Radiohead- OK Computer
No surprises at all this time round. This album is a brilliant, but really quite scary one. Sometimes it feels like the music is coming from somewhere completely unknown, like with Ágætis Byrjun except with lyrics that hit every single note for the world we live in. We live in a world governed almost completely by machinery, and what we feel as part of this, is captured perfectly by this album. Though it may not contain as much electronica as Kid A that came before, it’s closer to reality than the “fantasy world” Kid A creates. Along with this philosophical dimension, the album musically changed rock music, influencing so much of the rock that is part of the music industry today. The combination of the monotonous sound of the band, the dissonant sound of Jonny Greenwood’s guitarwork, and the fragility of Thom Yorke’s voice makes for a perfect amalgamation to fit the theme of the album. Yeah this combination may be similar in all their albums, however what sets this album apart from the rest is its clear sense of purpose. ‘Kid A’ is a brilliant album, which in a way is more innovative than this one. However it wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t known how much they hit the nail on the head with this one.
This whole album leads us into a terrifying world, and we grow to realize that this terrible world is the one we live in. The whole album begins with the electronic-sounding, sampled drums of ‘Airbag’, bringing us straight into the world of technology, through the description of a car crash. In this one Yorke is amazed that “An airbag saved (his) life,” he failed to control his technological object of transport, his car. However it was also in control of his own life, in saving his life with an airbag. This near-death experience is a brilliant starting point for the album, because it is showing that it has been a point where he feels like he “is born again,” and the story of OK Computer begins. This experience with the ‘Airbag’ has helped him realize his own mortality, and his place as a human being in society. This new way of thinking is then prevalent through the rest of the album. ‘Airbag’ also starts the album positively, it is the first thought of the average person when they come across technology. It is looking at it in a one-dimensional sense, looking at how it can aid people, and make life easier. However as the rest of the album shows, there are other dimensions to all this.
‘Paranoid Android' is then the representative song of the album in terms of bringing original ideas to rock music. This one is a sprawling 6 minute track, with multiple different sections, explaining that he has now been “born again”, as a 'Paranoid Android', he is so immersed within the technological world that he cannot find the line between humanity and technology. And now there is no line, it is basically part of humanity. The song itself forgets typical song structures in rock music, yet flows so impeccably with the emotions and atmospheres that it creates. The lyrics throughout bring up all the paranoia and worries that the coming 21st century is bringing, all wrapped up in such a tense tone, and in a very emotional one in the mid-section - “The dust and the screaming, the the yuppies networking and the panic, the vomit.” It brings up images of everything going on in the world, the people constantly profiting off of dust and screaming and panic and vomiting. The entire song represents confusion about one's own humanity, the confusion that fills humans around the world.
Radiohead don’t keep their perspective at an Earthly level though, they expand into space with the track ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’. This is one is explaining the consequences of this confusion spoken about in ‘Paranoid Android.’ It causes us human’s to “lock up their spirits, drill holes in themselves, and live for their secrets.” This entire song is supposed to be from the perspective of an alien coming to Earth, in order to show the complete banality, surrealism and backwardness of the human condition. He uses an alien perspective in this song purely to describe alienation from one another, and alienation from ourselves. We just can’t seem to connect, because we are so connected through technology, and to technology. We long for a spaceship up above to take us away and show us “the meaning of life,” even though we think people will “shut (us) away” for it.
This all delves into tragedy in the song ‘Exit Music (For A Film)' which was written for the exit music for the film adaptation of the tragedy of Romeo & Juliet. The strange thing about this song is that, it's a sad one, though the lyrics describe normal circumstances. It's showing a conflict between two lovers, and their own parents, in particular their “rules and wisdom.” The beginning of the song describes the usual tragedy, which is personal and human. Then after the line “there's such a chill, such a chill” is sung, the song drops into something so much darker, everything changes at this point in the song. At this point it is no longer thought that their own situation is the tragedy, and that their father is against them being together. It is a lot more universal, it is the “rules and wisdom” of the father that is the problem. It is the older generation that came before them, setting all the rules for what is wrong and right, creating the backwards society. It is funnily enough, much more political than it seems, like with all of this album.
After this comes one of the centre-pieces of the album - ‘Let Down’. This is a long expression of what life is like in this society, and it is possibly the most beautiful Radiohead song out there. It has the monotonous feeling of living in this world, yet at the same time it has a very reflective, emotional, human feeling. The song begins by describing the cycle of life, and the bleak existence humans have in a western society, of “transport, motorways and tramlines, starting up and stopping, taking off and landing.” then explains what it gives - “the emptiest of feelings.” Everything we go through in life contributes to making us empty human beings, we are “disappointed”, “hanging around”, “clinging onto bottles” ie. alcohol. We are “crushed like a bug in the ground” wishing to one day fly away. This whole song is full of these metaphors, all within such an emotional feel. Everything we are is “a chemical reaction” making us “hysterical and useless.” It’s a beautiful song, lyrically and musically.
After this comes the wonderful chord scheme of ‘Karma Police.’ This one gives another story of our own vulnerability. We’ve “given all we can” but “it’s not enough.” This song has two sections, the first speaks about what seems to get us down and suffocate us through our life. It also gives a few stories of people getting the better of others, and punishment for no viable reason other than one’s own selfishness. It gives a number of extracts of little stories of competitions between humans, and discrimination of individuals for menial reasons like buzzing like a fridge” or talking “in maths.” All of these stories are sung about accompanied by a plodding monotonous rhythm, as if it is all part of daily life, this plodding rhythm is something you can get a bit lost in however, with it’s long chord accompaniment. This first section then breaks away into the second section of “for a minute there, I lost myself.” This is a big moment of realization, figuring out that all of this that he speaks about in the first section is completely outside of his own head. That everything we make up about society is not part of our own human mind, we merely lose ourselves in it all. We don’t live in our minds, we lose our minds to the world around us. It’s unsure whether this is a good or a bad thing. It’s a very Buddhist concept, along with ‘karma.’
'Karma Police' then falls even further into the world around us in 'Fitter Happier.' This plays out like a list for self-improvement, however comes across extremely artificial, giving the idea that the world around us may not be completely human. The “self-improvement” style phrases, are then juxtaposed with stark imagery that provide some metaphors for the way in which humanity lives in the world. Some of it is very morbid and dark, but it’s certainly to an effect. All these phrases are spoken by a cold Microsoft Sam-esque voice, and accompanied by completely directionless, and quite tragic music. It is using the artificial to give the effect of what the artificial might do to us, it’s an alienating song, succeeding in what it wants to achieve. It’s bleak, and it’s packed with falsity, in the phrases and in the ‘music.’ There’s an irony to the fact that all these phrases are designed to make oneself a ‘better human being.’ They’ve definitely broken the boundaries of ‘rock music’ with this track, and along with the track ‘Paranoid Android’ they’ve broken the boundaries between the idea of what’s human, and what is machine.
It feels like a band comes back to play some more music though when ‘Electioneering' comes around. What's sung about in this track is a possible compromise politicians give to help all this. The compromise of “I go forwards, you go backwards, and somewhere we will meet.” This is giving the big problem of capitalism in a bold short statement. The idea of the poorest constantly being exploited for work, and the richest profiting off of this work. The irony is that these two ends of the spectrum will never meet, anywhere. “It's just business”, the speaker of this track says, that there's no different way of going about things, even if it may be “voodoo economics”. Yorke wails down the microphone throughout this one, as if he were a politician campaigning for our votes. The guitarwork throughout is frantic too, just like the way us humans go about things, constantly trying to “say the right things.”
This falls into the complete and utter fear throughout ‘Climbing Up The Walls’. This song is full of desperation and the human, biological side of politics. You know this purely from the music too, you don’t need the lyrics to feel the desperation in the music, the doom that the bassline gives us, the wail of Yorke that just builds and builds in emotion through the whole song, until the horrendous scream he does. The whole song builds to quite the explosion, it’s the darkness of this song that reveals some truths about humanity, like art is supposed to do. The “local man” has “the loneliest feeling” here in the city, though he still puts on a “smile”. There’s something quite horrifying about this song, yet something quite beautiful about it at the same time. There’s something slowly breaking like the song, in all of us. Though it’s only by listening to songs like these where we can truly confront our own subconscious weaknesses
After this horror, the fantasy of 'No Surprises' arrives, the fantasies we place above what is real in the world. The music throughout this one is really childlike and innocent, and it works perfectly after the darkness of ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ because it is showing what really underlies the darkness, or in a way what comes after it. It’s the monotonous routine of life, and the clichés us city dwellers all revolve our lives around to feel part of culture and part of the world. The song plays out like a bit of a nursery rhyme and it works perfectly. It speaks about the easy, quiet life we all yearn to have, and all eventually have of “a quiet life” and “a heart that’s full up like a landfill, a job that slowly kills you, bruises that won’t heal”, purely because we don’t want any “alarms” or “surprises.” We all hate surprises don’t we. In the video for this song Yorke’s head is immersed in a tank, which slowly fills up with water, suffocating him. It’s a metaphor.
'Lucky' comes in with another reference to technology getting the better of us, the complete opposite of ‘Airbag’ where it saves our life. This one speaks of an “aircrash” and the illusion that technology gives us, that we are the lucky ones, because we have access to all this technology that aids our everyday lives. However we’re constantly knocked down by it, over and over again. We are always “standing on the edge.” The song also has a dual-theme, it speaks of those city dwellers that gain success and more ‘freedom’ than others. The ones who are called for by “the head of state” and branded as “superheroes.” It isn’t like they’re any different from anyone else, it’s that in this world, they’re “lucky.” This song is like a reference back to ‘Airbag’ in the way that in ‘Airbag’, he is “born again”, and this time he survives an aircrash therefore, he is “on a roll.” It’s another situation where new thoughts arise due to incidents where technology has a giant hold on our lives. This can relate to many many other situations.
The album then finally finishes with 'The Tourist' which brings it all together, concluding the human conflict which is present through the whole album. This is that in the western world, we all move far too quickly, unable to keep up with our own lives, and all the “holes” we drill in ourselves. We’re all going at “a thousand feet per second”, and not realising what we’re doing or “where the hell” we’re going. We are all alienated from ourselves because we are losing ourselves to the world that we can’t quite keep up with. It’s a reminder to us that we’re only human, and that we aren’t better than that, and we can’t do everything at once. The present age tells us to be perfect and try everything, and get all the enjoyment we can out of everything the world has to offer, but we can’t do that, the best we can do is “slow down” and be comfortable in who we are. Without that we can’t really enjoy what the world has to offer properly, we’d only be “tourists” in the world, going around and trying everything, we wouldn’t be real people. If we get “overcharged” with everything, that’s when we see “sparks.” The song itself is a slow, enjoyable, soothing one too, it really shows what’s achieved when we just “slow down”
This album is a bit of a predictable choice for number 1, though everyone who’s lived the last twenty years should definitely have a listen to it.
Genre: Alternative Rock
Recommended Listens: “Paranoid Android”, “Let Down”, “The Tourist”
Have a Listen!