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Saturday, January 20, 2018

Radiohead: OK Computer


1) Airbag; 2) Paranoid Android; 3) Subterranean Homesick Alien; 4) Exit Music (For A Film); 5) Let Down; 6) Karma Police; 7) Fitter Happier; 8) Electioneering; 9) Climbing Up The Walls; 10) No Surprises; 11) Lucky; 12) The Tourist.

General verdict: Like, NOT the greatest album of all time. What other general verdict might there be?

With the release of The Bends, Radiohead began to acquire a solid critical reputation as a more heavily intellectual, ambitious, experimental alternative to the dominant Britpop scene — however, their popularity outside of the UK (or Europe, at least) remained limited, and after the success of ʽCreepʼ they had not yet been able to return to the big commercial league in the US. Nevertheless, with grunge and Britpop clearing the path and setting the stage for potential new breakthroughs in the art-rockish department, by the second half of the Nineties the world was finally ready to fall under the spell of some new reincarnation of Shakespearian tragedy in a pop album format, something it hadn't probably done in, what, more than two decades?..

Now, although OK Computer is nearly always spoken of as a concept album, with «survival in the modern world» as a basic theme, it was not specifically intended as such; the songs were written over a long time stretch (thus, ʽLuckyʼ dates back to 1995, when they recorded it for a special charity album at Brian Eno's request), cover a whole variety of issues and display so many different influences that the only objectively conceptual thing about it all is the band's burning desire to experiment and innovate. Said influences stretch all the way from DJ Shadow to Krzysztof Penderecki, making OK Computer a true connoisseur's delight — inevitably, its twisted arrangements and overdubs, unusual chords, and lyrical cross-references have all been analysed in countless reviews and musicological analyses. Any conceptuality beyond that probably remains unintentional — including Yorke's lyrics, which continue to explore topics of alienation, isolation, desperation, frustration, and other negatively tinged -ations (because that is Thom Yorke for you), in the face of a large, hard-to-understand, ridiculously insecure and complicated universe. But this simply reflects how he was feeling at the time, and is a rather natural lyrical pathway for anybody who wishes to override the limitations of songs about personal relationships (limitations that were still very much active with The Bends, although even there it was already obvious that Yorke was simply setting up his imaginary female partners to take out his global misanthropic frustration on them).

It is interesting that the first wave of critical praise often employed the term «progressive», even going as far as to state that Radiohead had done the impossible by reinstating the honor of «progressive rock», buried twenty years before under the rubble of the punk/New Wave explosion. From one point of view, this is a ridiculous misstatement: OK Computer has very little in common with Yes or Genesis, since its songs are relatively short (only ʽParanoid Androidʼ goes over six minutes and consists of several different sections), relatively free of true instrumental virtuosity, do not take after Bach or Stravinsky, and essentially agree with the modern pop formula. Johnny Greenwood, the musical backbone of the band, inherits his art from Lou Reed and Michael Karoli rather than Robert Fripp; and as dazzlingly complex as the band's arrangements may be, they hardly outmatch The Cure in their ability to harmonize a miriad of sound channels. But on the other hand, it is curious that the notion actually managed to spring up:  it indicates that OK Computer was perceived by many as a record that successfully re-elevated contemporary pop music to impressive artistic heights, such as it had never been able to properly recapture since the days of The Beatles and Pink Floyd. Unfortunately, it also set the predicament: from that time onwards, Radiohead themselves were elevated to such a lofty position that anything they would be doing from then on had to match the admiration and respect for OK Computer — a killer chore even for a truly great band.

Upon release, the album was a strong, but not exceptional, seller (admit it, for a record that is routinely mentioned as the Greatest Album Of All Time, 5–6 million copies is not that much), with critical acceptance vastly overriding commercial performance; however, time has not dulled its impact in the slightest, so, like it or not, OK Computer is going to stay emblematic of the late Nineties for quite some time. The expanded 2-CD reissue, released in 2009 largely without the band's knowledge, collects all the B-sides, some outtakes, remixes, and live performances, and will be of interest to the serious latecoming collector (because early coming collectors probably already owned all those tracks).

What exactly has the album introduced to us? Well, first and foremost, OK Computer is a delight for the audiophile. Lo-fi tolerance and alt-rock noise are going to hell — from the opening notes of ʽAirbagʼ, the entire record is a perfect sonic trip that makes the very best of existing production technologies: a major jump in quality here from The Bends, no doubt, directly related to the promotion of Nigel Godrich, formerly the band's recording engineer, to the official status of producer. Listen to the first thirty seconds of ʽSubterranean Homesick Alienʼ and then try to believe that the entire record was actually recorded in a converted shed: the way these guitars swoosh and swish around the rhythm section like falling stars and gaseous clouds, you get the impression that all of that must have been captured and bottled in outer space. The unbelievable level of attention to detail on this and other tracks immediately set OK Computer apart from most, if not all, competition at the time.

And it is not just about alien-style sonic techniques, either: truly and verily, good guitar music had lived in the underground for so long that I have a hard time remembering when last (prior to 1997) I was able to hear an electric guitar ping with such delicacy as it does during the first seconds of ʽNo Surprisesʼ (a few seconds later, it is intelligently supported by an equally delicate glockenspiel part). And it is not just a matter of prettiness: guitars, keyboards, and vocals are consistently laid over each other in a way that gives the illusion of multiple dimensions. The best songs on OK Computer suck you into a sonic vortex where your spirit is ruthlessly shuttled from one level to another, until you find yourself as helpless, lost, and floating in space as its protagonist. Only The Cure, perhaps, could compete on this front, but Robert Smith's goals were different — he would use his walls and waves of sound to crush you into the blackest desperation. Radiohead are not that cruel. They feed you fear along with a sense of beauty and, occasionally, a thread of optimism.

The sound of OK Computer may be defined as cluttered, but all the parts always fall together organically. So, ʽAirbagʼ begins with a powerful guitar riff that almost seems influenced by some classical solo cello suite, then transitions into a looped rhythm section with stop-and-start bass said to be inspired by the style of DJ Shadow (which they allegedly tried to copy but «failed»), while Yorke's singing style here inherits the old quasi-free-form expressivity of Tim Buckley, and it all somehow fits in: lyrically, the song celebrates life ("In the next world war... I am born again") while at the same time being frighteningly conscious of its incidental nature ("I'm amazed that I survived / An airbag saved my life"), and the deep dark bassline and the quasi-cello guitar riff are here to feed the fear, while the spaced-out high-pitched guitar trills dissipate it in favor of the unexplainable wonder of life. ʽParanoid Androidʼ alternates between one of the most expressive «weepfests» ever recorded (where vocals, guitars, and keyboards all join together in a light-hearted lamentation) and the loudest, angriest melody on the entire album — when Jonny hits hard at 2:42 into the song, this is the album's strongest link to Radiohead's past as an alt-rock band, but it is also a logical transition from one negative psychological state into another. And the gradual build-up on ʽExit Music (For A Film)ʼ (where the «Shakespearian tragedy heights» are taken literally, since the song was written as a musical representation of the Romeo and Juliet finale) is handled with meticulous psychological perfection — acoustic guitar first, back vocals next, then the special effects, then the rhythm section, then the screaming climax.

Those who (like myself) have issues with a certain perceived limpness and lifelessness of the Radiohead sound in the Kid A and posterior eras need not worry: with all its psychologism and pretension, OK Computer can still rock pretty hard, too, be it the crushing funky riff of ʽParanoid Androidʼ, or the droney, choppy, «trashy» playing on ʽElectioneeringʼ. Most of the time they don't want to rock pretty hard, but even then there is a strong rhythmic base that commands your attention — for instance, the metallic percussion sound on ʽClimbing Up The Wallsʼ which, together with the industrial synthesizers and Thom's lying-down-and-dying nasal falsetto, gives the song a sense of impending inescapable doom (Peter Gabriel used to like this shit, too). ʽKarma Policeʼ also has a strong, decisive stomp to it that somehow supports the idea of "this is what you get when you mess with us" (which, per se, is probably not the most convincing line to have ever left Yorke's lips). In short, each song has a strong personality, one way or another, and unless you have a strong aversion towards world-weary, depressed music as a whole, «boredom» as a basic reaction is probably excluded.

If I had to single out one favorite track, though, it would be ʽLuckyʼ — yes, ironically, the very first song written for the project when it was not even a project yet (perhaps not a coincidence, though, what with its being written in the Bends period); and for one single, haunting reason — probably the single most haunting moment in Thom Yorke's entire career, as he pronounces the line "we are standing on the edge". Just listen to him doing it — have you noticed that the final consonant is left hanging in the air, as if they were really standing on the edge, abruptly cutting off into the abyss? Technically, the song was inspired either by the Bosnian conflict, or by the idea of surviving in an aircrash, or by both, but to me, it just sounds like the perfect ending to end all endings. I mean, "We are standing on the edge" — you could take this to mean literally anything. You could even think of OK Computer as the final dot, the culmination, the last breath after which there is really nothing left (and the critics agree — what other album after 1997 has managed to earn a similar reputation?). Or you could take it as a musical symbol of some political / economical / cultural apocalypse. The ferocious guitar solos are certainly quite apocalyptic, and the way they segue into the last of the "we are standing on the edge" bits... It might be a good thing that they preferred to end the record with the relatively harmless, sleepy, creepy-crawly ʽTouristʼ instead, a song about slowing down and catching your breath in a mad, mad, mad world, or else somebody would have accused them of propagating suicidal tendencies.

A personal confession, however, is now in order: on the whole, I am not in love with OK Computer I have never been in love with OK Computer — and at this point, there is reasonably little hope that I ever will. More than that: I consider this album seriously overrated on the whole, and can think of at least several worthy contenders (such as Dummy by Portishead or Björk's Post and Homogenic) that deserve equal praise, but rarely get it. I disagree with people who vote for it as «the best album of all-time», whatever they really mean by it, and I think that it put Radiohead on a logical and inescapable path into artistic decline (which, by itself, is admit­tedly not an argument against the album as such: sometimes there are chains of sequences that infallibly lead from the highest peak into the deepest ravine, which hardly makes the highest peak less worthy of admiration).

Naturally, we are all entitled to feel or not to feel a spiritual connection to any work of art, and I usually feel a bit sad when finding myself unable to feel a particularly strong one for something that is so highly revered. At the very least, though, it deserves an attempt at an explanation. Why? What's wrong with OK Computer, Mr. Cranky Reviewer?

Well, first and simplest, a big problem is Thom Yorke himself. By the time of Radiohead's third album, he had pretty much completed his transition from a «normal» singing style to a highly theatrical, unnatural one, consistently singing in a much higher range than he should be. This makes it seem, on a sheer physiological level, as if the poor guy were stuck in a constant state of histrionic whining — and my senses cannot abide that. I am certainly no enemy to idiosyncratic crazy singing styles, but they all have their redeeming qualities. Like, David Byrne is just as hysterical, but he is outbalancing this by being all humorous and tongue-in-cheek about it. Beth Gibbons sounds like she is ready to die from a broken heart at any minute, but dying from a broken heart is a noble cause and she totally, convincingly sounds like it. Björk has her half-fairytale, half-childlike attitude that can be as irritating as it can be endearing, because she sort of makes you believe that she is such a natural pixie. Yorke, on the other hand — every time he raises his voice above a certain pitch, he automatically becomes a naggin' whiner to me, and I instinctively reach out for my big stick to drive the filthy beggar away from the house, maybe set the dogs on the sucker, too. (Crude figure of speech, dammit). Had he stayed more frequently in the quiet "we are standing on the edge..." mode, that would, perhaps, be a different story; as it is, this is one singing style that I can theoretically respect — after all, he did polish it to perfection, and it is unmistakably his and nobody else's — but instinctively find alienating.

What is even more frustrating, though, is that I do not find nearly as many strong melodies on OK Computer as I do on The Bends. The sound is fabulously great, but the actual musical themes... not so much. A song like ʽLet Downʼ, for instance, simply has no discernible melody beyond all the pretty jangle, as far as I am concerned (unsurprisingly, the instrumental track sounds like a lost outtake from some Byrds session — another group with which I sometimes have similar problems). ʽKarma Policeʼ with its Neapolitan chord sounds like... well, any basic song with a Neapolitan chord, this one only redeemable through its vocal melody. ʽThe Touristʼ, as Greenwood later confessed, was a song specially written in a «lazy» mode, where something "doesn't have to happen every 3 seconds", but I'd be perfectly happy if something happened there at all, because other than Yorke's frantic invocation for us to slow down (and the gorgeous-as-usual production), its melodic base is a fairly common piece of blues-waltz. Even for such a beauty as ʽSubterranean Homesick Alienʼ, all I usually remember is how those stars, clouds, and planets were all busy whistling past each other — I never ever remember how its vocals went, and vocal melodies are usually among the stronger hooks on this album.

I will not go as far as to say that OK Computer is a proverbial example of «style over substance». In a way, its style is its substance. The experimentation, the large bag of influences, the mixed atmosphere of fear, confusion, beauty, and awe, it's all there, and it is enough to make for an excellent listening experience. And critics, musicologists, cultural philosophers all over the world will doubtlessly go on having their field days, dissecting every second of the album as if it were the very embodiment of all the basic and advanced features of the human spirit. But if, just for one moment, we agree to switch to cut-the-crap mode, then I would say that «the greatest album of the Nineties», not to mention «one of the greatest albums of all times», in my opinion, would need a little more meat over its bones before you start covering them up with skin. And a lead singer who would not find it too boring to sound, a little bit more often, like a normal human being. Yes, everything is subjective, but believe me, with the album's overall tone and message, and my own preference for them, I should have been among the first people to fall madly in dark love with OK Computer — the fact that it still has not happened after multiple listens over the course of two decades just might mean that there is something not quite right here, and that the «something» is not necessarily limited to just my peculiar perception of it.

Oh well. Whatever my reservations about it may be, OK Computer does satisfy one major requirement that is usually implied when talking about «the greatest albums of all time»: it may be directly related to the meaning of life (or lack of one), and it does not sound particularly embarrassing when it is being so related. From that point of view, it is, indeed, as much a symbol of the Nineties as Arcade Fire's Funeral would later be for the 2000s: it sounds important, and when you probe it and pick at it, its importance does not immediately crumble into pieces like a dried-out skeleton. But at the same time, to me it also represents the symbolic inability of the 1990s to fully capture the «primal» impact of stylistically similar universalist musical statements of the 1960s and the 1970s. Perhaps it is just too obtuse and obscure, a record that is much too happy to wallow in the impenetrable symbolism of its lyrics and the complex interweavings of its musical influences to be able to hit you (okay, me) right in the guts. Perhaps it could not be any other way — with the days of starry-eyed naiveté and/or straightforwardly expressed frustration passing for great art long behind us and all. It is certainly a modern record, and it continues to be modern almost 20 years after its creation — no wonder that it got permanently stuck in «#1 album of all times» position at RateYourMusic, since it is the first (last?) mega-impressive album for the RYM generation that happened to grow up on it rather than the Beatles or Pink Floyd. However, this review is simply unlucky enough to be written by a not very modern reviewer — who also, for that matter, prefers Mozart to Penderecki, and may therefore be incapable of thoroughly assessing the genius of OK Computer.

I honestly wish — honestly! — that this record were not as universally revered as it is. To me at least, the hype hurts it without helping it — and it certainly hurts the band, who, from then on, could hardly count upon an honest critical review in the official press, since most critics would just be kissing their asses, no matter how progressively weaker the actual records would become. In a last effort, I will distance myself from all the accolades and state that OK Computer is a thrilling, moody, adventurous ride on a musically downbound train that may be fairly intense for the artistically sensitive mind, and even psychologically uncomfortable for the easily vulnerable mind. It is not the greatest album of the Nineties (but what is?), not the greatest album ever (but what is?), but it does not need to be the greatest in order to be heard and appreciated for what it is. Let us just intriguingly agree that it is a record made by subterranean homesick aliens for subter­ranean homesick aliens, and leave it at that. OK, computer?


  1. One of the most interesting reviews of the album and its reputation that I've ever read. Regardless of what my opinion of the album may be, I think your piece is brilliant analysis.

  2. "do not take after Bach or Stravinsky"
    At the other hand this

    "influences stretch all the way from DJ Shadow to Krzysztof Penderecki"
    qualifies, don't you think?

  3. I actually do really enjoy OK Computer, but would trim it down. Track 1-6 + No Surprises would make one hell of an excellent alt-rock album. (I love Lucky but not the sequencing right after No Surprises.)

  4. "consistently singing in a much higher range than he should be. This makes it seem, on a sheer physiological level, as if the poor guy were stuck in a constant state of histrionic whining — and my senses cannot abide that" AMEN!

    "Perhaps it is just too obtuse and obscure, a record that is much too happy to wallow in the impenetrable symbolism of its lyrics" And that's a major problem with anything that attempts to be "rock" these days. Sometimes I want my emotional self-pity straight up, no chaser.

    "Naturally, we are all entitled to feel or not to feel a spiritual connection to any work of art, and I usually feel a bit sad when finding myself unable to feel a particularly strong one for something that is so highly revered."

    And that's how I feel, too. There's no denying the high quality of the production, and it's so much more ambitious and immersive that anything else in the decade, let alone since then. But there's no emotional grab there, even if I can intellectual with the sentiments (Fear, self-loathing, etc.) it doesn't speak TO me, nor speak FOR me, like, say, the Who's classic albums. I am convinced that the easiest explanation for me is I just simply aged out of Britpop. Which, like you said, is confusing because I love British rock, but at least two or three generations prior to this. By '97 I was married and growing up, and I couldn't connect with this even if I tried. Overrated? For me, yes, but I totally get WHY people overrate it; It's probably one of the last GREAT albums ever made. And that does make me feel a little left-out of the party.

  5. "Yes, everything is subjective, but believe me, with the album's overall tone and message, and my own preference for them, I should have been among the first people to fall madly in dark love with OK Computer — the fact that it still has not happened after multiple listens over the course of two decades just might mean that there is something not quite right here, and that the «something» is not necessarily limited to just my peculiar perception of it." Imagine having this much of an ego. Because you don't love this album it means something's wrong with it.