaving
The door shut

This is the “me” talking, it’s talking in first person. The “me” doesn’t like burned bridges. Maybe leaves the door open for somebody to be able to come back?

I think I missed something
But I’m not sure what

The “me” agrees with the regret that the narrator feels. (Compare with Pink Floyd’s “No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.")
But the “me” is more analytical, tries to find a reason for how they found themselves in this situation.

In the middle of the vortex
The wind picked up

You didn’t react quickly enough, you find yourself in the middle of a natural disaster. It’s too late to escape. (Hence the comparison to Pink Floyd above.)
By the way, since it’s the “me” talking, after breaking the fourth wall, we know this natural disaster is metaphorical.

Shook up the soot
From the chimney pot
Into spiral patterns
Of you, my love

Regret. In the unescapable final moments you think of better times, the best times. The “me” finds what they value most, what they regret the most.

(Musically here there’s a crescendo, the filters open, the choir picks up. It’s a pivotal moment.)

You take a little piece
Then you break it off

The narrator returns. Broken hearts never fully heal. (Compare Janis Joplin’s “Take another little piece of my heart”.)

It’s a bloody racket
It’s the dawn chorus

The birds sing loudly, the narrator is tired and irritated. Another sleepless night.

If you could do it all again

(Implied question:) Imagine all the things you could do differently!

Big deal, so what?

You don’t trust there’s any chance of that happening anymore.

Please let me know
When you’ve had enough
It’s the last chance

The “me” invites the narrator to act. It’s the last chance, let me know when you’re ready. I will help you.

O.K. Corral?

Are you ready? (I think the reference to the shooting is a red herring. To me this phrase sounds like a soft meaningless phrase meant to calm the other down. It’s not about the literal meaning of the words, it’s about the tone. Note that the “corral” is sung with an upward intonation, suggesting a question.)

If you could do it all again
This time with style

Let’s start over. This time in an authentic way, without fear, with personality.