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Signature Sound

OK Computer— 


Released: 1997

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) Eletioneering  9) Climbing Up The Walls  10) No Surprises  11) Lucky  12) Tourist


It isn’t really about computers.  It is about technology though: about our greater dependence on it…about our loss of emotional connections.  Essentially this album is about the dehumanization of the modern world.  And that’s just it, isn’t it?  Radiohead made a record with a grand statement…not just a collection of messy, noisy, atmospheric soundscapes; this is an album with sentiment and an album that gradually pushed the band into superstardom.


Machines dominate the lyrics.  Car wrecks, plane crashes, neon signs, androids, spaceships, refrigerators… And these machines all fall back to one central theme: our technology, created to connect us all, has actually alienated us…left us emotionless workers struggling to find our purpose.  Ironically, the music on this album is absolutely dependant on tape loops, samples, and the most current digital recording equipment available.  Radiohead used the very technology they seemed to be signaling out to pull you into their observations.


And unlike on “The Bends,” these observations flow together, slowly sweeping you up in their grandeur.  Don’t get me wrong…this is isn’t a perfect record, but there is something compelling about it.  Something that forces you to listen…almost like it knows it is important. 


The opening track on the album, “Airbag,” deals with a near fatal accident in which the singer was saved by an airbag.  Here the technology is the savior, but really, if it weren’t for society’s dependence on cars, the singer wouldn’t have been in such a life or death situation to begin with (and the mood makes it obvious Radiohead were aware of this Catch 22).  Above all else though, “Airbag” is a song of undeniable relief, as the singer realized he survived, and the music matches the surroundings.  The band is tight and together on this song, with Johnny Greenwood’s guitar taking lead…but the most interesting technique used is the constant sleigh bells in the background.  SLEIGH BELLS!?!?  Brilliant.


Paranoid Android” follows…”Please can you stop the noise, I’m trying to get some rest?”  This song is pure rock; one of the few times the band lets go and screams.  The first four minutes are almost a temper tantrum of frustration, but in the middle, right when the song should bowl you over with its bleakness, the music falls out, and all you are left with is Thom Yorke leading the band in some sort of monk chanted, emotional calling…it is just about the most moving piece of music I have heard…a true rock séance.  After the ending, ironical, dripping in sarcasm, “God loves his children, yeah,” the music roars back into play and the song closes as loud as it opened.  It is one of the best songs of the 1990s, and a musical warning to our generation.              


With “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” musically, the mood is mercifully lifted.  Thom uses an alien observing humankind to make his criticisms of society: “All these weird creatures, who lock up their spirits are uptight, they’re all uptight.”  But he also takes the part of a lost human, wishing that the aliens would take him away to teach him the “meaning of life.”  The song, highlighted by background sound splashes and beeps, is beautiful and full of hooks; another excellent and completely original sound, but preaching a very lonely message.  The lonely, wandering vibe continues with “Exit Music (For A Film).”  This is one of the more traditional sounding tracks on the album, and the lyrics deal with a Romeo-Juliet love story.  The beginning few verses feature Thom, alone, strumming his guitar, but soon, those strange monk chanted voices dominate the background, turning the song quasi-religious.  Thom sounds depleted, just flat-out emotionally exhausted.  When Phil’s drums kick in, followed by the rest of the band, the tune climaxes and the listener can’t help but feel emotionally exhausted as well…another absolute atmospheric classic. 


Let Down” and “Karma Police” are also more traditional sounding songs.  The former has a distinct British sound and is a little out of place, breaking the spell the previous songs were casting.  It is still catchy and a very good tune, but is just doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the album: too sweet, too poppy, and too “normal.”  Karma Police” on the other hand, is about the most “normal” sounding track on the album (obviously “Sexy Sadie” inspired), but it manages to fit nicely with the mood.  Piano based and catchy, but with major attitude, this is the song to play to convince people Radiohead were not just studio tricks and weird noises, as overall it is their most accessible moment on the album.  Ironically, the least accessible tune follows.                


Fitter Happier” is nothing more than an emotionless Macintosh computer voice, overtop of some freaky piano chords, giving an almost shopping list for all humans: “Not drinking too much…will not cry in public…still cries at a good film…enjoy a drink now and then…”  Honestly, it is cheesy, but creepy.  Creepy beyond belief actually…the voice is just so sad, so robotic, and so scary…almost like a robot is reminding us all how to live.  Electioneering” is the loudest track on the album, making a stark contrast to the bleak “Fitter Happier.”  This tune is a very good rock song, and musically fits in well with the record as a whole, but as an individual track, just doesn’t pack as much of a punch as the music clearly tries to make it.  The younger Greenwood really lets rip with a crazy solo at the end though, and his playing on the album in general, and this track specifically, gave him his current reputation as one of the most innovative players in rock.


Climbing Up The Walls” is all mood: unwelcoming, miserable, and cold.  The lyrics seem to deal with a man going crazy—perhaps from the lack of emotion in this world of wires.  The song wants you to hate it, but not in a punk way.  It is like that murder or rape scene in a movie that you don’t want to watch…you know you shouldn’t…but you do, and you wish you hadn’t because you know you will remember that scene at exact times when you shouldn’t; an off-putting, scary masterpiece.  With another unsettling change of sound, “No Surprises” follows.  This is a most cordial track with Johnny Greenwood featured on xylophones.  It is charming, warm, and really welcomes you in…on the third chorus, a female choir jumps in and the song sincerely just knocks me out…stunning. 


Lucky” is heart wrenchingly disturbing.  The lyrics go back to “Airbag,” only this time the singer is saved by another human, pulling him out of an air crash.  The rest of the story deals with the protagonist slowly realizing what is more important in life, and seems to blow off any of the old insignificant little nuances with the phrase “I feel my luck could change.”  Another great, effective and completely novel tune.  The album’s closer is a slow ballad, with Thom’s voice soaring out the band’s final warning…”Hey man, slow down, idiot, slow down.”  Beautiful, touching and an elegant way to end the record.


Is this really a concept album?  Not in “The Wall” kind of way, but it is Radiohead’s take on their environment and perfectly captures the paranoia that was felt by everyone entering into the 21st Century.  OK Computer” itself does have some less than magical numbers, but it entraps you with its completely overwhelming mood.  The entire album manages to suck you in, demanding that songs not be skipped, and passages not be missed.  It is a record to be listened to, it can’t be on as background music…in short, this is the best album of the 1990s and one of the most consuming listening experiences you could hope for.

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