This is the first post in a series, which may collectively stretch to book length, chronicling the lyrical maunderings and vocal murmurings of Thom Yorke — Radiohead front man, singer-songwriter, misanthrope, redhead, and music’s most venerated bore.
Yorke is, of course, gifted. He has a way with a tune and he is the possessor of one of pop’s few truly beautiful singing voices. He’s got presence and charisma, of a sort. If you’re one of those whose taste in showmanship runs to epileptic imp, Yorke will wow you.
He’s also incapable of writing a lyric that means anything, in the Queen’s English or Gandalf’s Elvish or any other tongue. His songs are typically laid on the barest stage sets, with the most vaguely sketched dramatic situations. The lyrics sometimes sound plausible at first, but upon inspection are revealed as a goulash of words and phrases, from which no coherent meaning can be extracted — some nouns and verbs, some clichés, the odd “poetic” ejaculation. The only thing that’s certain is a mood: angsty. Yorke is perennially bummed out, though it’s rarely clear why, or about what. Has he lost his girl, his mind, his cell phone? Or is he bummed because bummed is the default posture of an artiste? I suspect the latter, but in any case, the nebulousness of the emotions and their cause makes it difficult to feel much beyond confusion and annoyance. What you’re left with, in the end, is merely the assertion of angst, with sumptuous musical accompaniment — the mawkish hallowing of angst, the gilding and filigreeing of angst. It’s sad-sack kitsch.
A great tune can redeem a lot of things, even hipster Weltschmerz. Which is why I like a bunch of Radiohead songs, especially the ones on The Bends and OK Computer. But the further Yorke strays from Jonny Greenwood, Radiohead’s musical ninja, the more thin the musical cover, and the more Yorke is exposed. (Yorke’s current right-hand man, the Radiohead co-producer Nigel Godrich, is not an effective Greenwood substitute.) Yes, Yorke’s singing is unfailingly lovely. But he’s a mewler and a mush mouth; his long legato phrasing reaches for beauty, but too often at the expense of intelligibility.
Which, come to think of it, is a smart strategy when the words to your songs are gibberish. (Jónsi Þór Birgisson, leader of the vaguely Radiohead-esque Sigur Rós, is less talented than Yorke, but more honest: For years, he’s stuck to singing in “Vonlenska,” an invented language, a kind of art-rock glossolalia.) If you’re inclined, against ample evidence, to imagine that Yorke is deep, his songs may strike you as runes that merit decoding. Otherwise, you are forced to conclude that he’s either (a) a terrible writer of lyrics, incapable of expressing himself coherently, or (b) a jive talker, who doesn’t really have anything to say, knows it, and dresses up the emptiness with the sort of gauzy gobbledygook that signals depth to credulous fans and lazy critics.
The fans, I can forgive. We live in times starved for rock heroes. As for the critics, all I can say is: seriously? Not every songwriter can be Lorenz Hart or Paul Simon or Jay-Z, but have we reached the point where it’s possible for a man to be anointed voice of his generation when we’ve so little idea what the voice is saying? Have we become that disdainful of the pop-song form as a carrier of meaning, not just of pretty music and, um, “sonics”? What about the notion that a great singer should enunciate — is that now quaint? I hope not, but it’s true that Yorke has many critics spellbound. Chris Deville, writing in Stereogum this past February, served up an only slightly exaggerated version of the party line. “Thom Yorke is just that great, a legit once-in-a-lifetime talent,” Deville wrote. “In X-Men, when Cyclops takes off his visor, volatile beams of electromagnetic energy shoot from his eyes, capable of leveling buildings and blasting right through human beings. Something similar happens when Thom Yorke opens his mouth to sing; in an interstellar burst, he’s back to save the universe.”
So, how does Yorke’s latest burst stack up, astronomically and otherwise?
The new song “Honey Pot” was premiered by Yorke and Godrich last week during a guest D.J.'ing session on Los Angeles's KCRW. (It's a remix of Radiohead's "All I Need.") It sure sounds like a Yorke-Godrich collaboration. It’s a lilting little singsong tune, swaddled in a nimbus of twitches, gurgles, swishes, background-vocal coos — the sorts of sounds that critics call “texture,” and others call Miami boutique hotel elevator music. I happen to like it: It’s plush and sexy. I wish Yorke and Godrich had given it to Miguel.
As usual, I can make out only every fourth or fifth word Yorke sings. The lyrics are on the Internet, though, and by Yorkean standards, they’re almost legible. The phrase “honey pot” is a staple of blues and soul songs — a euphemism, of course, for sexy-sex stuff. Yorke may be getting at something along those lines. (“While you were sleeping with your honey,” he sings.) There’s another line — "You don’t have to throw away / All the good things that we made" — that sounds like something a person would say to a lover who’s halfway out the door. Fair enough. There’s angst, of course: “All that hurt, give it now.” There’s a line about chewing someone’s hand off, too.
Thom Yorke Intelligibility Watch Verdict: Sorta quasi-half-intelligible-ish, for Yorke! Also kinda not!