Thom Yorke gets plenty of flack for singing like a whiny child who’s just been told Santa isn’t real, but is the Radiohead songwriter really as miserable as people make out? We’ve unearthed his very best lyrics to get to grips with the enigma.
10 Wolf at the Door
Having grown up in Oxford, Thom had a lasting resentment for the privileged, loutish students who’d lord it up around the city before taking their pre-ordained places atop the political food chain. This lyric, from 2003’s ‘Hail to the Thief’, captures a loathsome image that’s instantly recognisable, in both its literal and figurative senses.
9 Let Down
Where ‘Pablo Honey’ and ‘The Bends’ poetically sensationalised the feelings we expect rock bands to express – romantic yearning, jealousy, post-fame blues – ‘OK Computer’ tapped into a modern ennui that rock music just hadn’t explored before. ‘Let Down’’s opening verse is a perfect example, using Thom’s phobia of transport to springboard a reflection on the spiritual emptiness that accompanies forward-momentum.
8 Paranoid Android
As ‘Paranoid Android’’s second act winds down in its offensively gorgeous reverie, Thom yelp-rasps this bizzare role-play, depicting someone getting unceremoniously shafted from a strangely chthonic-sounding pub. His narrator’s alienation, misanthropy and agoraphobia bleed through, making this a full house in Thom Yorke bingo.
7 Knives Out
Dismissed by many casual listeners as pretentious gibberish, fifth album ‘Amnesiac’ was deceptively feisty, baring its fangs at complacent, well-off consumers on lyrics like this. The mouse represents the products we mindlessly buy – food, clothes, etc – without thinking about their origins, or their effects on our mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing. These vegans, eh.
6 Talk Show Host
Who knows what he’s getting at here, but there’s something undeniable about Thom’s taunting pack of sandwiches – it’s an image so hauntingly deranged you have to respect the narrator, like a madcap movie villain more relatable than the protagonist.
5 Fitter Happier
Narrated in computerised monotone over a piano that sounds like a slow plague, ‘Fitter Happier’ is a dark ballad that drips doom, each pseudo-motivational command launching a new, vivid nightmare in your imagination. Towards the end, this ambiguous segment seems to skew optimistic, but its robotic itemisation of the components of love and humanity make it all the creepier.
Rock music’s is a room so packed full of elephants it’s a wonder there’s room for music, but count on Radiohead to unearth a few of its suppressed themes. One such elephant is global warming, a subject even Bono’s kept his nose out of, but this line shows its possible to perceptively capture the folly of excess without seeming self-serving.
Guys? Seriously, let’s say it: although ‘Pablo Honey’ can’t match its siblings’ scope or excitement, one thing it has in spades is simplicity. This mopey ‘Creep’ lyric adds nothing to the rock tradition, but it takes a bratty, lovelorn sense yearning we all know and distils it into a lyric of love and vulnerability that couldn’t exist anywhere but a pop song.
One of those mindlessly beautiful lyrics that defies explanation, this gem from ‘Videotape’ somehow contains devotion, fear, vulnerability, trust, and a smidgeon of mortal terror in its ten syllables.
1 True Love Waits
It’s hard to say what makes this one such a gut-puncher – worth noting the Biblical image of drowning babies, which resonates subconsciously – other than by saying that, at a literal level, this is the prettiest thing Thom’s yet written. What happens when we’re blindly swept up in love is that our psyche starts tossing out bits of who we are like cargo on a sinking ship, ruthlessly scheming and self-scrutinising to become who we want to be for this perfect new person. Beliefs, the last relic of our old identity, are dispensable too.