See Me, Feel Me

On the album, the actor is replaced by Thom Yorke of Radiohead, and he and Björk share the roles so that sometimes it is she who interrogates him. (That makes sense in the song because it doesn't matter which character is answering or asking, it is the exultant feel of expansion and contraction, of acknowledgment and release.) Without the visual aspect, the song is stripped down and childishly simple, with Seuss-like lyrics and a monotonous industrial backbeat. It is also lush, expansive, emotionally complex. Björk's voice goes from crumpled, nearly retarded, to wide and powerful as a highway to heaven. Yorke's voice, sometimes rhetorically sentimental yet giving full honor to the tenderness of sentiment, has never been more beautiful or nuanced. He can also sound like a righteous therapist: When she asks, in the voice of a pinched imp, "What about China? Have you seen the Great Wall?" he answers, "All walls are great if your roof doesn't fall," and he seems nearly too pleased with this bit of wisdom. But the stuck-up part is tonally cut with a gentleness that gets fully expressed on that last word, "fall." When he asks, "Your grandson's hand as he plays with your hair?" his voice describes sorrow and tenderness in so many shades you can't parse it. And so she answers with a singsong insouciance that is almost bratty: "To be honest, I really don't care." And then the music opens out like sky, full of feeling, and Björk's voice opens even more, in an electric combination of pain and joy—becausealmost any woman would care. Her joy is that of a person with so little joy in her life that she's been forced to find it where she can, and both singers understand this: "I've seen it all, I've seen the dark, I've seen the brightness in one little spark." Yorke and Björk sing this line in a duet, West Side Story style, and together they give reality to lyrics that, taken strictly at face value, could be New Age treacle.

In fact, I've quoted the lyrics here mainly to locate particular emotional shifts in the song; it's the voices and music, not the lyrics, that mark these shifts most effectively. It's the voices and music that convey the mystery, the transient changeability of human feeling, better than the movie. The song creates a sense of beauty and abundance that the struggling movie characters, with their small lives, would not seem entitled to, yet which they can not only possess through the strength of their inner abundance, but which they can also refuse. Because the song itself is finally a refusal, one that acknowledges the transient beauty of all that it refuses—holding it, and then letting it go with even greater fullness.

Almost any woman would care.
photo: Mert Atlas & Marcus Piggott
Almost any woman would care.

It's also, more simply, a powerful example of what's populist in "pop"—its gorgeous ordinariness. "I've Seen It All" is a passionate evocation of what is great in ordinary people, with their crummy jobs and fantasies, people who are not even supposed to "have a life." When I interviewed Radiohead some time ago, bassist Ed O'Brien gave me a talking to about how pop songs are just like snapshots meant to be thrown away the next day. That is very true. But in the sense suggested by "I've Seen It All," that is also true of everything human. And I mean that in a good way.

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