Radiohead and the importance of letting ideas gestate

I’ve been hugely excited to listen to the new Radiohead album A Moon Shaped Pool. It’s really good, thankfully. There’s lush, layered sounds and a strange type of orchestration, with genuine emotion in a number of the songs.

One of the absolute highlights of the album comes at the end, with True Love Waits. It was included on a live album, I Might Be Wrong, but has never had a proper release. On the new album it is starkly different, stripped down with the main instrumentation on piano not guitar. The singing is more vulnerable and painful. It’s beautiful.

This seems to highlight to me the idea of letting things gestate and mature. It’s important to leave ideas alone for a little while so your subconscious can flesh them out. Often times when I come back to half scrawled notes and abandoned projects, I find new possibilities and approaches I had not considered before.

Some ideas hit you like a lighting bolt, fully formed and complete. You have to get them down as soon as possible. You work for hours, ignoring all loved ones and offers of food and drink. You feel like the work is just using you as a conduit. When it is done, you stumble away bleary eyed and dazed, amazed at what you have just created. These ideas are rare and need to be captured as soon as possible.

More common is the idea that reveals itself as you are working on it. You start with a vague, half formed line or two then feel your way through the story carefully, like a man in a half lit maze. Once done, you leave it alone for a while, then maybe draft again, having more of an idea of the right path. You work on it fairly solidly for a while, the maze is lit and you have a finished product at the end. You’re pleased with it. It took a lot of work and you hit a few dead ends, but it’s finished.

Or occasionally, there’s the Radiohead route. You get an idea but you can never get it to your satisfaction. You know you should just publish it or finish it, but it always feels incomplete. You might work it on several times, but it goes nowhere. So you chuck it in a file, or a folder and forget about it. Then months, years and decades later your mind wanders back to it, or you find the old file and suddenly everything makes sense. With the perspective of time everything clicks. It’s done, finally.

Some things aren’t instant. As much as the desire is strong to continually perfect the work, sometimes ideas take a while to gestate. Time and experience improves it in unexpected ways. This song from Radiohead took almost twenty years to be recorded definitively and is the perfect illustration of how an idea can mutate and change over time, if you just give it space.

Related reading which sort of inspired this post is here.

Let me know what you think