Album : OK Computer by Radiohead
Review : Q, July 1997
Author : David Cavanagh
With their 1.5 million-selling 1995 album The Bends, Radiohead executed something of a perfect Yin Yang: a great white hope and a big black cloud. Thematically, a cold look at a worn-down, scrofulous interior – Thom Yorke‘s lyric sheet did not so much scan as a fester – it was one of the great “tension” records of recent years. It was streets ahead of the fundamental volleys of angst to be found elsewhere in guitar rock that year and, indeed, on Radiohead’s own perfunctory 1993 debut album, Pablo Honey.
A new song, a gripping plea for rescue entitled Lucky – released in September, 1995 on the War Child compilation album Help – gave a tantalising indication of what their third album might contain. But now it transpires that Radiohead are even better than anybody imagined. The Bends was merely stage two in a long process of preparation for the overwhelming music of OK Computer.
Radiohead are known as a dynamic and neurotic three-guitar band, but the majority of OK Computer’s 12 songs (one of which is Lucky) takes place in a queer old landscape: unfamiliar and ominous, but also beautiful and unspoiled. They produced this album themselves (in their Oxfordshire studio), constructing an eerie sound-world that is both purpose-built – a five-piece rock band has rarely been better recorded – and oddly evocative of a 1984 lyric by the American group Let’s Active that talked of “moonstruck eyes and grey scales”. It’s not always easy to determine which instrument makes which noise. The melodies are unorthodox and tangential: there are no Justs, Creeps or Nice Dreams. It’s a huge, mysterious album for the head and soul.
To hear one of these songs alone is to catch one’s breath: it’s an unknown Radiohead. To hear the whole album is to have one’s milieu well and truly up-ended and one’s imagination repeatedly caught off guard by Radiohead’s expanded ammo-haul of treated guitars, Mellotrons (played by the increasingly dazzling Jonny Greenwood), electric pianos (ditto) and unforseen space effects. A lot of prog rock fans will get off on the album’s more planetarium-compatible noises (to say nothing of Greenwood’s King Crimson-style guitar chords on the opening track, Airbag). That said, OK Computer is not a goblin zone. In his often extraordinary lyrics, Yorke glares as cynically and as disgustedly at life as he did on The Bends. But look at how he’s writing now: “Regular exercise at the gym three days a week…Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries…Fitter, healthier and more productive/A pig in a cage on antibiotics” (Fitter, Happier). Yorke is on top form.
“Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way, “Pink Floyd told us in 1973. Twenty-four years later, Yorke out-writes Roger Waters with heavy sarcasm (and to a better tune, incidentally): “I’ll take a quite life, a handshake of carbon monoxide and no alarms and no surprises, please” (No Surprises). Whereas Dark Side Of The Moon was about madness, meadows and muddling along, OK Computer – along with The Smashing Pumpkins‘ Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness the present-day rock-fans closest equivalent to a ’70s behemoth LP – evokes the sensation of the frequent flyer who has suddenly noticed he’s travelling faster than his aircraft. “Sometimes I get overcharged,” reflects OK Computer’s The Tourist. “that’s when you see sparks/Theu ask me where I’m going at a thousand feet per second/Hey man, slow down, slow down…”
As for the actual Earth, lyric after anguished lyric declares it an unfit place to live on, and condemns Yorke himself as not fit to walk it – so where does that leave him? The answer ultimately arrives on Subterranean Homesick Alien. Yorke, driving along a country lane at night, longs to be carried off by a spaceship. Nice planet. You can have it. Small wonder much of OK Computer sounds not-quite-of-this-world.
Indeed, the first three tracks (of a five-song, continuous, 25-minute suite that’s as brilliant as any music of the last decade) all mention aliens or interstellar activity in some capacity. “I’m back to save the universe,” Yorke sings on Airbag, over a deeply sinister soundtrack of Mellotron, cross-purpose guitars (J.Greenwood, Yorke and Ed O’Brien), reggae-style bass (Colin Greenwood) and hissing, spitting drums (Phil Selway).
If Airbag is merely fascinating, Paranoid Android is simply the song of the year. The first single, it’s six-and-a-half minutes long and it comes in three sections. One of these even has it’s own sub-section. There’s terrific, jazzy 7/8 part with electric piano and deep-grooving bass; there’s a hefty dose of blistering rock (with two guitar solos); and there’s a truly awesome vocal harmony sequence reminiscent of a load of monks chanting a particularly intense extract from David Bowie‘s The Man Who Sold The World.
Although only one song on OK Computer is what you’ll call fast – Electroneering, coincidentally the worst track – it’s got to be said that Subterranean Homesick Alien, Exit Music (For A Film) and Let Down are unusually slow and thoughtful. Subterranean Homesick Alien has wonderful, tingling, golden guitars and Riders On The Storm-style electric piano. Let Down begins like a delicately chiming appendix to The Joshua Tree, but the crazy synthesizers start to fly in from all directions, like a laser show. And as Let Down’s guitar arpeggios drip-drip-drip into the brain, Yorke – one of the very few singers whose voice can appear to convey genuine grief (as opposed to pain) and despair (as opposed to frustration) – delivers a remarkable vocal: falsetto, glorious harmonies, total and utter harmonies. His voice has the terrible shiver of a toddler who can’t for the life of him stop crying.
Just before Let Down comes a gem of a song called Exit Music (For A Film). It concerns two young lovers leaving home and going on the run. Being a Yorke composition, it’s not exactly Moonlighting by Leo Sayer. Jonny Greenwood’s Mellotron produces an unearthly choir of basses and sopranos as one of the runaways implores the other, “Breathe, keep breathing, I can’t do this alone.” Then, during a murderous surge of drums and fuzz bass, the picture goes fuzzy. The fog clears just in time to hear Yorke moan the last, startling line: “We hope that you choke.”
The superb Karma Police, written about a party full of scary people, is what might resulted musically had The Bogus Man-period Roxy Music ever tried to play Sexy Sadie by The Beatles. Even weirder is Fitter, Happier. An aural nightmare with no precedent in Radiohead’s work, it’s a poem of doom, centered in the workplace recited by a pre-programmed Apple Mac that sounds like Stephen Hawking‘s electronic voice. The breakneck (and somehow unsatisfying) Electroneering kicks up a royal fuss, before collapsing into the uneasy trip-hop of Climbing Up The Walls. It now seems as though OK Computer’s second half will comprise nothing but menace and cacophony.
Suddenly, however, there’s a respite from this two-song burst of chaos. In fact, the final three-song sequence has more control, more room to breathe (and arguably more beauty) than any other part of the record. Each of these three songs is the match of Street Spirit (Fade Out) on The Bends. No Surprises is Radiohead’s prettiest moment to date, using dulcimer and Christmassy synth textures to decorate Ed O’Brien’s exquisite guitar refrain. A lesser band would have grafted Yorke’s withering lyric onto a ready-made anthem of barely adequate string-bending pique.
The Tourist, which follows the still-spooky-and-marvellous Lucky to conclude the album, is an unexpectedly bluesy waltz. It’s not easy to play a waltz with anxiety, let alone the panic felt by Yorke’s hyperventilating traveller, but they do. As it reaches its final bars, the three guitars fall out, leaving just Phil Selway’s brushed cymbals, a couple of plucks of Colin Greenwood’s bass and – finally – the “ding” of a tiny bell.
And that is that. A landmark on every latitude. Not the least achievement of OK Computer is that a major weirdo-psychological English guitar band can induce gasps of admiration, stunned silence and more than a few lumps in the throat. It’s and emotionally draining, epic experience. Now Radiohead can definitely be ranked high among the world’s greatest bands.
JC adds : The review recognises and anticipates the many plaudits that would come the way of OK Computer; but I can’t but help getting annoyed at the way so many other bands have been shoehorned into the review, almost as if there’s a hope that, should these opinions be out of sync (which clearly they weren’t), at least offering a comparison with some other acts will ensure the message gets across that this is a serious and not frivolous piece of art.
PS : Tomorrow, being Christmas Day, I’ll have a review of something a bit less serious and way more frivolous.