1. 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
OK Computer is a rare album, a musical triumph on the one hand, but on the other a profound and culturally significant commentary on an increasingly mechanised and consequently impersonal society moving into the 21st century. Such was its significance that the album remains relevant in 2014, it also helped shape a new direction of popular British music that would see the rise of alternative groups during the early 2000s.
As a group Radiohead had by this stage released Pablo Honey – an album very much a product of its time and a more transitional effort it The Bends where the group appeared to make a more concerted effort to define their own sound. OK Computer perhaps doesn’t represent the arrival at their sonic destination in light of what we witnessed with later releases however it was the first major stop on the line. While The Bends stood out more for its quality within the Britpop scene than as a pioneering achievement OK Computer emphatically succeeded on both accounts.
Amidst the irony of Radiohead making extensive use of technology to deliver a message of disillusionment with the modern age lies a musical masterpiece. Representing the first occasion where Radiohead really began to master rhythm, OK Computer showcases some interesting rhythmic moments, most notably the 7/8 time signature change in ‘Paranoid Android’. Also of significance are the deeply layered and cleverly constructed arrangements throughout the album, from the counterpoint-heavy arpeggios that underpin ‘Let down’ to the sparse and down-tempo ‘The Tourist’. Colin Greenwood once again provides bass-lines that strike a pleasing balance between rhythmic and melodic elements, including the unfinished yet distinctive line on the opening track ‘Airbag’. Johnny Greenwood and Ed O’Brian experiment with various effects and techniques to provide a mixture of subtle textural backdrops as well as some clever riffs and licks to provide further musical interest.
Lyrically OK Computer speaks from a lonely and inadequate place in a society that appears to grow more and more connected every day, culminating in the suicidal undertones of ‘No Surprises’. ‘Let Down’ perhaps best personifies the identity of the disaffected and lost narrator…
Motorways and tramlines
Starting and then stopping
Taking off and landing
The emptiest of feelings
Clinging onto bottles
And when it comes it's so so disappointing
While lyrically OK Computer is not entirely melancholy and mellow – ‘Electioneering’ harks back to the aggressiveness of some earlier efforts the overriding theme of dissatisfaction with the modern world is forever present. Whether it be for Thom York’s fear of cars (‘Airbag’) or an in-joke within the band (‘Karma Police’) that in fact appears to express considerable angst and an anti-establishment theme.
What set OK Computer apart though is the intricate textures that show a maturity well beyond what was achieved on Pablo Honey and to a lesser extent The Bends. Thematically the use of texture is superb, particularly when the screeching asylum feel of ‘Climbing up the Walls’ makes way for the xylophones and acoustic guitar of the lullaby ‘No Surprises’. The processed guitars of Subterranean Homesick Alien create an isolated and off-worldy feel, while Ed O’Brian’s strumming of the strings above the nut during ‘Lucky’ achieves a similar effect. Not to mention the various beeps and bops that punctuate ‘Airbag’, the screeching guitars as ‘Karma Police’ fades out or the robotic voice that reads the melancholy self-help guide that is ‘Fitter Happier’.
OK Computer is also the album that spawned perhaps one of the greatest songs every written in ‘Paranoid Android’, and one cannot evaluate the album effectively without touching upon it. The six-minute epic is almost like a snapshot of the entire album, ranging from the aggressive hard-rock of the middle section to the slow, sombre 3rd part written by Johnny Greenwood. This is perhaps proof of Radiohead’s incredible song writing talent, as well as their ability to build upon a foundation of a song. Small details such as the layered vocal harmonies in the 3rd section and the dissonant chromatics in Greenwood’s intense guitar solo punctuate the song beautifully. While the lyrics are seemingly nonsensical at times and Radiohead have been predictably vague about their meaning the profound nature of Thom Yorke desperately wailing cries of “Rain down on me” can only be described as utterly profound.
All in all, OK Computer is a rare gem, influential, musically detailed and interesting without being overbearing, and the quintessential soundtrack to disengagement with modern society.
Write-up by Maximas