Oxford quintet Radiohead have been called many things, including but not limited to 'best band in the world' - a bold statement that has long lost all its meaning. After all, it is quite rightfully argued that the title can never be taken away from a certain 1960's pop group. However, year after year Radiohead's catalogue remains so very consistent and, above all, respectable that calling them the best group of the modern day is easily warranted. One need not even be as big a fan as myself as to argue that a mediocre album hasn't seen the light of day since 1993's debut Pablo Honey. OK Computer was Radiohead's third album, following 1995's alt rock classic the Bends. Musically, the album continues along the same lines as its predecessor, although the songs here are multi-layered, making them sound more majestic and giving them spirit. With a successful album under their belt, the group's songwriting had improved and they were ready to take on a new challenge - crafting a concept album.
One of the first things one will notice about the album is just how clever guitarist Jonny Greenwood is with his guitar. Album opener Airbag and its follow-up Paranoid Android best showcase his unique style. Originally, the group had three separate songs on their hands that they didn't know what to do with. After putting the bits together mr. Greenwood added a fourth section to the song that would become Paranoid Android, featuring a chaotic, intense yet recognizable solo. This song remains a signature track for the group with people hailing it as a modern Bohemian Rhapsody. After starting off slowly with Greenwood's guitar accompanying a wailing Yorke, a ripping guitar kicks in. The song comes full circle in the fourth section, with a guitar solo that's all over the place, screeching and dirty, but wholly in control.
After the musical thunderstorm that is Paranoid Android we are presented with a string of four sorrow-laden songs. Subterranean Homesick Alien, with the guitar weeping in the background, Exit Music (For a Film) and its haunting, hollow sound before the explosion, followed by multi-layered Let Down and a radio hit that was too good to be one, also known as Karma Police. In Fitter Happier, we hear a voice reminiscent of a distorted Microsoft Sam throwing in buzzwords and giving life tips before hinting we are not free in the least but instead "a pig in a cage on antibiotics". Yorke was originally supposed to sing every song on the album, but the anemic vocals coupled with simple beats of the piano really make Fitter Happier stand out. While these aspects do also cause it to feel more like an intermission than an standalone song, it's hardly relevant. The track sounds intriguing, dark and scary as opposed to possibly borderline cheesy, and I am reminded of replicants from Blade Runner in an extremely positive manner.
Next up is Electioneering, an upbeat, guitar-driven track featuring a handful of impressive wails and screeches by Yorke. Many consider it the weakest song on the album. Upon closer inspection, it proves itself to be a track of extreme importance, wrapping up the soul-crushingly melancholic first half.The song begins with a rattle, and Yorke seemingly assumes the role of a corrupt politician:
"Say the right things
I trust I can rely on your vote"
Electioneering, in its honesty and straight-forwardness really provides the album with peculiar raw charm and edge that I feel would otherwise be missing.
Climbing Up the Walls is a profoundly disturbing song that reeks of paranoia and madness. Its vocals are again distorted, though Yorke's this time around. Phil Selway's drums are clear and loud, and the final breakdown with Thom howling in anxiousness before fading out could well be the high point of the album. No Surprises, like its name hints, is agonizing for a different reason. Yorke has utter desperation in his voice, yet the pretty guitar and piano beat are paradoxically uplifting. On Airbag, a narrator survived a car crash. On Lucky, the second last song of the album, he is pulled from an air crash. Here is finally a piece of music that appears full of hope, with Greenwood playing truly majestically.
Then, we have the ending. Of course, failing to bring a piece of art to a satisfactory closure will ruin a movie and an album alike. The Tourist appears at first glance a rather traditional Radiohead ballad, something a crazy person would argue even this very album too largely consists of. OK Computer is an emotional roller coaster, and there is something miraculously comforting in the way it is brought to a close. Thom's vocals are soothing yet, much like the listener, exhausted. Towards the end of the song, guitarist Jonny Greenwood breaks into what is to me the most extatic and fitting guitar solo since Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb itself. The song suddenly picks up speed, and with Thom crying "IDIOT, SLOW DOWN!", it feels as though he's talking to you personally. There is the sound of a microwave oven beeping and, with that, we're gone. Curtains.
To say OK Computer was huge is an understatement. I well know my words are unable to do it justice, however many superlatives I attempt to throw in. As I'm writing this review, it is 2011 and its influence can be heard left and right. However, was it more than that? In an age where anyone can cherry-pick their favorite songs off of iTunes and other similar services, 'the album', as a concept, is in a dire crisis. OK Computer was one of the last albums people heard, experienced and enjoyed as a whole. It may well have been the last classic album ever.
Of course, then there's people like me - people who consider OK Computer to be the single best album in the history of music.