Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Thom Yorke: A Scientific Lyric Study

by Michael Strenski

Like any human being with a smattering of intelligence, I am an avowed Radiohead fan. Me and the band go way back. My earliest Radiohead recollection is of repeatedly listening to "Creep" from a cassette copy of the "S.F.W." soundtrack on my Walkman while riding my skateboard in the suburbs. I was wearing a ridiculous Sonic Youth beanie with a pom-pom on top of it. Welcome to the mid-90's.

I had Pablo Honey but I didn't really come on board until the Bends and the "Pulp Fiction" rip-off of a video for "High and Dry" that MTV played incessantly. Since then I have purchased each new Radiohead release (including EP's, but not singles or imports) on the day they came out, usually at 10am. When OK Computer was released I picked it up from Tower, went home and took a shower before listening to it so I would be as clean and pure as possible for that first experience. Very few bands elicit such rituals. I have since been willing to follow the band into any weird direction they decide on heading. Kid A was initially a struggle, most of which I blame on the mountains of press I devoured before its release telling me that it would be difficult. Nowadays it rests quite unchallenged at the top of my Radiohead list.

Flash forward to a week ago when "Atoms for Peace" came on the iPod shuffle. At this point I had owned Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke's solo album, the Eraser (that "Atoms for Peace" appears on) for two months already, and only listened to it in its entirety twice. I had simply not felt compelled to put it on, unlike every other Radiohead-affilated album. When played individually I enjoyed the songs, but on the whole the album seemed incredibly one-note and repetitive. I blame the instrumentation for that. The entire album features nine songs consisting of skittering electronic beats, treated piano and bass. That's it, save Thom's incredible voice. There are beautiful melodies and interplay between these sparse elements but it hasn't struck me as a compelling listen.

My biggest hang-up with the album is that it contains some of the worst lyrics I have ever heard. The biggest offender is within track six, the aforementioned "Atoms for Peace". At one minute and fifty-five seconds into the song Thom sings quite earnestly, "peel all of your layers off/I want to eat your artichoke heart." What the....??? Is this is a joke? How could anyone that's not a hormone-addled teenager write those lyrics with a straight face, let alone sing them? Much has been written about Thom Yorke's shortcomings as a lyricist, but until this album I had never really thought he was terrible. In fact, there are a lot of his lines that I truly love.

The more I thought about it it seemed that over the last decade of releasing records, Thom's lyrics have shifted away from more poetic wordplay to bare confessional lines, usually repeated over and over for emphasis. Now, a shift in lyrical style is not necessarily a bad thing. Since I was merely hypothesising at this point, I decided to conduct a scientific study on what I would call the Degeneration of Thom Yorke's Lyrics. Were his words in fact, getting worse? I decided that because the most offensive lyric to my taste appeared at one minute fifty-five seconds into track six on the album, I would study the lyrics on previous albums that appear at this moment. Below are my thoughts, results, and overall observations about the lyrical world of Mister Thom Yorke:

"Where I end and where you start
Where you, you left me alone"
-"Where I End and You Begin" from 02003's Hail to the Thief

This lyric is pretty self-explanatory and falls into the bare bones-style I mentioned above. With the music and producton, the lyrics manage to effectively convey the loneliness that the singer inhabits.

"Look into my eyes
It's the only way you'll know I'm telling the truth"
-"Knives Out" from 02001's Amnesiac

Right before the above lines are sung Thom claims that "if you'd been a dog, they would have drowned you at birth." Ouch. Harsh words to say the least, made all the more convincing by this simple line that follows. There is not much to these words but for some reason I find them really great.

"This one dropped a payload
Fodder for the animals
Living on animal farm"
-"Optimistic" from 02000's Kid A

The "one" mentioned here is the last in a group of ones that brings to mind the "this little piggy" game played with children's toes. This one is definitely the most sinister of the group. All in all a quite effective line.

"I've given all I can
But we're still on the payroll"
-"Karma Police" from 01997's OK Computer

This really surprised me. "Payroll" and "payload" appearing at exactly the same spot on the same track on two different albums? Kid A in a lot of ways was a comment on the phenominal critical success of OK Computer. Could the band have actually meant for this to sync up? It is highly unlikely but an interesting coincidence nonetheless. The payroll in this song is in fact not monetary but the karmic one. The character tries to do as much good as he can but continues to receive trouble.

"Nice dream
nice dream
nice dream"
-"(nice dream)" from 01995's the Bends

This is the chorus to one of the most exquisite in the Radiohead canon. On paper it doesn't amount to much, but sung repeatedly over a very gentle melody, it is just wonderful. Also it is the name of a Cheech and Chong movie. Another coincidence?

"Grow my hair
I am Jim Morrison"
-"Anyone Can Play Guitar" from 01993's Pablo Honey

Even if I had been trying to stretch my logic to maintain my original hypotheses about the degeneration of Thom Yorke's lyrics this puppy would have sunk that ship. Who the hell would want to be Jim Morrison? Not I, sir. This without a doubt proves my initial theory wrong. Thom Yorke has been producing clunkers among the passable lines and occasional gems since the beginning. This leads me to an even more interesting idea for an experiment:

Who the hell listens to Radiohead for the words?


  1. Could the band have actually meant for this to sync up?

    Definitely. Nyuck.

    On the real, though, your question is the best answer to your initial query. I was head over heels for OK Computer, too, and still sing along but he's no David Byrne, no matter how hard he tries. Hell, David Byrne is uneven and silly, too, but he had/has a sense of humor that Thom lacks.

    I have yet to listen to The Eraser. I downloaded a few leaks a while ago and thought it was alright. Then I dug the song at the end of SCANNER DARKLY but never bothered to buy it. I finally "stole" it from Evan last weekend but still--haven't put it on. Instead, I imediately listened to "Teen Angst" by M83 off Before The Dawn Heals Us. Who's immature now?

  2. This is one of the stupidest studies ever conducted. Radiohead/Thom Yorke is a lyrical genius you just fail to understand his brilliance. You have done no research whatsoever besides listening to the songs, hence; you are truly ignorant to the meanings behind each song. It is true that RH was lyrically inadept during Pablo Honey, but this was their first album and was destinied to be less complex than there other albums because of a lack of musical maturity. I think you fail to look at the eraser as whole and more importantly you fail to understand the underlying orwellian theme that justifes many of his songs and lyrics. Your lack of historical knoweldge perhaps prove your inability to impartially judge RH's albums the whole "atoms for peace" name is extremely symbolic as it was also a speech given by president Eisenhower's promotion to use atomic power for peace instead of warfare, which encapsulates thom's viewpoint of using energy correctly in a second. basically your study sucks.

  3. ^ ^ ^ what he said. what a serious load of bullshit and waste of time.

    'I am the keys to the lock in your heart;
    That keeps your toys in the basement'.


  4. Wow,anon #1, why the caustic reply? At least the originator of the article is digging... why are people so overly critical, why must you spew your vehement vitriol all over fellow fans. Multiculturalism implies many perspectives and methods. STFU.

  5. Thom York is totally multifaceted because he's a man who can create whatever he wants, he ad his band have created progressive music, alternative music, amnesiac music, that's what I like about this band, Thom York has an extraordinary voice.m10m

  6. He's a great artist! Idioque is the best contribution and everyone who loves Radiohead can support my version. As a singer, Yorke is recognisable by his distinctive light baritone voice, vibrato, frequent use of falsetto, and ability to reach and sustain notes over a wide vocal range. 23jj

  7. Thom writes beautiful, haunting lyrics. The quotations above do not convey his lyrical styles or depth. I include two of my favourite Thom lyrics:

    'Beautiful angel
    Pulled apart at birth
    Limbless and helpless
    I can't even recognize you'


    'Cracked eggs, dead birds
    scream as they fight for life
    I can feel death
    can see its beady eyes'

    I could go on and on.

  8. Your choice from "Where I end and You Begin" is the worst pick! You choose the most obvious lines, and lack the analytic skills to appreciate some of the others ("An X will mark the place, like the parting of the waves, like a house falling in the sea, in the sea/" is a much better example.

  9. Or the lyrics from Talk Show host? I mean its like a dog baring its teeth

  10. Your study is less than scientific guy (lafffff at the idea). Your lit skills are worse :/