Review Summary: I cannot imagine giving "OK Computer" anything other than 5/5. The rating system does not even apply to this record ; it is seminal, it is landmark, it is amazing, it is most definitely "OK".7 of 8 thought this review was well written
Radiohead - the old story is that they came out of nowhere, released a grungey album in 1993 that "had “Creep” on it", grew up a bit for 1995's "The Bends" then stunned everyone with "OK Computer" in 1997 (June 16 UK, July 1 US). The truth is "Pablo Honey" is not bad at all, and features some of Radiohead's most complex fretboard work, "The Bends" is not that grown up and that ... they stunned everyone with OK Computer. Radiohead would sadly go on to release very average rhythmic electronic music, which is such a shame because they really were amazing at what they did.
However, this is a review of OK Computer. Bear in mind this album is not just 53:37 of Oxford graduates (apart from Jonny Greenwood, guitarist - he pulled out of his degree because the band were beginning to make it big at the time, in 1991) messing about with effects pedals and anti-melodies in an avant-garde manner. It is not even just a CD. It is an EXPERIENCE. And everyone must experience OK Computer. I believe the ability to listen to this album at one's free will should be on the UN bill of basic human rights. This is not just Radiohead's magnum opus. This is music - nay, Art's magnum opus. Nay, nay, this is HUMANKIND's magnum opus. I really cannot stress how wonderful this album really is.
So you might read this review and go buy it, intrigued. And then be totally "Let Down (and hanging around)", as the fifth track's chorus muses. If you are, don't give up on it yet. Force yourself to listen to it until you can at LEAST appreciate the musicianship and effect this record had.
The album starts off with the spiralling, atonal Jonny-played riff that heralds "Airbag". Then some light, repeated guitar strokes by Ed O'Brien and a very fitting vocal line sung by Thom Yorke, with very fitting lyrics for this album. "In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the universe ... ". What from, Thom? The 'shame' of Pablo Honey? Bad music in general? Technology and the threat it proves on modern society? Whatever it is, I for one am glad Thom and the gang have come to save us.
Airbag leads, by four electronic bleeps, supposedly used by the GMT official time-keeper, into lead single "Paranoid Android". Colin Greenwood’s groovy bass on this track is particularly prominent, from a very underrated rhythm section. Listen to this and bear in mind this was Radiohead's first new music since "The Bends" in 1995 - well, "Lucky" on the "Help" complation album (which many famous britpop bands gave a song to) if you're picky, or even Exit Music in the 1996 Romeo and Juliet film. The seemingly Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy-inspired Paranoid Android is 6:25 of musical nonsensicality and yet at the same time, something is going in your head : "This is bloody amazing."
Well, that would be because it is. Paranoid Android is sheer genius. Live performances of the song are even better, with all 3 Radiohead in-house guitar players giving their six stringers a musical beating.
Subterranean Homesick Alien is the third track, and the first few times, you might be disappointed after such a strong opening, but with repeated listening you'll see this is every bit as deserving of its place on this album as any of the big flashy singles. Melodic, echoed guitar licks and one of the best lyric sheets on the album - apparently inspired by an essay Thom did at school about what an alien would think if it landed in your back garden.
Four songs into the album and we have "Exit Music ( For A Film)". I read that Phil Selway’s drum track to this song was recorded in a room which was full of teddy bears. Whether that is true, I don’t know, but when you listen to the song you can’t help but feel that it more than any other needs some kind of comfort. This song was included on Baz Luhrmann’s aforementioned 1996 adaption of Romeo & Juliet, with Leonardo de Caprio and Claire Daines. "Talk Show Host", a b-side to The Bends' single "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" and fan favourite is also in the movie ; it was on the OST CD but Exit Music was left off, with Radiohead (Thom) stating it was "too personal".
The light and despairing acoustic guitar part in Exit Music, the slow, ghostly climax and haunting vocal delivery, recorded in the large, open stone ballroom of Jane Seymour's mansion are arguably the sonic highlight of OK Computer. It is Radiohead at their very best ; it's noise, lots and lots of noise, but it's good noise, it's musical noise.
The previously mentioned "Let Down" is the type of song Radiohead were labelled in the Bends-era as "music to slit your wrists to" for. The singing in Let Down is a joy to hear, and won't just have you playing the song again, you'll want to rewind back to the lovely choirboy falsetto Thom hits at the song's zenith. Let Down is an extremely defining OK Computer song, and has nice hints of the sound Radiohead could have achieved had they not decided to dabble in Ondes Martenots, free jazz and the like.
Karma Police is another single from this album. Jonny's piano and Thom's acoustic guitar compliment each other beautifully on this piece of songwriting genius. Surely this is what truly seperates us from animals ; the ability to create classic, beautiful songs like this with the f*cking best refrain I have ever heard, at 2:32 where Phil’s drum fill leads us on to Thom crooning "Phew a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself", whereas 23 seconds earlier he had been assuring us that "this is what you'll get ... this is what you'll get, if you mess with us." What, amazing music? Then I assure we all mess with Radiohead as much as possible.
Fitter Happier is only 1:59 long, but in that time it manages to convey that everything that Cool Brittania and Britpop had made the 90s public think about their 'brilliant country' is utter bullshit - " ... A stick [that's] driven into frozen winter shit" to quote a line of this Creep-fest. In case we thought we'd "lost ourselves" there after Karma Police and thought we were hearing a Radiohead happy to write another "The Bends", Fitter Happier tears that thought down and spits on it - twice. A computerized voice - 'Fred' - I believe, from an outdated Mac OS - reads out the most disturbing yet brilliantly effective lyrics from OK Computer with no emotion at all, while a spooky piano part is played, presumably by resident Radiohead multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood.
After the final lines of Fitter Happier, which are, "A pig. In a cage. On antibiotics" our ears are treated to "Electioneering", which musically could fit on The Bends or even Pablo Honey and not raise too many eyebrows. Lyrically though, we're right back in OK-Computerland. "It's just business ... cattle prods and the IMF, I trust I can rely on your vote" Thom spits before hitting us with another falsetto-stained chorus. The album OK Computer came out a couple of months after Britian celebrated its first Labour government in 18 years - and Electioneering shows what the politicians are really about. There are fabulous lead guitar parts in this hooky song, some of the most complex on the whole record, save Paranoid Android’s solos and to an extent Lucky.
"Climbing Up The Walls" is the ninth track and it is a highly frightening song. The crescendo of the song has a strings section, with each violin tuned half a step apart from the next. They build up and thrust the listener into the final chorus, with a nice falsetto in it. This song really sounds mad, insane, like it is climbing up the walls. OK Computer is not just a classic album for the great music and lyrics, everything about this album, the tracklist (which apparently Thom went almost mad trying to put together - well worth it though), the way everything fits, the song titles, the sparse CD design. Hell, even the artwork and booklet are all extremely well done.
No Surprises, which was chosen as a single with an accompanying video is nothing other than musical perfection. As if what Radiohead had just given you wasn't enough, one of the best songs of their career joins the 'amazing songs' bandwagon we're seeing being repeated here. The bands that appeared in Radiohead's wake like Coldplay and more recent examples such as Bloc Party don't really have this capability, to produce an album and think further than the singles. (the fact No Surprises was a single isn't the point.)
The videos from OK Computer - Paranoid Android's disturbing cartoon, Karma Police's man running from a car in the dead of night, then burning it to ashes, and No Surprises' 3:50 close up of Thom Yorke almost drowning in a helmet gradually filling up with water while the articulate (Or to the more unimaginative among us, "depressing") lyrics flash across his face - all serve to really hit the hammer home that this album just can't go wrong. The OK Computer B-sides are all worth getting as well, better than most band's a-sides.
The eleventh song, "Lucky", was a song that was on a charity album that other famous bands gave songs to. It was released as a single but only crawled to 52 in British charts. This disappointed the members of Radiohead, because at the time they believed the song to be the best thing they'd ever recorded up to that point. However OK Computer gives Lucky a new lease of life, and time has proven the 4:21 a firm fan favourite. Jonny's guitar on this track is highly recognizable and very Radiohead. When the album was being mastered and mixed, they already had the 1995 version of Lucky from the Help album, and upon trying to make it better, they found they couldn't, and just left it the way it was. Some people (die hards) complain about a b-side from the OK Computer era called "Lift" being left off, and a song that had already been released being put in its place. While Lift wouldn't have deducted any 'points' from OK Computer, I think Lucky is a more worthy song, and Radiohead found it worthy enough to open their 1997 Glastonbury headline slot with it.
So, finally, Radiohead's statement on modern life (which is a bit rubbish ... ) comes to and end with "The Tourist". Written by Jonny Greenwood while in Paris seeing passers by totally missing the beautiful city around them, "hey man, slow down". Perhaps it is a subtle dig at the stereotypical American (or even Brit) abroad? Who cares, the point is it's a really lovely song with a microwave bleep at the end.
Overall I'd say this was imperative listening for rock fans, or fans of any guitar based music really. Even though a variety of instruments find themselves on here, from Airbag's sleigh bells to No Surprises' glockenspiel, all the songs can be broken down to an acoustic guitar and a voice - even Paranoid Android - and in music, less is more.
But all you hip hop, trance, pop, classical, jazz fans - don't think "Oh my god! A rock album!" Just think of it as music. This is imperative for rock fans and essential for music fans, but at the end of the day, OK Computer is more than that. This is for fans of life. This is for people who would like to make their most of the time on this planet. To have died and not heard Radiohead's third album would be a great shame, these melodies have really changed my life for the better, and if you appreciate what your ears do for you, give them a treat and get this CD. You will not regret it.
Once you have OK Computer, next I'd recommend The Bends, then Pablo Honey. If you've got cash to splash a bit try Kid A, but if you don't want to potentially waste your money get Hail To The Thief or Amnesiac first, they have the more Radiohead trademark sound, and are easier to get into. If you like what you hear go for Kid A. Otherwise ... I warned you.