The Meaning Behind “No Surprises” by Radiohead and Why the Band Have to Play It Slow

Radiohead assured themselves a place in music legend with the release of their 1997 album OK Computer. The rock genre, which had stagnated around that time, received a jolt from the album’s ambition and scope. “No Surprises” delivered a devastating blow on the album’s second side, even as it came disguised in sweet packaging.

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How did Radiohead manage to take such a leap with this album? And how did “No Surprises” contribute to the overall effect? Let’s take a look back at this wonderful track. Just remember to watch out for that carbon monoxide.

“Computer” Programming

Radiohead’s rise to rock music stardom stands as one of the unlikeliest of all. They were originally lumped in with the grunge movement of the early ’90s, especially because of the hit single “Creep,” all quiet-to-loud angst and fuzzed-out blasts of guitar. Such a unique song had many lumping them in the one-hit-wonder bin prematurely, but their 1995 sophomore album The Bends brought them a much wider swath of critical acclaim.

They could have continued along the rocking path of The Bends and done well. But Radiohead shares with other legendary bands the itch to do something different each time out. Combined with lead singer and chief lyricist Thom Yorke‘s inherent cynicism about the world’s facades, it led them in a compellingly relevant direction on OK Computer.

The album features people in various states of discomfort, almost paralyzed in some cases by their surroundings. As the title of the record suggests, much of these worries stem from the encroaching pressures of modernity: endless traffic, digital oppression, and political legerdemain. Radiohead tapped into a vein with the album, and many listeners grooved to such pretty-sounding gloom because they recognized that gloom as their own.

A Haunting Surprise

“No Surprises” might be the most disarming song on the record, in that it resembles a lilting, lullaby-like ballad. Guitars and glockenspiels flit about as if beamed down from the heavens (or at least from Brian Wilson’s brain stem.) The band has referred to the song as an homage to soulful balladeers from Marvin Gay to Louis Armstrong. And yet there’s something unsettling about it all, as if there’s maybe a shade too much space between the guitar notes, as if Yorke’s melody is deviating ever so slightly from Disney daydream to Twin Peaks nightmare.

Yorke touched on this aspect of the song in an interview with Q magazine (as reported by Songfacts): “‘No Surprises’ has to be played a certain way for it to work. If you play it right, it is f–king dark. But it’s like acting. It’s on the edge of totally hamming it up but you’re not. It’s just the words are so dark. When we play it, we have to play it slow. It only sounds good if it’s fragile.”

The Meaning of “No Surprises”

“No Surprises” casts such a memorable spell because of how drastically the glossy music contrasts with the sentiment expressed in the lyrics. Think about it: The line A heart that’s full up like a landfill is about the last thing you’d expect after that chiming intro. Yorke seems to be positing that you have a choice in life, and neither option is very appealing.

On the one hand, you can be someone who tries to futilely fight the oppression: You look so tired, unhappy / Bring down the government / They don’t, they don’t speak for us. Option No. 2: submissive acquiescence: I’ll take a quiet life / A handshake of carbon monoxide. As the song progresses, he suggests that domestic life, with its idyllic houses and gardens, is a dead end as well: This is my final fit / My final bellyache.

Achieving a life of no alarms and no surprises doesn’t seem all that appealing in the end, just a lot of sameness until all it’s all over. Yorke does a ton with minimal lyrics in “No Surprises.” And Radiohead does the rest, cloaking this plea for help in smothering blankets of musical niceness.

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Photo by Jim Dyson/Getty Images

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