As Radiohead has entered their third decade of existence (it’s now 25 years since Pablo Honey was released), it’s become increasingly fashionable to call the band overrated in hindsight, particularly among younger folks who didn’t spend any of their formative years with the band (I’m 37). Perhaps that’s just a function of perception and the opinions I see, but for my money, OK Computer, the band’s third album, is their magnum opus, and if the world has changed in the twenty-one years since its release, its themes of cold, emotionless alienation caused by modern technology and our working world are only more relevant today. In putting it at the top of its Best Albums of the 1990s list, Pitchfork wrote “OK Computer simply is the anxious, self-important, uncertain, technologically overwhelmed 1990s,” and even though the phrasing has a bit of that Pitchfork overwroughtness, it’s not wrong. That kind of praise, which typifies the critical response to OK Computer, makes it difficult to have anything new or interesting to say about the album, so I was more interested in looking into how it holds up in 2018.
As I get older I think more and more about what makes albums stand the test of time, in the sense of “albums I still go back to on a regular basis.” It’s surprising to me how often something I loved in my more formative years, justifiably so, rarely shows up on my stereo these days. (I still think the Beatles are justifiably praised and every bit as good and groundbreaking and important and necessary as their reputation suggests… but I also can’t tell you the last time I just put on a Beatles album and listened to it all the way through.) I have some theories about how what’s formative and groundbreaking ages vs. what is more classically structured, but they’ll have to wait for another essay.
Back to our topic: It had been a while since I’d listened to OK Computer all the way through, but I decided to give it a go for this essay. It certainly helps that the album kicks off with one of my favorite tracks, “Airbag,” a song which has a bit more of the electronically-touched sound that the band would adopt with OK Computer (and really push into with 2000’s Kid A), but it’s still a straightforward enough rocker that it could have fit right in on The Bends. And it’s a chorus that really hits home for me after my near-death experience in a way it may not for others: “In an interstellar burst / I’m back to save the universe.” I’m amazed that I survived; an airbag saved my life.
“Paranoid Android” was the first single released from the album, and perhaps its true magnum opus, a six-and-a-half-minute track that goes through multiple movements and moods, lyrics alternating from weirdly sinister (in contrast to the music) to appropriately sinister (in conjunction with the music) to confusingly uplifting (“God loves his children”?).
OK Computer does a great job alternating its quiet and loud tracks; the rollicking numbers interspersed with the creepier numbers and the emotionally distant and devastating ones. “Paranoid Android” gives way to the more placid “Subterranean Homesick Alien” and especially the adored “Exit Music (For a Film),” which probably has one of the most cited lyrics from the album, the repeated “We hope that you choke.”
And for an album about cold alienation, some of the tracks, like “Let Down,” are truly devastating. Thom Yorke’s singing of them isn’t particularly emotional in the early verses, but between the starkness of the melody and the lyrics themselves: “The emptiest of feelings / Disappointed people / Clinging onto bottles / And when it comes, it’s so, so / Disappointing / Let down and hanging around / Crushed like a bug in a ground.” Yorke’s rather detached singing early in the song gives “Let Down” space to build an emotional crescendo, as by the final verse the pain in his voice is evident in a way whose only real comparison in Radiohead’s work is the same final-verse build of “Fake Plastic Trees.” “And one day / I am gonna grow wings / A chemical reaction / Hysterical and useless / Hysterical and / Let down…” It’s arguably the emotional high point of the album (or low point, as it were), at least for me.
I’m a bit of an oddball in that I tend to have different track preferences than most. The spoken-word monotony of “Fitter Happier” is often cited as a weak moment on the album, but I’ve always quite liked it, even if some of the sentiments on it seem a little trite now. (And I even think that says more about us these days– have we really just accepted that we’re all just techno-pigs now in a forever increasingly digital, online future?) And “Karma Police,” the second single and many people’s favorite, is a little on the obvious side for me, and less musically interesting and inventive– although I do love the end movements: “For a minute there, I lost myself.”
The rollicking “Electioneering” is another track that doesn’t get as much love in the popular imagination but is one of my favorites; I tend to favor the uptempo songs (also, politics!). What’s impressive is how this album can do down-tempo in more than one vein; compare and contrast the two tracks that follow “Electioneering,” the creepy, alien sensation of “Climbing Up the Walls,” and the cold detachment of “No Surprises.”
The latter is something I find in moments really funny, with its singsong melody and affectless singing. “Bring down the government / They don’t, they don’t speak for us” is a ludicrous line under those circumstances (in a good way); “I’ll take the quiet life / A handshake of carbon monoxide / No alarms and no surprises” is perfectly anesthetized and enervated for the tempo– and all of it bitterly ironic under that lullaby piano melody.
“Lucky” was written earlier than any of the other tracks on OK Computer, and at this point in the album, it calls back to “Airbag” with its chorus: “Pull me out of the aircrash / Pull me out of the lake / ‘Cause I’m your superhero / We are standing on the edge.” A car crash, a plane crash, a superhero, back to save the universe. (“We are standing on the edge” also speaks to the broader themes of the album; 1997 was still a time when we might be plausibly said to be standing on the edge of the digital and analog worlds, the edge of human and machine, in a way that we have clearly stepped over now. Laptops and cell phones were still rare then; they’re ubiquitous now. Everyone has a device tethered to them.)
The album finishes with the slow, sparse “The Tourist,” the pace of the track contrasting with the lyrics themselves, which speak to an overstimulated, fast-paced, stressed individual– indeed, perhaps one headed to a crash, a recurrent theme in OK Computer. “Hey, man, slow down.” I always liked the contrast of the lines “They ask me where the hell I’m going / at 1,000 feet per second” for a song that I don’t even think gets to 60 BPM.
One other point that the Pitchfork writeup makes is that this album really is immersive, a soundscape that works great on headphones. This isn’t an album that’s creative and conceptual merely in its lyrics and instrumentation, but in the details of production and arrangement as well. (You can largely thank producer Nigel Godrich for that.) It’s a ride, start to finish, and even though it wasn’t conceived as a concept album (I walked right into that one), it holds together as a coherent piece from start to finish, a statement of a humanity in between, caught between the organic and the sterile, in danger of tipping over into the animatronic, into a lifelike machine without any of the soul that makes life worth living. “We are standing on the edge,” indeed.
Even as Radiohead infrequently makes new music these days– Jonny Greenwood’s established film score career and Thom Yorke’s burgeoning film score career being part of the reason– I urge you not to lose sight of the great heights the band reached. Its creative peak– for me, The Bends through Kid A— is still very much deserving of a listen, and OK Computer in particular has stood the test of time for me as one of the best and strongest albums of the guitar-rock era. Give it another listen– or perhaps for you young folks, a first listen.