Radiohead – “Reckoner” Lyrics Meaning

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Written By Brendan Briggs

Brendan is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer. In 2022, he released his first album "Dive" under the name "Arctotherium".

“Reckoner” is a profound, abstract look at the whole nature of human experience and consciousness. The lyrics focus on human limitations and the illusions that hold us back. It must be interpreted in light of Goethe’s world-renowned play, Faust, from which “Reckoner” draws extensively. This play also influences the rest of the album, most visibly on the tracks “Videotape” and “Faust Arp.”

“Reckoner” has complicated origins. Originally, Radiohead performed a work in progress called “Reckoner” at a show in George, Washington. However, this song is quite different from what the track actually ended up being. When working on the original tune in the studio, Radiohead began adding a new section (a coda) that became the “Reckoner” we know now. The original song that gave birth to “Reckoner” later became another song entitled “Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses.”

In this article, we’ll perform an analysis of these impressionistic lyrics to discover their hidden meaning. We’ll also take a look at the songwriting story and the deeply human themes that make this track accessible to anyone. Without further ado, let’s get started!

“Reckoner” Lyrics Meaning

As I mentioned in the previous section, this entire song must be interpreted alongside Goethe’s Faust. The first lines are no exception to this rule. For any of our readers who may be unfamiliar with this play, a good surface-level summary can be found here:

Verse one begins by addressing the “reckoner.” The identity of this figure is a mystery, but the plot of Faust may shed some light. Just as Mephistopheles vows to ensure Faust’s compliance with his side of the bargain, this “reckoner” threatens to shatter the narrator’s feelings of security.

In the play, Mephistopheles is ready to kill Faust at the moment he feels truly fulfilled. Death separates us from our material possessions and comforts, hence the line: “Can’t take it with you.” Even if we haven’t made a deal with the devil like Faust, the fact of our own coming death acts as a “reckoner” in our lives. By remembering you must die, you are less likely to get distracted by things that are “dancing for your pleasure.”

Verse two introduces a second message: Getting caught up in our material existence causes us to lose sight of our underlying reality. “Bittersweet distractors” are life’s temporary pleasures. They’re sweet while we’re enjoying them, but bitter when they inevitably disappear.

By becoming distracted in this way, we are able to avoid reality – we “dare not speak its name.” This includes our own death (mentioned in verse one), but also the true nature of existence. By getting caught up in ego-oriented pursuits, we lose sight of the fact that we’re part of a transcendent whole. It may sound trippy now, but stay with me – things will get clearer in later sections.

The refrain quickly dedicates the song to “all human beings,” which is very appropriate. Afterward, we enter the track’s bridge, which gets to the heart of the message.

There is a certain line in the second part of Faust that may help explain the title of the album and the meaning of the bridge. It goes like this: “The painted rainbow’s changeful life is bending, now clearly drawn, dissolving now and faded. And evermore the showers of dew descending! Of human striving there’s no symbol fuller: Consider, and ’tis easy comprehending – life is not light, but the refracted color.”

I know that’s a lengthy quote, but there’s a reason why the album is called In Rainbows. As Thom Yorke once put it, the album (and this song) “explores the idea of transience.” The bridge of “Reckoner” uses the analogy of “ripples on a blank shore” to explain the same message as the quote above. That’s why you can hear voices saying “in rainbows” on the track.

Now, let’s put the pieces together and make it sensible. The narrator just told us he wants to say something to all human beings. So, when he says “we,” we should think of humanity. But what is he trying to tell humanity?

When the lyrics say, “We separate like ripples on a blank shore,” I think they are referring to how human beings lose perspective by becoming wrapped up in subjectivism and ego. The ripples are discrete individuals or experiences. We think they’re separate, but they’re really the same water.

Rather than seeing true “life,” we tend to see the “refracted colors.” This is because we’re constantly searching for something to please us, which causes psychic strain. Instead, the lyrics suggest that we ought to passively drink in our experience and realize that we are all part of the same whole.

The idea that different individuals (shades of the rainbow, ripples on the water) are actually separated is an illusion. This is why the narrator submits to the reckoner in verse three. Although the reckoner may bring death, he also brings ego death. The narrator’s hope for an end to illusions causes him to say, “Reckoner, take me with you.”

In summary, “Reckoner” is a philosophical examination of humanity’s futile attempts at clinging to ripples on the shore. The trance-inducing instrumentation, when combined with these meditative lyrics, allows us to attempt acceptance of reality rather than denial of it. This is something that appeals to the human unconscious, which explains the song’s resonance with so many.

The Story Behind “Reckoner”

The creation of “Reckoner” took place in an unusual way. Originally, a version of “Reckoner” was performed at a show in George, Washington as a work in progress. However, when Radiohead began finalizing the tune in the studio, things took an unexpected turn.

At some point, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood decided to add a coda to the song. They ended up scrapping everything but the coda, which became the “Reckoner” we know today. Obviously, they must have been struck by its strange beauty.

Eventually, they produced the song from which In Rainbows takes its name. Based on the results, it’s safe to call “Reckoner” a success. It didn’t chart spectacularly well as a single, but it served to cement In Rainbows as a solid addition to Radiohead’s catalog. In addition, the song received plenty of critical acclaim and was featured in several pieces of media.

The next time you play this captivating song, let these pieces of music history bring it to life for you!