In the music video for Atoms For Peace’s song “Before Your Very Eyes,” the sands of time are literally shifting and changing before our very eyes. The landscape rolls and dips, carving out canyons, without prejudice and without purpose. And then, from the sand, rises the crumbling image of the creative force behind Atom’s For Peace, Radiohead’s lead singer and songwriter, Thom Yorke, who urges the listener to grasp the life in front of them before the sands of time have taken you, too, piece by piece, back into the Earth.
A focused anxiety on the fickle and unemotional nature of time is not a new subject for Thom Yorke, who in the song “The Clock” says quite plainly, “Time is running out for us, but you just move the hands upon the clock, you throw coins in a wishing well…” (Thom Yorke). When asked about this song in particular, Yorke relates it directly to his frustration with the lack of action against climate change among political leaders, who despite acknowledging the threat, are just “sort of shuffling little bits of paper around on the table going, ‘yeah, we really need to do something about this’” (Yorke). This theme is then revisited in “Before Your Very Eyes” but this time the lyrics are aimed at the listener, and the stakes are personal, rather than global.
Yorke begins the song singing, “Look out of the window, what is passing you by, if you really want this bad enough…” (Atoms For Peace). He appeals to the listeners emotions, their desires and their dreams, and then tells them bluntly that those goals are passing them by. If something is truly important to you, Yorke argues, then you must make haste to those things because they will not wait for you. At this point in the song, and in the video, Yorke begins to sing the haunting chorus, “sooner or later, and before your very eyes,” repeating each phrase three times, as he melts away into the sand, his hands open and grasping at empty air.
In the next verse, he again broaches the subject of time and opportunity, singing, “time’s fickle card game with you and I, you have to take your chances…” (Atoms For Peace). As he gets out the last phrases of the second, and final, verse, his face crumbles beyond repair and sinks into the ground. Time has taken Thom Yorke back into the Earth, and he is no more present on the surface of the Earth. The video then reminds the listener that this process is nothing special, nor prejudiced, as we now watch the remnants of society, buildings, bridges, and landmarks, crumble and sink into the Earth as all things have done and will do. This stark image is a direct appeal to not only the listeners emotions, but also to their logic. The listener must face the reality of the passage of time, and that with or without us, it will continue. Yorke hopes that this will encourage the listener to take action in their life, to take chances when they can, and to savor every moment of it.
This presentation of the cold reality of the passage of time is confirmed in an interview with the music video’s director Thomas Andrew Huang who, aside from Yorke’s ideas, found inspiration for the video in Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” (Marquez). The poem by Shelley describes the discovery of a cracked and broken statue that has an inscription on its base that reads, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings; Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair” (Shelley). The irony of the poem is that, at the time of the statue’s discovery, nothing remains of the king and his claims.
In the final moments of the video, as Thom Yorke sings the chorus again, the listener is given an abstract and final, but meaningful, message. Below the surface of the Earth, Yorke emerges again while the decayed structures of the surface begin to melt down from above. All that once was continues to exist, though in unrecognizable forms, connecting and growing into something new. The lives we live and the societies we build are the foundations for the futures ahead of us and the decisions we make today may ring out for decades ahead. This is something that the listener must carefully consider when it comes to their choices in life because, as Yorke argues, the way our future looks will be shaped by these decisions.
The theme of “Before Your Very Eyes” could be seen as an examination of habitual procrastination and criticism of a lack-of-action on behalf of an individual. Procrastination itself is not an unfamiliar concept to most students with up to 60 percent of students reporting that they have, at one point, procrastinated on an assignment (Choy). The act of procrastinating is oddly self destructive in that, usually, one is aware of the negative consequences of their actions but chooses to experience them anyway. It may be a time management issue, or rather, as professor of psychology at Carleton University Dr. Tim Pychyl suggests, it is an emotional one (Lieberman). Dr. Pychyl and his team found in a study of procrastination that the issue was about “short term mood repair;” put simply, avoiding a task because it elicits bad feelings such as inadequacy or boredom (Lieberman). In this sense, Thom Yorke’s emotional appeal to listeners in his song is a very appropriate one.
The ideas presented in the lyrics and video for “Before Your Very Eyes” are relatable and important ones. If one has a desire to do something, it is in their best interest to do it, despite the path of hard work ahead of them. To engage in procrastination is truly to engage in an act of self-harm and an act against your own self interests. On a personal scale, we all have limited time to achieve our goals and to make the best of our lives. As a student, teaching yourself to avoid procrastination is something that is in your best interest. Research shows that students who procrastinate performed worse on their assignments and tests than the students who did not procrastinate (Pychyl). On a global scale, when decisive action is required then decisive action must take place now instead of leaving our problems to fester and get worse, only to achieve leaving the future generations of our planet an inheritance of unresolvable issues. Regardless, time will continue to pass either way and only we can choose the life that we will lead with the time that we are given. As Thom Yorke says, time is “fickle,” it has no loyalty to us or our interests and, before long, it will have passed you by. The power to be a more productive individual is in the hands of everyone.
Atoms For Peace. “Atoms For Peace – Before Your Very Eyes.” YouTube, uploaded by atomsforpeacetv, 17 October 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWrUEsVrdSU. Atoms For Peace. “Before Your Very Eyes.” Amok, XL, 2013.
Choy, Eunice E.Hang, and Him Cheung. “Time Perspective, Control, and Affect Mediate the Relation between Regulatory Mode and Procrastination.” Plos One, vol. 13, no. 12, Dec. 2018, p. e0207912. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0207912.
Lieberman, Charlotte. “Why You Procrastinate.” New York Times, 15 March 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/03/25/smarter-living/why-you-procrastinate-it-has-nothing-to-do-with-self-control.html.
Marquez, Matt. “Atoms For Peace’s Before Your Very Eyes.” Milk.xyz, 18 October 2013, http://www.milk.xyz/articles/2330-atoms-for-peace-s-before-your-very-eyes.
Pychyl, Timothy. “Academic Procrastination And Academic Achievement.” Psychology Today, 5 January 2016, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dont-delay/201601/academic- procrastination-and-academic-achievement.
Shelley, Percy. “Ozymandias.” The Examiner, 1818.
Thom Yorke. “The Clock.” The Eraser, XL, 2006.
Yorke, Thom. Interview by Craig Mclean. Observer Music Monthly, 18 June 2006, www.youtube.com/watch?v=9g4a1NlhoJQ.
Presentation link: https://prezi.com/view/VUztsUwkPEEp2AxSwax3