Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 30)
This year the NSA completed work on a data storage facility in Bluffdale, Utah. It cost over 2 billion dollars and is over a million square feet in size, 100 thousand feet of data space and another 900 thousand for administration and technical support. It was built to hold around 12 exabytes, or 12 billion gigabytes, of data. It is designed to process private emails, cell phone calls, web searches, and everything else that interacts with the Internet, all the way down to convenience store receipts. Former Google CEO once claimed that humanity had only recorded 5 exabytes of data from the beginning of mankind through 2003. We now generate that amount of data every two days.
Sometime in 1996, a decade before a data center of this size was even conceivable, 5 English born human beings - Thomas Yorke, Johnathan and Colin Greenwood, Edward O’Brien, and Phillip Selway - gathered in a ballroom inside St. Cathrine’s Court to record “Let Down” at 3 in the morning. Did any of them know what they were making, let alone what would happen once they released it? That they were about to change everything? The cumulative result of their efforts, OK Computer
, is the album that seems to come out every year. It never ages, with each year things happen that continue to fuel the legacy of this album. Besieged with surveillance, terrorism, connectivity, and the ever-looming fact that the Internet is bringing us all closer to realizing how insignificant and similar we are. It’s an album built for 1997, 1998, 2001, 2010, 2013, and probably every year following until this rock we’re standing on explodes. So the question that each of us that know this album by heart keep coming to it with is,
”If we’re storing all of human history on hard drives, what the hell does that make me?
And OK Computer
answers, like it always has, “Alive, and isn’t that amazing?”
But it doesn’t lay this on the table as some trite sentiment. Huge masses of writers seem to think its some crushingly depressive, techno-frightened masterwork of tension and doom. It isn’t. It never has been. OK Computer
is an album about how absolutely thrilling it is to be alive. About how glorious it is to be human and how no amount of fiber optic cable can change that.
So why does it seem that I’m the only writer who believes this? Wikipeida’s helpful summary of themes present on OK Computer
lists, “transport, technology, insanity, death, modern life in the UK, globalization and political objection to capitalism.” Elsewhere I read “pre-millenial angst”, “a reaction against the national mood of optimism”, and “docile workers enforced by self-help and antidepressants”. Allmusic’s “Moods” section reads “Angst-ridden”, “Somber”, “Gloomy. “Themes” include “Illness” and “Regret”.
I get it. This isn’t the chippiest album ever made but that’s exactly what makes it so invigorating, it doesn’t force-feed you its message, it makes you look for it. I have this theory that the only truly depressing music is bad music because so called “depressing” music contradicts itself since its creator overcame his illness to make the damn thing in the first place. OK Computer
, is simply too beautiful an album to be tethered by the belittling term “depressing”.
”I am born again.”
Six years of listening to this song and those opening seconds – guitar, sleigh bells, cello – still burst the dopamine generator in my brain. If you want a neon sign scrolling up and down saying “THIS ALBUM IS ABOUT LIFE’S GLORY”, “Airbag” is it. And it opens the album. Over crisp sleigh bells and hyper processed but never overdone drums, Thom Yorke steps from the wreckage of his German car and is alive. He is literally born again from the crumpled womb of technology. “I’m amazed that I survived,” gawks Yorke, “An airbag saved my life.” This is, of course, almost always glossed over in favor of mass critical salivating over “Paranoid Android”, which really is about being freaked out by technology, but “Airbag” isn’t. I’ll let Thom himself tell it,
“Has an airbag saved my life? No, but I tell you something, every time you have a near accident, instead of just sighing and carrying on, you should pull over, get out of the car and run down the street screaming 'I'm back! I'm alive! My life has started again today!’”
It takes an insane amount of remove for a human being to pilot a metal crate down a highway, a few degrees away from death at all times. “Airbag” is about that separation being erased and finding yourself in the moment.
"One day, I am going to grow wings."
“Let Down” spends its first movement being spectrally bummed out. “Disappointed people, clinging onto bottles/And when it comes its so, so disappointing” moans Thom. But as the verse about squashed bugs comes to an end, something incredible happens. The song seems to suck in a little bit, and then, just after Thom asks us not to “get sentimental, it always ends up drivel”, it lifts off into the air. And it never ever comes back down. Regarding “Let Down” as a set of lyrics, it’s a song about being “crushed like a bug in the ground”. As a full piece of music though, it’s an uplifting, radiant song, the takeaway isn’t “Crushed like a bug in the ground”, it’s “One day, I am going to grow wings.” This is because of that holy bridge, where the guitar traces a few notes on its own before the whole band comes back in, joins together, and sends the whole song through the stratosphere. Thom’s lyrics are doubled during this part and you can hear him fighting with himself, the battle is between the part of us that believes we’re all “hysterical and useless” and the part that reassures us “You know where you are”. But before the two voices peel apart, they still agree on the most important bit. “One day, I am going to grow wings.” Nothing will hold us; we continue to live because humans are hopeful creatures. We all believe, foolishly or not, that we’re going to one day grow wings.
”Hey man, slow down.”
The conclusion to this whole wonderful thing glides to a gentle rest with “The Tourist”. Again, the sequencing here is important, this album could conceivably ended with “Climbing Up the Walls” or “No Surprises”. Had that happened, I would not be writing this right now. If either of those tracks were the conclusion to OK Computer
, it would indeed be a “Somber”, “Gloomy” album about “Illness” and “Regret”, but it doesn’t. This is a band that has been known to fight it out about sequencing; they had a clear idea of what they were doing here. So is it so hard to imagine that “The Tourist”’s key lyric, “Hey man, slow down”, is supposed to recontextualize the album as a warning? Again, consider sequencing. “Climbing Up the Walls”/”No Surprises” is undoubtedly this album’s emotional bottom, the former a anxious trip into spiraling psychosis, the latter a calm and quiet rumination on suicide as a welcome alternative to monotony, but “Lucky” is the redemptive moment. Not only does “Pull me out of the air crash” complete the rebirth motif started in “Airbag” but it feels like a hand reaching down to grasp the listener, yanking them from that murky bottom.
“The Tourist” floats on that same plain “Lucky” takes us. Then it tells us, “Hey man, slow down.” That’s the thing about “No Surprises”, the album’s most direct commentary on modern life; it’s purposely designed to be unnerving. Radiohead are acknowledging the reality of this way of life and asking you “Is this how you want to live?” “Hey man, slow down.” How about the “screaming Gucci little piggy” of “Paranoid Android”? Or the handshakes and forced smiles of “Electioneering”? “Hey idiot, slow down.”
Now, consider the three key lyrics I’ve singled out (“I am born again”, “One day, I am going to grow wings”, “Hey man, slow down”) and their placement in the album, beginning, middle, end. OK Computer
has sections that are depressing and scary but it’s a complex work of art and like all complex works of art, it spans a wide range of emotions. The fact remains that two hopeful, uplifting statements and a final warning frame this album.
Technology’s advancement has always enthralled and terrified humans. From the printing press to the atom bomb to the iPhone, we keep asking ourselves, are we engineering our own destruction? The answer is yes but that’s also what give life meaning, that it isn’t promised. OK Computer
, released right on the verge of our rapid fire, million miles an hour 2000’s is as afraid and fascinated by humanities progress as any of us. We return to it for reassurance and comfort, because despite the electronics contained within and the machinery we listen to it on, only living breathing human beings could have made OK Computer
Am I reading into this too much? Of course I am, but also, of course I am
. This is OK Computer
we’re talking about here. This album deserves to be analyzed and interpreted in as many ways as possible. Everyone’s allowed to hear something new in this record. And from where I’m sitting, not once, in my entire life, has that final ringing triangle ding at the very end of “The Tourist” ever faded out and made me think to myself, “Boy I’m gloomy.” It’s made me feel inspired, enlightened, enraptured, and, more than anything else, human.