The first time I heard “Let Down,” I almost couldn’t believe it was a Radiohead song. The emotions it evoked seemed too optimistic; for a Radiohead song, it felt weirdly comforting. Although there is a sense of melancholy and subdued rage in the lyrics, to me, the music ultimately conveys a feeling of acceptance. Lyrically and musically, “Let Down” remains one of my favorite Radiohead songs.
The lyrics of “Let Down” revolve around feelings of disappointment and disillusionment; they also hint at the desire for transformation. In the story of this song, the narrator sees that the modern world is repetitive, cyclical, and on the surface, seemingly devoid of meaning. He begins by describing the meaningless, innocuous quality of travel. He watches as planes take off and land, take off and land, take off and land; trams stop and go, stop and go, stop and go. Over and over and over again. But he observes it all from a distance, not from the inside. I think that this sense of detachment also elicits some of his pain.
Then, the narrator’s gaze shifts to human beings. He watches as disappointed people cling to bottles of beer and liquor, simultaneously drowning and fueling their sadness and rage, over and over again. They’re numb to their deadness, but the narrator is not. However, he may still be unaware of his own pain. Then, the lyrics shift into an image of an insect crushed on the ground:
Shell smashed, juices flowing
Wings twitch, legs are going
Don’t get sentimental
It always ends up drivel
One day I am gonna grow wings
A chemical reaction
Hysterical and useless
Let down and hanging around
For a brief moment, there is a glimmer of vitality and imagination, and the singer feels determined. Imagine a disillusioned and depressed person suddenly saying, “One day, I am gonna grow wings.” At first, it sounds hopelessly naïve, but it is ultimately quite endearing. In the mechanical, polluted landscape described by the narrator, this moment is like a gulp of pure oxygen.
This song slowly builds to a final climax that interweaves guitars, drums, bass, keyboards, and electronics with Yorke’s characteristic swelling vocals. The emotional tone of “Let Down,” largely conveyed by the instruments and vocal melodies, contrasts its lyrical content; for a song about disappointment and being let down with life itself, it always makes me feel hopeful. Perhaps this is the kind of hope that arises from embracing and accepting our disappointment; we dive into the inescapable gap between what we desire and what we can feel, create, or achieve in reality.
“Let Down” tells the story of a disillusioned narrator whose idealistic vision of life, of what life could be, is worn down by what he sees every day: repetitive mechanical meaningless movements and people drowning themselves in alcohol to escape what they see and feel. And yet even in the hysterical uselessness of it all, the music conveys a sense of rhythmic, human movement; it’s like a heartbeat. It pulsates like blood in an artery; it’s organic and warm, even blissful.
I think that’s why I’ve always loved this song. It speaks to the (disappointed) idealistic teenager in me who perpetually rages at life because he knows it could be so much more than it is. And yet the music of “Let Down” reminds us that we have to embrace life as it is—we cannot only play the critic and compile endless lists of what is wrong, we also have to participate in life and love it with all its flaws.
The narrator of “Let Down” sings his song from a kind of intellectual distance that may itself be a form of protection from his own feelings of disappointment. He sees only disappointment in the people around him and he sees nothing but mindless repetition in the mechanical loops of daily commuters. But he has not yet recognized that all of this also exists within himself, and he does not yet understand that there is so much more to this world.
Once he recognizes this and reconciles these feelings, he may, in fact, grow wings.