I must admit, this is a terrifically difficult album for me to write about. First, a ton has already been written about it, and I always fear that I’m simply regurgitating things I’ve read elsewhere. Second, I find myself attempting to “solve” the album each time I listen to it. It’s a bit like The Wall, in that sense. As I’ve had it on heavy rotation over the past two weeks, I have to catch myself from over-analyzing what a drum roll here, a sigh there, or an oddly placed noise is symbolic of. So, rather than a pure essay, I’ll break OK Computer down to its finest components for the bulk of my review.
Why is OK Computer my second favorite album ever?
1 It has one of the all-time great Track Ones. “Airbag” sets the tone for the entire album: it’s a complex, layered, confusing song that has beautiful moments set against others that are terrifying. The album is about being unsettled, and that mood is set in the very first measure of its opening track.
2 It contains the best song of the 1990s, “Karma Police.” From Thom Yorke sneering “This is what you get, when you mess with us,” to his admission that “For a minute there, I lost myself,” it sounds straight out of something Orwell would have written. When the song dissolves into a screeching tone from Ed O’Brien’s guitar, it sounds both like someone losing their mind perhaps, or like a modem (Remember those? It was 1997, after all) gone haywire.
3 The middle triplet of “Exit Music (For a Film),” “Let Down,” and “Karma Police,” stands up to any three consecutive songs on any album ever. The mood of the album changes from anger “We hope that you choke,” in “Exit Music” to submission “Let down and hanging around, crushed like a bug on the ground,” on “Let Down,” to a fascistic defiance on “Karma Police.” It’s not rock and roll; it’s opera.
4 The throw-away song fits the overall concept perfectly. “Fitter Happier,” a list of slogan and phrases uttered by Thom Yorke’s Mac at first seems like something Pearl Jam was doing in the mid-90s: putting a horrible song or two in the middle of the good stuff just because they could (Think of “Pry To,” “Bugs,” and “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me,” on Vitalogy). However, as OK Computer reveals itself, “Fitter Happier” suddenly makes perfect sense.
5 Finally, mirroring “Airbag” at the open, “The Tourist” is one of the all-time classic closing tracks. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking plea for people to take the time to appreciate life and reclaim their individuality in the process. “Hey, man, slow down. Idiot, slow down. Slow down.”
As I wrote earlier, I view OK Computer as a bookend to the 1990s with Achtung Baby on the other side. Where U2 was writing about the possibilities and promise an era of peace offered, only five years later Radiohead were saying that all those promises had been left behind as the world became more corporate, more homogenized, and more overwhelming. The individual was being buried under an avalanche of information, corporate messaging, and cultural imperialism. Technology, rather than improving our lives, was speeding the world up to the point where our minds could no longer process everything thrown our way. Several of the songs devolve into layers of sounds that are barely distinguishable as component parts. I’ve always taken those moments to be Radiohead’s representation of that information flood: the sounds of our minds overloading and shutting down. In its darkest moments, OK Computer speaks of a world where we’ve all shut down, given in, and become slaves to the things that were supposed to set us free.
Another admission: as I’ve listened to it over-and-over during the past couple weeks, I came to the realization that the gap between #1 and #2 on my list is quite small. In fact, I could say OK Computer is, in fact, 1B. If you bought me enough drinks and got me talking about it for awhile, I might even admit that it’s a better album than London Calling. I keep it at #2, though, for two reasons. First, The Clash is my all-time favorite group. Politics are involved, here! Second, London Calling’s influence is unquestioned. I’m not sure what place OK Computer has in determining how the music that came, and will come, after it sounds. Great album, yes. Influencial? I do not know.
OK Computer is a masterful album. It has a strong thematic core supported by excellent lyrics, amazing music, and wonderful production. Thom Yorke’s voice takes you to highly emotional places and then the rest of the band forces you into an even more charged state. Many bands attempt to make an album like OK Computer. Most fail. Thank goodness Radiohead came through for us.