Thom Yorke has gone through a fascinating progression as a lyricist. Initially favouring the direct angst-filled observations of his fellow alt-rock peers, the Radiohead frontman began to drift further and further away from this forthrightness as he became more and more jaded with the realities of life as a rock star.
The seeds of discontent were sown on The Bends, as the band use self-reflection and observations of consumerism to kick back against their own status as one-hit wonders. It would take a full-fledged deconstruction of the modern world on OK Computer for the band to fully divorce themselves from the boneheaded post-grunge pack.
And yet Yorke seemed even more contemptuous of being a figurehead of the rock scene on Kid A, purposefully obscuring his lyrical meanings through electronic effects, jazz, and lemon sucking excursions. With obscurity and vagueness now the primary focus, Radiohead trekked beyond the typical realms of a rock band to explore spaces that were hitherto unknown in the mainstream.
Yorke was now free to follow his muse, whether that meant trudging through political discourse, celebrating the wonders of nature, or even returning to a more personal point of view. Through it all, he’s kept away from the more obvious lyrical trappings that writers can often fall into, using cut-up methods and stream of consciousness to bring an experimental edge without ever sacrificing lucidity in his words.
To celebrate his birthday, we’ve tracked the Radiohead frontman’s progression through his choice of lyrics. The mindset of Thom Yorke can often be at arms length from the jittery frontman performing on stage at any given concert, but it helps to dissect his choice of lyrical styles, and what the words may mean, to get a window into Yorke as a human being. Here are ten lyrics to illustrate show his evolution.
Tom Yorke’s 10 best Radiohead lyrics:
‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’, Pablo Honey
“If the world does turn, and if London burns
I’ll be standing on the beach with my guitar”
Tempting as it might be to summarise Thom Yorke’s wannabe rock star phase with the eternal chorus to the band’s biggest hit, ‘Creep’, Yorke actually gets the same point across in much more poetic fashion on a different Pablo Honey cut, ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’.
There are still the naive thoughts that becoming rich, famous and adored will solve all of your problems, but Yorke also is able to find a centre in the madness. This was the time when there wasn’t actually that much difference between Yorke saying “I wanna be Jim Morrison” and Adam Duritz saying “I wanna be Bob Dylan” on the Counting Crows’ ‘Mr. Jones’, but Yorke hints at some early esoteric leanings by employing some heavy apocalyptic imagery.
‘Fake Plastic Trees’, The Bends
“But I can’t help the feeling
I could blow through the ceiling
If I just turn and run”
The discontent for fame, glory, and guitar rock came quickly to Radiohead. Pegged as the leader of just another neanderthal grunge band, Yorke made a complete 180 degree turn from wanting to be Jim Morrison to wanting out of the wild spin of stardom. The Bends is a band trying to figure out how to no longer be the ‘Creep’ band, but not being mature or experienced enough to kickstart their evolution.
There are traces of this all across the album, from “You do it to yourself/ That’s why it really hurts” on ‘Just’ to “This is our new song/ Just like the last one/ A total waste of time” on ‘My Iron Lung’, but its the yearning of the emotional climax on ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ where Yorke actually gets closest to fully removing himself from his established rock persona.
‘Talk Show Host’, B-side
“You want me
Fucking well, come and find me
I’ll be waiting
With a gun and a pack of sandwiches”
Vivid descriptions would quickly fall out of favour within Thom Yorke’s lyric writing as he gravitated towards less specific and more obscure imagery. But every once in a while you can really hear him dig his heels in and hit you right between the eyes.
‘Talk Show Host’ is the B-side to The Bends-era single ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’, and the desperation and anger that combine in a searing force in Yorke’s voice is as potent as it would ever be. Before detachment and blurriness were to be the themes around his words, Yorke still had enough righteous fury and loopy references to stir his more volatile emotions.
‘Karma Police’, OK Computer
“For a minute there
I lost myself”
There was a strong inclination to put “I am the key to the lock in your house/ That keeps your toys in the basement/ And if you get too far inside/ You’ll only see my reflection” from ‘Climbing Up the Walls’ in this spot as a wonderfully creepy illustration of inner demons coming to life. But Yorke was able to condense all 53 minutes of OK Computer into just seven words on the coda section of ‘Karma Police’.
An album filled to the brim with anxieties about modern society, battles against the ever-creeping influx of modern technology, and the subsequent loss of identity that comes with it are what make OK Computer so prescient and timeless. But it’s when Yorke switches from babbling about buzzing like fridges, talking in maths, and Hitler hairdos to directly confronting his own disassociation on ‘Karma Police’ that the album truly solidifies its message and transcends to another level.
‘Everything In Its Right Place’, Kid A
“Yesterday, I woke up sucking on a lemon
Yesterday, I woke up sucking on a lemon
Yesterday, I woke up sucking on a lemon
Yesterday, I woke up sucking on a lemon”
OK Computer was the sound of Radiohead raging against the machine. Kid A was the sound of Radiohead becoming the machine. OK Computer had finally given Radiohead the critical adulation and commercial success to separate themselves from ‘Creep’ and explore any musical area that they wanted. And yet, Yorke still felt a tangible sense of loss and separation from just about anything and everything.
The solution was to go as abstract as possible. By subverting expectations of what a rock band should play and what Yorke should write as a lyricist, Radiohead were taking the bold step of challenging listeners to allow a more experimental and exploratory journey to unfold. It looks tremendously silly and stupid out of context, but the line about sucking lemons was the line of demarcation you had to cross in order to fully appreciate the genius of Kid A. If you could get on board with that, a groundbreaking album awaited you.
‘You and Whose Army?’, Amnesiac
“You and whose army?
You and your cronies
You forget so easily”
For all intents and purposes, Amnesiac was Kid A: Part II. Recorded during most of the same sessions and featuring most of the same themes, the album at best plays like a continuation of the randomness and discombobulation of Kid A and at worst like a series of outtakes that weren’t good enough to appear on the first LP. But one song featured a hint as to where the band were going: ‘You and Whose Army?’
One of the few political tracks in the Radiohead canon at the time, ‘You and Whose Army?’ features minimalist and repetitive lyrics that act as a sort of precursor to the sloganeering and soapboxing that Yorke would engage in on the band’s next album, Hail to the Thief.
It’s more subtle, and arguably more effective, on ‘You and Whose Army?’
‘2+2=5’, Hail to the Thief
“I’ll stay home forever
Where two and two always makes a five“
Welcome to the Orwellian dystopia known as Hail to the Thief. Years before a Donald Trump presidency made everyone a political commentator, Yorke adopted the persona to kick back against the previous Republican administration in The White House: George W. Bush.
On the opening track, Yorke makes his intentions clear by chastising those people whose ignorance and complacency has made corrupt and dangerous situations not only possible but highly probable. Referencing Nineteen Eighty Four, Yorke takes on not only the establishment but the pensive sheep as well during Hail to the Thief, a return to the direct lyrical style that he would once again turn away from in subsequent releases.
‘Videotape’, In Rainbows
“No matter what happens now
You shouldn’t be afraid
Because I know today has been
The most perfect day I’ve ever seen”
It took Yorke nearly a decade to finally face death with grace and contentment. In Rainbows is a joyous explosion, capturing Radiohead at their most optimist and least cynical that they would ever be. The music is vibrant, the band is locked in, and Yorke is actually in a positive state of mind.
It all comes back around on album closer ‘Videotape’. What could have been (and occasionally was) a bombastic kiss-off is stripped back to its absolute bare essentials, letting every note linger as Yorke conjures images of Mephistopheles and preservation of ‘the good old days’. It’s in the final stanza, however, where Yorke lets all his hard-earned pessimism slip away, revealing a deeply moving figure who faces the end with understanding and satisfaction.
‘Separator’, The King of Limbs
“The sweetest flowered fruits were hanging from the trees
Falling off the giant bird that’s been carrying me”
Finding someone’s favourite Radiohead album is often a laborious process, but one LP is usually knocked out early. To call The King of Limbs divisive is to belie the fact that it’s the least acclaimed Radiohead release since Pablo Honey. Taking the electronic experimentalism of Kid A and using it as a basis for an increased focus on rhythm and dance means that the lyrics on The King of Limbs are usually not at the forefront.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some genius lines, however. The King of Limbs is at its best when Yorke gets descriptive in his assessments of nature and twists them in unexpected ways. His lines on album closer ‘Separator’ are Yorke at his most psychedelic, and for an album known for its minimalism, it’s nice to hear Yorke unafraid to gets beautifully heady in his imagery.
‘True Love Waits’, A Moon Shaped Pool
“I’m not living
I’m just killing time
Your tiny hands
Your crazy kitten smile”
It would have been great to wrap up Thom Yorke’s legacy with a nice neat bow on ‘Videotape’. Facing death with loving compassion would have been a storybook ending, but Yorke’s life kept unfolding with saddening and ultimately tragic turns. With the separation from his ex-wife Rachel Owen, and her eventual death after the album’s release, A Moon Shaped Pool was destined to be a more muted affair.
Yorke had finally found the appropriate setting to place one of Radiohead’s best-loved tracks, ‘True Love Waits’. The sorrowful and mournful tune had been premiered live all the way back in 1995, and it makes a dour but ultimately fitting summation of Radiohead’s career to have it come around on their most meditative and powerful LP to date.