"No Surprises"
Meaning and Analysis

For English Learners


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Hello everybody and welcome to Explained in English. My name is Ki and today I'm going to explain the song No Surprises by Radiohead.

This song can be a difficult one for English learners, not so much because of the words or the lyrics but because of the way that the singer sings. The main singer of Radiohead, Thom Yorke, he kind of mumbles when he sings. That is, he doesn't clearly pronounce or articulate all of the sounds. He uses his voice a lot as if it were an instrument that kind of blends in with the music and the sounds. At least that's my impression. But the song itself has this really beautiful melody. The guitar line sounds almost like a lullaby. A lullaby is a tune or a melody which is meant to calm and soothe someone and put them to sleep. And the words, the lyrics of the song, are really powerful, really great.

So, the song is called No Surprises. A surprise is something unexpected, some sort of event that you don't anticipate. And no surprises would be the opposite of that. If there are no surprises in your life, then you know exactly what's going to happen, nothing strange or out of the ordinary happens; everything is normal -- no surprises. The first verse begins with the line…

[Verse 1]
A heart that's full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won't heal
You look so tired unhappy
Bring down the government
They don't, they don't speak for us
I'll take a quiet life
A handshake of carbon monoxide

With no alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises (x2)
Silent, silent

[Verse 2]
This is my final fit
My final bellyache

[Verse 3]
Such a pretty house
And such a pretty garden

[Chorus Variation]
And no alarms and no surprises (x2)
No alarms and no surprises please
(Get me outta here..)

Okay. So, maybe you've understood this is not really a happy song. It's actually a song about being unhappy with life and unhappy with society in general. The lyrics are also about how difficult it is to change the way society works or functions. There's that line about bringing down the government and saying that they don't speak for us. I think many people feel this way. They don't feel represented by their governments. They would like to change it, they would like to bring it down and create a better government, but changing the government, changing the way society works, is really difficult. This is a really big fight and I think a very tiring fight. It certainly sounds to me like the writer finds it easier to resign, easier to give up and just live a quiet life, a life that's less of a struggle.

And so, I really have two interpretations. The first one is a very strong interpretation. It centers around the line the handshake of carbon monoxide. This could mean that the writer is so fed up with life, so tired with life, that he's contemplating suicide. Or perhaps he even does commit suicide, which means that he's purposefully killing himself or ending his life. There's a somewhat famous way of committing suicide and that is to leave your car engine running in your garage. What this would do is fill the garage, fill the space with carbon monoxide gas, which will kill you. Many people unfortunately do commit suicide in this way, as it's a quiet and somewhat painless way to kill yourself. If there are no alarms and no surprises, then that means there would be nothing to stop him -- no surprise events, nothing that would wake him up or change this plan. Things would just be silent, silent -- and that would be the end of his life. That's the strong interpretation.

A more mild interpretation is just that the way we live our lives, our jobs, the activities that we do are kind of like carbon monoxide -- we've agreed to them in some way. We shake the hand of the things that slowly kill us. That is, instead of fighting for the changes we want to see in life, we give up. It's easier to be part of society than to fight against it. But silently and quietly, that takes the energy, the joy out of your life. You may get quiet, you may get a pretty house or pretty garden but you're not satisfied or happy on the inside. You’re just full of bellyaches, full of fits.


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