Jonny Greenwood, “Alma”

By Graham Ambrose


“Alma” is the best love song of 2017 and it doesn’t have a single lyric. It appears early in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, a tangled film about a waitress from the English countryside who becomes the muse of a celebrated London tailor. The song, written for the soundtrack by Radiohead multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, is about unadulterated joy — love at first sight.

It’s a joy that doesn’t last long. The tailor, we learn, loves his favorite model Alma to the extent that she blushes under his gaze and bows to his despotic, all-consuming genius. The romance soon falls apart: she surrenders to his will, he snubs her for his trade, she poisons him in retaliation. He wonders: did you come here to ruin my life? She wonders: why must you humiliate me? We wonder: what kind of love story is this anyway? The lovers seem more interested in nursing their hate than cherishing their passion. For a film in color, everything begins to feel drenched in grey.

And yet, and yet — there’s “Alma,” the song. Somber piano, weeping violins, the slow lilt of strings like a flower at the golden mist of dawn. It is slow and shy and ceaseless, reminiscent of that helpless smile before the hello. It is the kind of warm and wordless love that announces itself before it has arrived, like a waft of hidden tea.

“Alma” is Eden before the fall: a rapture that doesn’t last, a major progression halted by a minor chord. So the cruelty and unfairness of a cruel and unfair relationship become too acute to avoid, and the dueling strings, once twinkling with joy, now grate and whine at the initial feeling of warmth that’s steeled into cold hostility. Despair is no relief — it only burnishes the luster of the original sin.

So we hold onto what we can, the dream of “Alma.” Why not? Reality will disappoint — it must: it is, by definition, what the dream is not. The point’s not to pretend they’ll ever be the same but to delight in the starry nights that follow cold English rains. After all, we know better than to make believe true love. The characters know this too, Greenwood perhaps most of all.

And yet — and yet! — for the four-minute-seven-second duration of “Alma,” we learn to un-know again. Because memory, passion, the silk on our shoulders, they all tear and wear and stain the same. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t matter. This has no words, just the music, a faith in the bliss, something like “Alma.”