Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)
2. Paranoid Android
3. Subterranean Homesick Alien
4. Exit Music (for a Film)
5. Let Down
6. Karma Police
7. Fitter Happier
9. Climbing Up the Walls
10. No Surprises
12. The Tourist
In many ways, there’s really no need for this review. This album has been written about to death, with examinations of its place in history, its effect on music of the late 90s, its place in Radiohead‘s canon, the symbolism in the lyrics, literary inspirations that guided it, and so on, and so forth.
So why write one? I probably won’t be able to convince anyone of its greatness because either A) they already know about it, or B) do not accept it. So I won’t bother. I won’t bother trying to put the album into context for you, explaining the band’s recording process, or how it reshaped Britpop from Chumbawumba-type party anthems to the darker, more challenging albums that would follow. Nor will I talk about the rest of Radiohead’s albums and how they changed from album-to-album, cause the truth is, I’m not a Radiohead fan.
I’m not anti-Radiohead either, although I used to be. I didn’t grow up listening to rock music, so when this album came out, I ignored it just like I ignored everything with guitars. My first introduction to the band was when I was working in a music store when Hail to the Thief came out, which I hated. I gave their next release a listen for the same reason (working in a music store), the Com Lag compilation, which didn’t change my opinion of the band. Unlistenable, pretentious noise-rock. Fast forward a year, and my musical horizons have broadened, so I decide I should give OK Computer a listen, if for no other reason than to say that I’ve heard it. So I downloaded it, casually listened to it, and decided it worthy to remain on my computer.
Why am I reviewing it now? Because I think there’s value in a review from someone who neither worships nor demonises Radiohead. A review from someone who hasn’t spent the past nine years with an opinion on the album. A review that is about nothing more than the album, as I feel about now. It is neither a reverent look at an album that changed my life, nor is it a condemnation on what the band has become since. This is my opinion on OK Computer, the album, as I see it now.
After kicking around on my digital devices (which is kinda appropriate), one day, the album just clicked for me. I stopped passively listening to it, enjoying highlights like “Paranoid Android”, “Karma Police”, and “Electioneering”, and really listened. Stuck in the malaise of public transit on a dreary day, not wanting to focus on anything, and thus able to give the album my full attention, I was struck with the thought: this very well may be one of the best albums ever.
It’s a haunting examination of our ever-isolated times, a compelling blend of music, stripping down anthemic rock to its essentials, then filling it out with virtuoso arrangements that get more and more interesting with each listen. It’s ambitious, creative, and powerful, the kind of album I can listen to over and over to try and grasp each layer, offering rewards for the curious, and empathy for the despondent.
Yes, OK Computer is not a happy album, and not the sort of thing you play at parties or to keep you company as you do your chores. It’s an album you play on a grey hazy day, when you’re alone and a little tired of the world. Starting off with “Airbag”, the introduction to this sci-fi-esque album, announcing “In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the universe. In a deep deep sleep, of the innocent, I am born again”, which is as good a thesis statement for the album as any. Jonny Greenwood‘s immediate guitar licks combine with the scratches and computerised effects that will fill the album. The next track, “Paranoid Alien” picks up from there, delivering what is at first a solid modern rock song, then divulges into a three-act set, with arcs, bridges, and effects flowing back and forth. It’s an incredibly complex song in structure alone, nevermind the lyrics, and an odd choice for the lead-off single. It also may very well be the best song on the album. After its six-minutes plus are finished, you know that this album isn’t business as usual.
I think the best way to experience “Subterranean Homesick Alien” is through headphones, with your eyes closed. The layered instruments and lyrics dance from ear-to-ear, filling your head while Thom Yorke‘s vocals drift through your head. It’s a calming, daydream of a song, giving you a bit of a reprieve from the sorrow about to come. “Exit Music (For A Film)” is the next track, a slow, heart-wrenching tale of a love gone awry, building from “Wake from your sleep, the drying of your tears – Today we escape” to the crescendo “Now we are one in everlasting peace”, before drifting off with “We hope that you choke, that you choke”. It’s operatic in its scope, a haunting song that is a highlight amongst highlights.
The tempo picks up with “Let Down”, a track you can tap your toes to, which is a wonderful contradiction for a song about being “Let down and hanging around, crushed like a bug in the ground”. This brings us the best part of the album, the “Karma Police”/”Fitter Happier”/”Electioneering” transition, which is so perfect that it practically deserves a review on its own.
I think “Paranoid Android” is probably the best track on the album, but “Karma Police” is probably my favourite. After the two preceding tracks, the listener should now be in full melancholy, near tears from the onslaught of frustrated isolation expressed in each track. In other words, they should be primed for the anthemic pianos and the final bridge “For for a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself”, having already lost themselves in the song and the album. “Fitter Happier” is an interlude featuring computer-generated voice recited empty mantras that are supposed to lead to a better life in our modern world, but in truth, are probably reasons for losing yourself in our world. By itself, it can come off as annoying and doesn’t work when casually listening to the album while driving. But, when put in between the frustrated “Karma Police” and the furious “Electioneering”, its perfect. “Electioneering” thus comes off as not only a rejection of politics, economics, and talking heads, but also of the mantras of “Fitter Happier” and the frustrations of “Karma Police”.
“Electioneering” is definitely the climax of the album, and if I have one complaint about OK Computer is that its choice to follow it with four more tracks slightens its impact a bit, and tends to overshadow the next four tracks. “Climbing Up the Walls” would’ve been a perfect closing track, bringing down the anger from “Electioneering” into the otherworldly, creepy tone of Yorke’s examination of the horrors of mental illness. It’s a haunting track that stays with you after its done, which is a perfect way to close an album.
Which isn’t to say that “No Surprises”, “Lucky”, and “The Tourist” aren’t worthwhile tracks, its just that they can’t help but get overshadowed by the flawless transitions and power of the proceeding four tracks. “No Surprises” may have difficult to squeeze in earlier, given its similarity to “Let Down” tempo-wise. Which means, as solid a track as it is, it may have been better served as a b-side. “Lucky” would have worked just fine earlier in the album, but was probably put in the end as it was previously recorded for a benefit album. “The Tourist”, written by Greenwood, slows the album down for a denouement, serving as a decent final track and parallels the earlier portion of the album well.
In the end, I know I’m not saying anything new when I say that OK Computer is a brilliant album, a complex, rewarding album that compels me to dig deeper with each listen. But, knowing that this opinion comes from someone who heard the album for the first time a year ago says something. I’m not a disciple of Radiohead, I’m not just repeating what I’ve been told to think by music critics over the past decade. I came to it by myself, and was still blown away. So if you’re in the same boat I was a year ago, I highly recommend you give it a shot for yourself. If you find the experience half as rewarding as I have, then you’ll not have wasted your time.