No Surprises by Radiohead: Lyrics Meaning and Interpretation
From fairy tale high school beginnings to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Radiohead is a band for the ages. Members of the band first met at an all-boys school in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, in the 1980s. Over the years they have become one of the longest and most successful musical acts of all time. They first called themselves On A Friday, alluding to the day on which they would hold practice sessions in the school music room. A record deal with EMI records in 1991 led them to drop the name On A Friday and become Radiohead.
‘No Surprises’ was a single on the album ‘OK Computer.’ The band took several takes while recording the song. Though, the final release was the first take itself as everyone felt it was the best. The song’s music video serves as a fine personification of human existence. In it, we see lead singer Thom Yorke wearing an astronaut-style helmet. There is water slowly filling the helmet. Thom Yorke peaks up his head to sing until the rising water makes him breathless, as people try to survive until the troubles of the world stifle their spirit. But then the water gets released, like someone’s troubles come to pass and Yorke can sing again. The song serves a double-edged message: one for the hopeless, another for the hopeful.
What does the title mean?
The title ‘No Surprises’ is a fragment from the chorus ‘No Alarms and No Surprises.’ The singer clearly wants to live a life of peacefulness and calm. They wish to quit the daily toil of making a living, spending, having fun, being sad and instead, simply be present. The title speaks to those who wish for no surprises, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that distresses or disturbs them. It is a song for those who want a happy, normal, simple existence but know it is a far-fetched ideal.
Verse 1 – What does it mean?
‘A heart that’s full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you’
The first line is probably the most iconic in the song and the album, by extension. The singer uses a landfill as a metaphor for his heart. A landfill is a large trash dumping site. Each new day, more rubbish gets thrown atop the day before’s rubbish. The process is never-ending. This results in older things becoming buried and forgotten. The landfill is like the singer’s heart which presses down unsavory memories only to see that another load is coming up fast. The troubles of the past are made immaterial by newer troubles. The process of happiness followed by despair is as unshakable as a landfill being topped with more trash.
‘Bruises that won’t heal
You look so tired, unhappy
Bring down the government
They don’t, they don’t speak for us’
The next four lines speak of the monotony of everyday life. The singer’s spirit has been destroyed by his job, his physical strength has been ruined by the labor of meaningless work. These lines speak of what a normal life can do to those who had thought they were destined for more. The bruises that won’t heal are the blows that life has laid on the singer, making him tired and unhappy. Those who are more worldly might want to change the government. They might also think that their life will improve as a result. The singer doesn’t want to go through with the charade of trying to change politics and society for he knows that it is a long-drawn, futile exercise.
‘I’ll take a quiet life
A handshake of carbon monoxide’
When heard in its singularity, the quiet life is a happy and hopeful image. It finally makes the listener think that there is a way out of everything after all. A quiet life in a rural place will heal the bruises. A quiet life is what the singer wants. But the very next moment we learn that the quiet life reached by a handshake with carbon monoxide. Death by carbon monoxide poisoning is a means of suicide which involves locking oneself up in a garage and leaving the car engine on. We realize that the quiet life is much more final than a countryside home for the singer, that it lies in death.
These lines are a representation of the mystique that makes music great. A mystique that is synonymous with Radiohead. Any one line could mean different things for different people. Some meanings intended, some not.
What Does The Chorus Mean?
‘And no alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises
The singer wishes for no alarms, nothing to break their rhythmic living and nothing to remind them of the things they have to do but don’t necessarily want to. More than two decades after its release, the chorus still rings in hearts of the working class. The alarm clock is a reminder for them to labor for long hours, work second jobs, fight for their mere survival. Several things surprise the working class: an unexpected expense, rising inflation, war, and unemployment. All the singer wants is a life without sullen reminders and disparaging surprises.
Verse 2 – What does it mean?
‘This is my final fit
My final bellyache’
In two curt lines, the idea of peace is solidified around death. The singer says that this is his final fit, his final bellyache. A fit is what accompanies a seizure, most commonly in persons living with epilepsy. The ‘bellyache’ refers to the results of a handshake with carbon monoxide. The singer could be saying that this is his final episode of ‘bellyaching,’ which also means unceasing, loud complaining. The lines speak of that one destination where hope lies for the singer.
Verse 3 – What does it mean?
‘Such a pretty house
And such a pretty garden’
The singer, after speaking in earlier verses of his troubles and confusions, gives voice to all he wants but will never have. Perhaps he had it in the past but doesn’t anymore. Maybe it was taken away due to his own actions, maybe it was a doing of fate. These lines also lend maturity to the ideas of anxious longing for things that are out of our reach. The pretty house. A pretty garden. No alarms. No surprises.
In contrast with the idyllic story of their formation, Radiohead’s music often deals with feelings of alienation, despair and the confusion borne out of capitalism. On their third studio album ‘OK Computer,’ Radiohead’s distinct perception of human existence sits tightly upon the wings of their musical prowess. Particularly ‘No Surprises’, where a soothing glockenspiel tune embraces the lyrics of dissatisfaction and depression. Listeners feel a comfort in devastation, a silver lining in the sorrowful sky. This will always be the true genius of Radiohead: mixing melancholy with suppressed hope and producing eternal music.