For one reason or another I am currently on a massive Radiohead binge. Whilst I do have a massive amount of respect for the band (see here), I am not a massive fan. I don’t normally listen to them so religiously as I do at the moment. So today I want to write about their single, No Surprises.
I think it is one of the best pop songs of all time.
Musically, it is very simple. Yet it is beautiful. The glockenspiel adds a lovely, heavenly aspect to the song. None of the instruments try to do too much, but it isn’t overly sparse either.
The light sound, with its simplicity stands in sharp contrast with the very bleak and confrontational lyrics. These are a mix of cries of exasperation with depressing modern lifestyles with revolutionary demands to “bring down the government”, if not as a solution, then at least an act of defiance. Taking these lyrics and comparing them to earlier works such as Creep, we see the theme emerge.
“I don’t care if it hurts/I want to have control” cries Thom Yorke and we see the reflection of sarcastic pleas for “an easy life/a handshake of carbon monoxide” (a reference to a method of suicide popular with the middle classes), in No Surprises.
The only interpretation of the chorus of “No alarms and no surprises” can then only be read as a damning indictment of those who would sacrifice happiness and freedom for stability and security.
Yet despite this, for many listeners the meaning is inverted, much like Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World or Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA, into a sing-along for the opposite of the author’s intent.
Whether this is artists subliminally placing subversive messages into their work or another example of mainstream co-option of art (see the London Olympic adverts using the apocalyptic London Calling by The Clash as a theme tune), depends on your point of view. But there is no denying the song is a far cry from the lullaby it pretends to be at first listen. It truly is a song full of surprises.