Sep 28 2009

Great Songs - No Surprises

Song name: No Surprises
Composer: Radiohead (Thom Yorke, Johnny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Phil Selway, Ed O'Brien)
Album: OK Computer

No Surprises occupies kind of a strange place in the Radiohead oeuvre, and marks the end of a kind of tender song that Yorke stopped composing in 1997 (he eventually returned to it in recent work). To have heard the song with its original lyrics, it would have reminded everyone instantly of Fake Plastic Trees, both in terms of its musical composition and subject matter. In the end, the tune was changed completely to fit into OK Computer's dominant postmodern theme, without losing any of its ability to affect.

The tune begins with a rather simple arpeggio in F to Bbm, with Ed O'Brien playing way up on the neck of a guitar with perhaps just a bit of reverb:

This isn't very usual. In particular it's notable that the Db during the second part of the riff is a dissonant note. Colin merely supports this with a root bass part to shore it up before the band comes in. Johnny then comes in with a xylophone, ringing out in a kind of understated way.

The verse comes in over a chord structure that is quite reminiscent of earlier work on The Bends:

The F gives way to a Dmaj7, a change which is functionally only adding a lower D note to the F chord, which is all over that album. Yorke sings

A heart that's full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won't heal

These lyrics are much different from the originals Yorke wrote in 1995 while on tour with REM. The original verse came in

He was sick of his clock stopping
Wind it up, that girl said
Sleeping next to him

What began as a rather sorrowful tune about two detached lovers, here morphs into something a bit different. This is quite fitting on an album about alienation, as the tune goes from being about two people, to being about a single person---one removed from ambition, worn down by life, playing out his place in society with a quiet desperation.

Also striking about the two versions is that Yorke brings down the melody by a full octave. This is something people don't pay enough attention to. When someone is singing hear the edge of his register, the words have more power, because the singer is able to project a lot better, and his body is straining to get the words out. Not so here. Yorke adopts something close to or even below his normal speaking voice, emphasizing (or, perhaps, de-emphasizing) perfectly the song's chorus:

The song then adopts a slight shift in tone. Here the character moves from hopelessness to complaint. While impotent and unhappy, he acts out in the only way he can

This is my final fit
My final bellyache with
No surprises

The chorus gives way to a musical interlude with a more or less simple chord structure incorporating, not the Bbm, but a Bb major chord. After 4 measures the whole things comes crashing down to a Gm7, but returns to a C major in a moment that seems almost triumphant:

What follows is perhaps the final stage of grief.

Such a pretty house
And such a pretty garden
With no alarms and no surprises

We don't really know if acceptance is right. We only know it's what we do; we mainly live out a meaningless state of survival, maintaining a bare amount of entertainment while waiting for something eventful to happen, which it so rarely does. (Of note here: the original lyrics are really about the same thing. In that case, though, it was two people living out such a life.)

Yorke says that the song was meant to be cheerful, coming as it does after Climbing up the walls: "Hope-giving, clean and safe". I never believe what Yorke says, but anyway it ultimately does not matter what the artist thinks his work means. In any case, Yorke later stated, in reference to this tune, "What is fad today is rubbish tomorrow. I am an emotional dumping ground." The moments we wait for, those events, mainly give enough false hope to keep us going, in view of the song's speaker---the barest amount to keep us from suicide.

The song is aesthetically beautiful, apart from any meaning attached to it, particularly following the the first chorus when a melancholic harmony emerges above the main riff, and when Ed sings over the final chorus. The words are actually some of the least opaque that Yorke has written. In this way No Surprises manages to evoke something bittersweet, both in music and lyrics, and never, to me, seems to be forcing some kind of message.

Watch the video of No Surprises