What came first, Radiohead or the misery? We couldn't help but get pulled into Radiohead, even though they've presented so much panic, paranoia, gloom, misery and malaise. Happier people laughed at us, called us pretentious, and told us to turn off the mope rock. (Even though they were secretly in love with us.)
But we didn't give up on Radiohead because they never stopped being innovative both onstage and in the studio. They never stopped making beautiful, mysterious music. And what's more, Thom Yorke never stopped telling the truth.
In the scope of things, Yorke may not even get enough credit as a lyricist. When people talk about Radiohead, it is often regarding their studio experimentation, their sonic qualities. And as for Yorke, they'll talk about his voice and his melodies, but listeners often take his lyrics for granted. Between the technological obsessions of OK Computer and the existential dread of Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead's music became the signifier of a secret message for malcontents loaded within Yorke's words (even though half of his material is focused on relationships.)
"You want me?
Well f*ckin' and come and find me.
I'll be waiting
with a gun and a pack of sandwiches."
- "Talk Show Host"
Might as well start with a joke. The image of an anti-gub'ment survivalist watching with binoculars, just waiting for the moment for The Man to step foot on his land. It's kind of funny. And Yorke's favorite pronoun, "you," makes an appearance. Who is he speaking to? The figure in the shadows, the nefarious characters who operate the System? With such a confrontational tone, this is obviously a severe situation.
"Well of course I'd like to sit around and chat.
Well of course I'd like to stay and chew the fat.
Well of course I'd like to sit around and chat,
but someone's listening in."
- "Life in a Glass House"
Kid A was analysed to death, often interpreted as a forecast of the 21st century. But Yorke's most eerily prophetic lines come at the end of Kid A's sister album, Amnesiac. While the band pinned Kid A as a foretelling of 9/11, the Patriot Act, the Endless War, and the Culture of Fear, "Life in a Glass House" articulates what Yorke always assumed to be true since the turn of the century: privacy is dead. And what that quandary will do when loosed upon our psyches is a part of the 21st-century experience.
"High up above, aliens hover,
making home movies for the folks back home
of all these weird who lock up their spirits,
drill holes in themselves and live for their secrets."
- "Subterranean Homesick Alien"
What's crazy about this classic OK Computer song is that's it's fun. Its story of alien abduction is amusing on a surface level, and Greenwood's laser-guided guitar licks feel good. "Subterranean" is about as lighthearted Radiohead will ever get. And still, Yorke slips in a substantial amount of existential pondering with an out-of-body, out-of-self, out-of-earth, out-of-humanity experience.
"I jumped in the river, what did I see?
Black-eyed angels swam with me,
a moon full of stars and astral cars,
and all the figures I used to see."
- "Pyramid Song"
This passage is about the life and the dream-life and how they are one in the same. What's going on here? Kierkegaard said, "Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced." This is the puzzling sound and vision of that reality.
"Has the light gone out for you?
Cause the light's gone out for me.
It is the 21st century,
it is the 21st century."
Perhaps it's too on the nose, but Yorke embraces the role of the prophet on this track ("I've seen it coming, I've seen it coming"). When Yorke wails these words during the breakdown of "Bodysnatchers," it is like the climax of Radiohead's entire thesis. It sort of feels like a callback to the themes of Kid A, precisely "The National Anthem," in which Yorke speaks of anxiety caused by space and time. Kierkegaard also said, "Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom." And so much of the dread we feel when staring into the abyss of existence (or, y'know, listening to Radiohead) is, in fact, the experience of a free-thinking mind. We are not afraid to experience that freedom of the mind.
And that is why we love Yorke. Because he is not afraid to feel that freedom with us.