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The Radiohead Racket

The real mystery behind Thom Yorke's lyrics: How come everyone thinks they're so profound?

Jim Dyson / Getty Images

Late last month, the Radiohead universe stirred. Postcards reading “We know where you live” appeared in fans’ mailboxes. The band’s website and social-media accounts were wiped clean, and then those same accounts posted too-brief snippets of a stop-motion music video. “For the past week, Radiohead’s Reddit forum has been a source of wonder,” the Independent’s Jamie Milton wrote. “Every minuscule detail—from the integers at which an Instagram teaser lands, to the number of times a bird chips—are pointers for what to expect. And the band are fully aware of this. They’re playing the game, interacting with their fans on an honest and mischievous level.”

This game is otherwise known as marketing. Radiohead raised expectations to such a pitch that, when the full video for the new single “Burn the Witch” was released on May 3, the reaction online was that of a sustained orgasm. Pitchfork’s Jillian Mapes called the track “a direct line” to the band’s “golden era,” adding that it “has the makings of an all-time great Radiohead song.” The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber wrote, “Sonically novel yet viscerally moving, gorgeous yet terrifying, it is the sound of Radiohead returning to do what it exists to do.” The Guardian took the populist approach by soliciting mini-reviews from fans. Their conclusions: “a genius slice of Orwellian social commentary.” “It’s like ‘Creep’ again but with extra terror.” “It feels like Sudoku for the ears.”

The internet rapture was accompanied, as every new Radiohead release is, by attempts to decode frontman Thom Yorke’s lyrics. “Does anyone else think Radiohead’s ‘Burn the Witch’ could be a metaphor for anti-speech crisis on college campuses?” Robby Soave, an editor at Reason, asked on Twitter. CNN executive editor Ram Ramgopal described the song as “political—and very dark.” Another Pitchfork piece determined that Radiohead “use pastoral English imagery to confront a global phenomenon”—anti-immigrant nationalism and “paranoid demagoguery”—and explicitly linked Trumpton, the 1967 stop-motion British children’s series that inspired the “Burn the Witch” video, with Donald Trump (the two have no actual relation, of course). Vox, in the most circuitous take on the internet, explained that “Hot Fuzz is one giant homage to The Wicker Man, which makes ‘Burn the Witch’ comparisons inevitable.”

Yorke has long been reticent about his artistic intentions, so Radiohead watchers are left to speculate about the meaning of his lyrics and scour interviews for clues. Virpi Kettu, the animator of the “Burn the Witch” video, appeared to provide much more than a clue in an interview with Billboard, saying the band was troubled by the reaction in Europe to the refugee crisis—“the blaming of Muslims and the negativity” that could lead to sentiments such as “burn the witch.” Fans and music writers pounced on this morsel like starved beasts. The riddle is solved! But a note later appended atop the piece, likely due to pressure from the band, stated, “The opinions expressed in this article about ‘Burn the Witch’ do not necessarily reflect those of the band…” In its aggregation of Billboard’s story, the Independent lamented, “So, as is always the way with Radiohead, the mystery continues.”

Does it? Yorke’s lyrics are not unlike Radiohead’s marketing strategy: optimized to cultivate mystery. Fans, critics, and even academics, spellbound by the band’s music, have taken the bait and delivered one overwrought interpretation after another. You might describe this phenomenon with a word commonly employed in Radiohead reviews: groupthink. But this is less the fault of the interpreter than the composer. Thom Yorke is the most overrated lyricist in music today. The question is whether that should diminish Radiohead’s standing as an all-time great band.

Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley had the most astute reaction to “Burn the Witch”:

In fact, they did: “Burn the Witch” appears to have existed for more than a decade. But Mathis-Lilley’s point—if meant only as a joke—should be well taken, as the same could be said of many of the song’s lyrics: It seems impossible that Yorke somehow hadn’t already written the lines “loose talk around tables,” “abandon all reason,” “avoid all eye contact,” “do not react,” “shoot the messengers”? (What’s more, those phrases are sung in exactly that sequence.) Ditto the second single, “Daydreaming,” where “the damage is done” and “we are just happy to serve you,” and indeed such empty, quotidian sayings appear throughout much of 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool: “I won’t turn around when the penny drops,” “out of sight and out of mind,” “there’s nowhere to hide,” “one day at a time,” and so on.

It wasn’t always this way. Early Radiohead was direct and didn’t hide its feelings. The band’s first hit, and still its most famous song to date, is as on-the-nose as pop songs come: “I wish I was special / You’re so fuckin’ special / But I’m a creep / I’m a weirdo / What the hell am I doing here? / I don’t belong here.” Those sentiments were perfectly suited to the angsty early ’90s, but probably make Yorke and company cringe today. The rest of the lyrics on Radiohead’s debut, Pablo Honey, are similarly direct—love songs, hate songs, doubt songs, and even one titled “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” where Yorke (sarcastically?) growls, “I wanna be wanna be wanna be Jim Morrison.” Most of it wouldn’t pass muster in a middle-school poetry class.

Everything about the band improved immeasurably on 1995’s The Bends. The lyrics retain the passion of Pablo Honey, but they’re less maudlin and even occasionally intriguing. On “The Bends,” Yorke sings, “Just lying in the bar with my drip feed on / Talking to my girlfriend, waiting for something to happen.” I’m not quite sure what “Fake Plastic Trees” is about—is the narrator in love with a woman who’s trapped in a marriage to a plastic surgeon?—but the domestic despair is unmistakable. “Just” is a spit-flecked fuck-off to someone (a friend, allegedly), while “Black Star” is perhaps best described as a cosmic breakup song. And then there’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” a song Yorke has said “wrote itself,” adding, “I detach my emotional radar from that song, or I couldn’t play it. I’d crack. I’d break down on stage. That’s why its lyrics are just a bunch of mini-stories or visual images as opposed to a cohesive explanation of its meaning.”

This would steadily became the rule rather than the exception. Just as the band’s music evolved from the straight rock of Pablo Honey to the post-prog of Kid A in 2000, the lyrics began to favor “mini-stories or visual images” over more direct, coherent narratives. This transition marked the band’s lyrical—and, importantly, musical—peak. A classic like “Paranoid Android,” on 1997’s OK Computer, doesn’t tell a linear story per se, but plants the listener inside a brain going haywire: “Please, could you stop the noise? I’m trying to get some rest / From all the unborn chicken voices in my head.” “Electioneering” skewers two-faced politicians and explicitly references the growing anti-globalization movement: “Riot shields, voodoo economics / It’s just business, cattle prods and the I.M.F.” And “Subterranean Homesick Alien” sees humanity from a unique vantage: “Up above aliens hover / Making home movies for the folks back home / Of all these weird creatures who lock up their spirits / Drill holes in themselves and live for their secrets.”

OK Computer established the themes that would come to define Radiohead: the dehumanization, disappointment, horror, hysteria, alienation, and oppression of modern society. (Did I get them all? Despair and desperation? Crippling solitude? Spiritual bankruptcy?) Nothing captured this quite like “Fitter Happier,” which was more a statement of artistic purpose than a song: A robotic voice delivers a sort of human performance review (“Not drinking too much / Regular exercise at the gym … Eating well / No more microwave dinners and saturated fats”) that ends damningly with “Fitter / Healthier and more productive / A pig in a cage on antibiotics.”

2000’s Kid A and 2001’s Amnesiac, which were recorded in the same sessions, refined these lyrical themes while further abstracting them. Most of these songs don’t even tell “mini-stories,” since that implies a narrative arc of some kind. They’re an assemblage of moments (“Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon”), imagery (“A moon full of stars and astral cars”), and declarations (“You can try the best you can / The best you can is good enough”); if there are stories to be found therein, it’s only through interpretation. Of course, these words weren’t meant to be read on the page like poetry, but doing so reveals the beginnings of what would become a lyrical crutch. Let’s call them Radioheadisms: idioms, proverbs, maxims, aphorisms, or other common expressions that have either been repeated verbatim or tweaked in some way.

On Kid A and Amnesiac, for example: “take the money and run,” “women and children first,” “you and whose army?,” “turn the other cheek,” and “nowhere to hide” (which also appears on A Moon Shape Pool) are all familiar phrases, while “everything in its right place” is almost certainly a twist on “a place for everything and everything in its place.” Yorke couldn’t resist taking an anti-Bush slogan for the title for Hail to the Thief, the 2003 album whose art booklet is a litany of Radioheadisms (including “burn the witch”). The lead single of that album, “2 + 2 = 5,” is a reference to a famous scene from George Orwell’s 1984, thus ensuring “Orwellian” as the most overused adjective in Radiohead reviews. “Sail to the Moon” surely references the Thomas Merton quote, “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we cannot cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?” And throughout the album are phrases like “there is no way out,” “over my dead body,” “we are accidents waiting to happen,” “a bull in a china shop,” and “the pot will call the kettle black.” The trend continues on 2007’s In Rainbows and 2011’s The King of Limbs:

  • “How come I end up where I started?”
  • “Won’t take my eyes off the ball again.”
  • “Did the cat get your tongue?”
  • “Don’t get any big ideas.”
  • “Little by little by hook or by crook.”
  • “I can’t kick your habit.”
  • “We will shrink and we’ll be quiet as mice / And while the cat is away / Do what we want.”
  • “I think I should give up the ghost.”

I am cherry-picking, of course. There are plenty of original, if not terribly inspired, turns of phrase throughout these later albums. But Yorke’s increasing reliance on familiar language—which may well be deliberate, to sap our common tongue of meaning and expose the vapidity of everyday discourse—contributes to a senseless mush. Radiohead rarely tells even mini-stories anymore, and instead leaves the listener with a vague impression of those many themes that music writers have identified ad nauseum. This was less of a problem when the music was transportive, as it reliably was through the In Rainbows sessions. But The King of Limbs and now A Moon Shape Pool are as musically diffuse as their lyrics, leaving the words themselves exposed. They have nowhere to hide, you might say.

After the release of “Burn the Witch” but before A Moon Shaped Pool, Salon’s Scott Timberg wrote, “It may be wrong to expect a band that trades in mystery and indirection to make any of its themes and ideas explicit, but a unified album around a set of concerns—not unlike OK Computer—would be quite welcome.” He did not get his wish. “Burn the Witch” and “Daydreaming” are exemplars of Radioheadisms, but the rest of the album doesn’t skimp. On “Decks Dark,” “We are helpless to resist / In your darkest hour.” On “Present Tense,” “I am doing / No harm / As my world / Comes crashing down / I’m dancing / Freaking out / Deaf, dumb, and blind.” There’s even a track titled “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief,” which just might be the apex of Radioheadisms.

But where a few of us see predictability, many others see profundity. On “Burn the Witch,” The Guardian’s Michael Hann scrambled to find meaning: “The lyrics appear to be skirting around the surveillance society, but equally they might be meditating on the difficulties of open discussion in an age where thought is scrutinised and policed by the public itself on social media, where any idle thought runs the risk of seeing one condemned as #problematic.”

In a gushing review (rating: 9.1), Pitchfork’s Jay Greene acknowledges the existence of Radioheadisms, writing that the band has “a unique grasp on how easily profundity can slip into banality. Their music is obsessed with the point where great truths harden into platitudes, where pure signal meets wretched noise. In the past, Thom Yorke has sharply peppered his lyrics with everyday cliches to suggest a mind consumed by meaningless data, but on the new album, he largely moves beyond cynicism. He is now considering simpler truths in a heretofore-unexplored register: wonder and amazement.” And yet, as evidence, he cites an everyday cliche from the album—“We are just happy to serve you”—and argues, “It sounds for all the world like the most cloistered and isolated soul in modern rock music opening up and admitting a helplessness far more personal than he’s ever dared.” Greene writes this despite, I assume, being familiar with “Creep.”

Kornhaber, of The Atlantic, speculates that “Radiohead may have been suggesting a new era”—rather than inventing a marketing gimmick—when it scrubbed its internet presence. “Stipulated: If it was controversial to see Lemonade as Beyoncé’s autobiography,” he writes, “it’s probably criminal to go around talking about A Moon Shaped Pool as a breakup album for Yorke, who, the legend goes, wrote parts of Kid A off of phrases pulled from a hat. Nevertheless,”—here it comes—“this album makes the most sense when heard as a document of a wrenching chapter for one human being.” He concludes about “True Love Waits,” the final track on the album: “True love feels as though it’s being sung about in airquotes; it’s a construct that can erase individuality, a myth that the singer believed in until he didn’t.”

Amanda Petrusich, writing at The New Yorker, similarly proposes to peek inside Yorke’s mind, to glean his intentions in an essay titled, “Radiohead Thinks the Internet Is Turning Us All Into Creeps.” She links “Burn the Witch” to how “[o]ur present cultural climate discourages empathy—a stay-in-your-lane policing has been afoot for a while now—and demands the performance of absolute authority. The idea that a person could work to understand another, to assume their struggles and their triumphs, to question them, and to love them regardless, is the crux of any spiritually functioning civilization. Yet this seems to be Radiohead’s real anxiety: that we are all forgetting how to know each other, and how to be properly alive.” (Emphasis mine.)

Radiohead has a way of doing this to writers, even very fine ones. As a recovering music critic and (increasingly disillusioned) fan, I understand how difficult it can be to capture the feeling of a great Radiohead song in words. I understand the urge to reach for new heights in describing their music, to glean meaning in the mess, to match Radiohead’s ambition with your own. I also know how futile that is—not because any given music writer’s talents are no match for Yorke’s, but because his words don’t merit the massive critical effort devoted to them over the years. Yes, his lyrics are “cryptic,” but that’s just another way of saying that they intentionally make no sense. Many critics and fans see this as a challenge rather than acknowledging the more obvious truth: Yorke’s greatest lyrical gift is his practiced inscrutability.

This is not to argue that Yorke’s lyrics are entirely devoid of meaning. They unquestionably convey dread, panic, and fear—feelings often linked to our dystopian society, but other times resulting simply from a broken heart. Nor am I arguing that critical analysis of Radiohead is pointless. By all means, search for deeper meanings and broader significance. But Yorke’s lyrics are not an Easter egg hunt. To divorce his words from his wailing falsetto is to sap their power (and would you even know what he’s saying if it weren’t for As Mark Greif of n+1 writes in “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop”:

We don’t even agree about how the interconnection of pop music and lyrics, rather than the words spoken alone, accomplishes an utterly different task of representation, more scattershot and overwhelming and much less careful and dignified than poetry—and bad critics show their ignorance when they persist in treating pop like poetry, as in the still-growing critical effluence around Bob Dylan.

In other words, the lyrics are inextricable from the music (sorry, Genius users). On the serene but largely listless A Moon Shaped Pool, where strings and acoustic fingerpicking are pushed to the fore, that does not redound to Yorke’s benefit. The title is apropos: With the exception of the jittery “Burn the Witch” and “Identikit,” listening to the album is not unlike taking a warm, occasionally agitated bath; it’s soothing and all, but the longer you immerse yourself, the colder it leaves you. It’s no coincidence that the only moving song on the album, “True Love Waits,” was written two decades ago. If only Yorke still wrote lines like these: “I’ll drown my beliefs / To have your babies / I’ll dress like a niece / And wash your swollen feet / Just don’t leave.”

Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff, whom The Guardian calls a “bookish chap,” put it much less academically than Greif when he told the paper in 2014, “I like lyrics—I like writing, I like words—but I don’t feel like good lyrics are a prerequisite to music being good.” Asked for an example, he said, “I mean, Radiohead’s lyrics are terrible—but Radiohead is a really great band.” It’s a harsher critique than mine—does “terrible” leave any room for the likes of Pitbull and Nickelback?—but even Yorke might agree with the underlying point about the secondary importance of language in music. In an Ask Me Anything in 2013, a Reddit user referred to Yorke’s lyrics as “a mixture between stream of consciousness and the genuinely confessional.” Yorke replied, sics and all: “confessional?!! mm i don;t think so at all. do you think M Stipe’s lyrics are confessional? what is within is also stream of consciousness is also gibberish and also just sounds. by the time the words have stuck, they have just stuck. the glue is set and i can’t undo. before that is a messy bit. does that help? ofcourse not.”

That helps very much, in fact. Yorke has never made more sense.