Album Review: Radiohead - OK Computer
In 1997, I had not yet been born. I will never live in a world where everything – from schools to houses to pockets – isn’t filled with computers. Still, I’m no stranger to techno-paranoid media. Film, TV and music still love to warn us about tech, from Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror to Arcade Fire asking “what if the camera really do take your soul?” on their 2013 album Reflektor. The difference is, now we consume it through devices that know our favourite restaurants, daily commutes and exact location. In other words, Radiohead’s third album OK Computer may be 20 years old, but in 2017, it’s more relevant than ever.
Radiohead released their debut album Pablo Honey in 1993 to middling reviews. The single Creep was a worldwide success, but the album was criticised for being too derivative. Still, some critics noticed potential, and two years later their second album The Bends fulfilled that. An honest reaction to their sudden fame and a dramatic musical shift, The Bends proved that Radiohead were something special. However, its lack of worldwide commercial success also left them looking like a one hit wonder. With the release of OK Computer, that all changed. Soaring to number one on the UK album charts, reaching an impressive 21 on the US Billboard 200 and receiving humongous critical acclaim, Radiohead were now a household name.
Singer and principal songwriter Thom Yorke stated that OK Computer‘s starting point was Miles Davis’ intense 1970 jazz-fusion album Bitches Brew, inspired by the beauty of “building something up and watching it fall apart”. The Beatles, the Beach Boys, Elvis Costello, R.E.M. and the recording techniques of spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone and Krautrock band Can were other major influences. Critics have also highlighted the paradox between the technologically innovative music and the technophobic lyrics. This is especially present on the opening track Airbag, where the programmed drumming contradicts Yorke’s warnings against putting our lives in the hands of tech. Inspired by the thrill of surviving a car crash, Yorke reflects on the unpredictability of technology, emphasised by the bassline’s erratic stopping and starting.
“The true genius of this album lies in how timeless it is. Ironically, Electioneering sharply points out about progress (or lack thereof), “when I go forwards, you go backwards”. Despite being a reaction to the world in 1997, the barrage of life is no less overwhelming 20 years on.”
Dark comedy, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy references and occasional 7/8 timing follow on Paranoid Android. It’s split into three ‘moods’, inspired by the Beatles’ Happiness is a Warm Gun, and explores isolation, violence and death. Jumping from mellow acoustic instrumentation, aggressively distorted guitar solos and haunting baroque sections, Paranoid Android is the greatest Prog Rock song since the early ’70s. Subterranean Homesick Alien expands on Creep’s themes of not fitting in. This time, however, there’s no self-deprecation. Instead, Yorke criticises the people who “lock up their spirits” for popularity and wishes to escape “uptight” society on an alien spaceship. The next track Exit Music (For a Film) also accompanied the credits to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Shakespeare’s play is rewritten so that the two lovers survive, whilst baroque techniques propel the song into a gorgeous, haunting crescendo.
Exit Music‘s sentimentality is then dismissed as “drivel” on Let Down, an achingly beautiful track about the disappointing feeling when consumerism can’t satisfy emotional needs. Two key themes are represented on the sarcastic Karma Police: an anti-capitalist attitude and Yorke’s concept of “fridge buzz”, the constant background noise of society. A synthesised voice on Fitter Happier lists modern life’s mundanities, becoming more unbearably claustrophobic over time. The musique concrète track ends with “a pig in a cage on antibiotics”, a ruthless metaphor for society’s soul-sucking grip that resonates even more in 2017 than in 1997. Electioneering follows, responding to Tony Blair’s election victory that year. Yorke cynically questions the true motives of greedy politicians powered by heavy, visceral guitars. Some have criticised it for sounding less like a Radiohead song and more like a Muse song, but it’s way too rugged and distorted in my opinion.
What’s almost as brilliant is how Radiohead never tried to emulate this record again…As a result, OK Computer will forever stand as a one-of-a-kind masterpiece in their catalogue. An atmospheric, dark, satirical, melancholic, unsettling, distorted, beautiful work of genius. Plus, there’s now the added irony of being able to say “OK Google, play OK Computer”.
Lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood unconventionally arranges atonal strings on the deeply unsettling Climbing Up the Walls. Sixteen violins play quarter notes apart from each other as Yorke sings about the relentless torment of paranoia over Phil Selway’s sinister percussion. Then – through a single, stunning take – No Surprises portrays the desire to run away from the world’s pressures towards a “quiet life” with remarkable accuracy. The themes of Airbag are reprised on Lucky, with Yorke’s delicate vocals once again showcasing fear of travel over Greenwood’s Pink Floyd-esque guitar. Finally, The Tourist sees Yorke and Greenwood express their distaste of modern life for the last time on the album. Inspired by frantic sightseers in France, they criticise the fast pace of modern life, advising the listener to “slow down”.
The true genius of this album lies in how timeless it is. Ironically, Electioneering sharply points out about progress (or lack thereof), “when I go forwards, you go backwards”. Despite being a reaction to the world in 1997, the barrage of life is no less overwhelming 20 years on. What’s almost as brilliant is how Radiohead never tried to emulate this record again. Instead, they explored other areas (starting with the incredibly experimental Kid A) with equal success. As a result, OK Computer will forever stand as a one-of-a-kind masterpiece in their catalogue. An atmospheric, dark, satirical, melancholic, unsettling, distorted, beautiful work of genius. Plus, there’s now the added irony of being able to say “Ok Google, play OK Computer”.
The Breakdown | Album Review: Radiohead – OK Computer
Whilst there’s no such thing as a perfect album, Radiohead’s OK Computer gets incredibly close, demonstrating a gorgeously sophisticated sound, whilst the unrestrained commentary on society resonates just as (if not more) strongly 20 years later.