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)" 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?
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
by Michael Strenski