Often times a good indicator of where a band is going would be the albums previously released by said band. Every now and then, that ends up not happening, and the end product is something that is light years ahead of their previous efforts. Taking everyone by storm in the spring of 1997, “OK Computer” falls in the latter of the types of albums I previously mentioned. The bands previous released “The Bends” was quite good in fact, but it lacked a certain amount of experimentation for me.
This is the album that made everyone aware of what this band was actually capable of, and since then, they’ve not only become one of the most well known and sought after bands in the world of music, they’ve also continued to release albums that push the term of what can be considered popular music. Every show sells out, and watching them you get to see five people who weren’t meant to do anything else except play music. Number 7, “OK Computer” by Radiohead.
The album opens with the appropriate screeching of “Airbag.” Quickly though, the beat brings us mixtures of electronica, slight orchestral tones and a cache of slightly futuristic rock. One of the best things about the band is the way in which the unorthodox voice of Thom Yorke goes with the music. I’ve heard many times that his voice isn’t really that great, and while I can understand where those people are coming from, for me the voice itself has always gone well with the music. I can’t imagine anyone else being the vocalist in this band. The unusual voice is the perfect inclusion to the overall sound. This isn’t a traditional band making radio friendly music. The depth, scope and precision of the music goes perfectly with Yorke’s voice.
So many of these songs are now considered fan favorites, but one of the first glimpses the world got of the album was the second track on the record, “Paranoid Android.” It’s difficult in many of their songs to pinpoint certain instruments and notations, simply because Radiohead does such an exemplary job of bringing in things to fill the sound while not showcasing exact things. This song is one of the best examples of that. Aside from the bass line and the wild guitar solo that brings us to the half way point of the song, you don’t really hear individual instruments too much. The song goes off in a variety of directions, but towards the end it builds into a slower pace while Yorke is imploring “Come on rain down, from a great height.” It’s one of the prettiest sections in the whole record, but as the verses of “God loves his children, yeah” enter the situation, the song reverts back to it’s dark and somewhat electronic frenzy and leaves us in a world of hurt and suffering.
Some people thought this was a concept album about one main theme and idea, and to some extent they were right. But it’s not a linear story in anyway. Band members have mentioned from time to time that quite simply, the single coherent theme of the album is a story of systems breaking down if I remember correctly. Unlike the very personal nature of “The Bends,” songs on this one weren’t super personal and sad. The music, coupled with the general positivity that Yorke was trying to find at the time make this perhaps the most chipper record of their career, even if you can’t tell at first glance. Upon first listening, you might think songs like “Subterranean Homesick Alien” and “Exit Music(For a Film” were very dark, but that’s not really the case. I think maybe Yorke just has a more somber voice, so many people just automatically think it’s sad shit. “Exit Music” especially is a really interesting track. Obviously the music is slow and somber, but the song has always made me think of two young lovers escaping from a place where they weren’t free to do as they pleased. To me that’s a happy escape, even if the situation is less than ideal. I’m just assuming that the “let you choke” section at the conclusion of the song is in reference to the father mentioned earlier in the song.
Some songs are downright gorgeous both texturally and lyrically. “Let Down” has been one of my favorite songs by the band for as long as I can remember. The guitar work here by Johhny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien here really make the song glitter in the night the way it should. Yorke’s voice happily ringing about are just an added bonus if you asked me. The song has a very translucent quality to it. I imagine myself at a party, and it’s late at night. Everyone is living in the same haze, and it’s a happy time where chimes are slowly moving in the air as pretty and subtle lights are hanging over head. The end of the song is amazing too. I love the way the vocals peak out as we then move to a song more focused on an interesting sound effect and Phil Selway’s always great drumming. “Let Down” is a song that mixes well with the album, and is a for sure hidden gem of excellence. If you’ve never taken the time to actually listen to it, I highly suggest you do, it’s quite marvelous. \
“Karma Police” quickly reminds us that things can’t always be bright and chipper. The lyrics, while interesting and off the wall, aren’t really the main attraction here. The instrumentals are simply sublime. One of the best things about the song are also the little things you don’t pick up on. For years, I never heard the echo and background vocals of O’Brien throughout the song, but probably in the last 2-3 years I’ve discovered it, and now it’s one of my favorite parts of the track. The end is also really cool. The band is playing their hearts out while the backing recording of a literal computer dying slowly fills the track space and when it’s all said and done, that’s the only thing you hear. It’s a perfect form of track sequencing. From there we go perhaps the darkest and most reflective track on the album. “Fitter Happier” is both one of the most interesting songs the band has ever created, it’s also extremely dark.
“Fitter Happier” for me is the story of human beings trying to be as human as possible but still not wanting to do so much work to get there. Just listen to the song. It’s a horribly depressing song full of regret, and of not meeting expectations that are expected of you. That’s how we begin the second half of the record. Following that delightful gem we hear a jangle of a tambourine (I think), and we’re right in the middle of “Electioneering.” This song adequately juxtaposes chipper guitar parts and a more upbeat attitude musically with the lyrics promoting a man who will do anything to get your vote. As Yorke exclaims during the second verse, “It’s just business.” That’s the impression I get from many politicians. It’s their business, and while they’re not actively trying to fuck you over, they couldn’t care less if they do. The lyrics really drive this point home also. Themes like “voodoo economics,” and “i go forward and you move backwards” are just a few things explored here. Thom Yorke and other band members have briefly mentioned their dislike for politicians, and on this solid track they present their case in one of the best ways.
A quiet chill then takes over with the track “Climbing up the Walls.” It’s quite haunting and foreboding, and paints images in my head of a Victorian period horror film, with a character dancing through the darkness with only a candle to protect her. This comes in stark contrast musically to the track that follows it, “No Surprises.” While the video is a bit depressing, and the lyrics don’t really make you feel any better, for me it’s always been a somewhat positive song. This is another example of mentioning the government in a less than favorable way. Quite simply, “They don’t speak for us.” Towards the end though, the exacting music and lyrics really do make the song a favorable one, and it’s one of the Radiohead songs I can actually smile while singing. The ending is especially pretty with Yorke singing about “Such a nice house and such a pretty garden.” I’m not sure if it’s meant to be sarcastic, but I also kinda choose to make my mind up about it being a happy song.
The album get near to the close with the slow but very well built up “Lucky.” It’s one of songs with a great opening on the record. I love the way Yorke is singing amid a slight guitar part, and then it’s almost as if the Greenwoods, O”Brien and Selway envelope him in an ocean of sunlight. The texture are also really really cool. Even know, this album is still decades ahead of anything currently happening in music. There’s a reason this has been called the album of the 90’s. It’s easily my pick for the honor, and every time you do back to it, you understand why a bit more.
From here on out, the band continued the experiments that led to this brilliant record, and for those many these albums were just as good as this one. For me though, “OK Computer” is one of the defining albums in my life, and it likely will continue being so. Next time we’ll discuss not only the best thrill pop music ever received, but also one of the highest selling records of all time. Thanks for reading.