Record Collection: OK Computer

Monday, 30 July 2007

Of all the events of my life that have led me to be the audiophile that I am, none was more shaping than a week of summer camp in which my counselor mentioned to me that I should listen to the new Radiohead album, OK Computer. This was mid-July 1997. Since my counselor was infallibly cool, I immediately picked up the album as soon as I got home. I had a small boombox at the time which would purr and whistle as it spun CDs, and I can remember the anticipation that filled my thoughts as the stereo’s small red LED display blinked zero for a moment, flicked to one, and began playing.

My musical tastes heretofore weren’t exactly prepared for OK Computer. I was mostly attuned to radio-friendly rock groups like Green Day and Pearl Jam, and had only recalled the name Radiohead from a single from their previous record The Bends called “Just.” I had enjoyed the sneering tone of the song, and was rather struck by the odd music video that had accompanied it. But of course, none of these things were going to matter in an hour, since by then OK Computer was going to have destroyed everything I’d thought I’d known about music.

As a twelve-year-old kid, I knew very little about Cold War dread, Orwellian futures, and post-apocalyptic dystopia, but I could feel them in the songs. A whole new palette of emotions were stirred in me. This was my Prometheus. I felt invincible, and I knew beyond any doubt that music was my true calling. Now, ten years later, OK Computer still proves massively influential and relevant, a triumph of cohesive recording and multi-faceted beauty. And here’s a look at why, track by track:

1. Airbag: "In the next world war/In a jack-knifed juggernaut/I am born again." How perfect are these opening lines? It totally sets the theme and tone of the album, it just drips with mystery, and it's a perfect haiku. And the way Thom sings it, equal parts death cry and lounge croon, is just chilling. The distorted drums and multi-layered guitar parts are both great, but it's the cloak-and-dagger basstrickery that really drives this one into the stratosphere. And you can't not love the everpresent sleigh bells.

2. Paranoid Android: This is my favorite song ever. I'll just say that right now. Favorite Song Ever. I know of no other song which has better captured the duality of a tortured psyche, feeling powerful but uniquely vulnerable, cursing the world and yet wishing for redemption. And even the more nonsensical parts are just wondrously executed. The guitar work is playfully dark, and the splashy percussion feels like human whispers. There's a lot of great repetition and call/response between Thom and the guitars, and the hushed yelling ya ya yas are maddeningly awesome. And the final lines destroy me every time. "That's it sir, you're leaving. The crackle of pig skin, the dust and the screaming, The yuppies networking/the panic, the vomit, the panic, the vomit. God loves his children, God loves his children, yeah…"

3. Subterranean Homesick Alien: If I ever have kids, this will be my lullaby for them. Thom Yorke has a way of affecting disaffection that is rarely if ever emulated. It's without agenda or rage or bitterness. He's just outside of everything. Instead of wasting time with suicide threats per usual angst-y band rhetoric, Thom wishes that he could be abducted by aliens who could show him the world. And rather than say that he's bored by life or feeling depressed (other tired sad-rock staples), Thom keeps "forgetting the smell of the warm summer air." His wit is astonishing sometimes.

4. Exit Music (For A Film): I had the distinct pleasure of playing this song with my friend Wayne on a few occasions. It was originally written for the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack, as Yorke's take on the star-crossed lovers. And even though it's from the lovers' perspective, it is markedly NOT about love. It's about struggle and resentment and fighting to hold on against a world that doesn't accept your way of life. And the nadir of it comes at the end, with a distinctly fragile voice wails "We hope/that you choke/that you choke" over and over again.

5. Let Down: Probably the most straightforward song on the album, Let Down has a series of guitar-pick melodies which hold it together underneath Yorke's musings about insects, hysteria, and chemicals. "One day, I am gonna grow wings, a chemical reaction. Hysterical and useless, hysterical and…"

6. Karma Police: Probably one of the few songs to ever specifically use the word "Phew," but goddamn they use it well. A very immersive (if brief) foray into the mind of a misanthropic paranoiac struggling to function in an abrasive world. And then of course, there's the music video; a fascinating conundrum involving a disappearing Thom Yorke, and a torturous chase involving a Tom Sizemore lookalike and a malicious car being driven by YOU the viewer!

7. Fitter Happier: I've always wanted to memorize this song. There's something so strange about these words coming from a computer voice. I heard that originally Thom was going to read them, but they got a hold of some digital voice software and thought it sounded better. And it really does. There's just something so futuristically quaint about that processed voice saying such phrases as "still cries at a good film, still kisses with saliva" and the summation line "A Pig. In a Cage. On Antibiotics."

8. Electioneering: I don't even want to tell you how much time I spent dancing around in my room to this song. It has such a distinctly primal sneer. And even though I wasn't keen enough to pick up the political commentary at the time, I've grown to appreciate the rather forward approach and otherwise obscure intentions of it. "I go forwards, you go backwards, and somewhere we will meet."

9. Climbing Up The Walls: It's impossible to listen to this song and not feel alone. This is a song about trying to connect with someone who's impossible to connect with. And of course, it's also about all of the emotions that come from that. Everything about it screams danger and yet again Thom's soaring, pleading vocals add a counterbalance of security. Sort of. I'm not afraid of the dark, but I AM afraid of this song in the dark.

10. No Surprises: Such a beautifully subdued song. And it's probably about suicide. "I'll take the quiet life, a handshake of carbon monoxide." All the while Xylophones ping-pong across scales and Johnny Greenwood makes his guitar sound like morning songbirds. But again, those lyrics: "A heart that's full up like a landfill, a job that slowly kills you, bruises that won't heal."

11. Lucky: I love when the sound of a song differs from the lyrical content. This song has such a ponderous and low sound and then Thom comes in singing about all sorts of irrational emotions and vacillating between love and sorrow almost in the same breath. I've heard that the band considered this one of their best songs. I totally understand that. It starts off with some really weird over-pedaled Ed madness, and then immediately jumps into some softer guitar lines underneath those haunting words. "Kill me Sarah, kill me again with love. It's gonna be a glorious day." This is Radiohead doing happy. Which is sort of like a wolf doing sheepish.

12. The Tourist: Definitely a "Last song on the album" song. The vocals take a backseat to the guitar, and none of it all makes much sense. The song is, essentially, a call to not take for granted the beauty that's all around us. To not be a tourist running from point A to point B and never noticing everything in between. And just as pleasantly as it all began, so the album ends. Unless you're like me, at which point you probably take it back to track 1 and let it go again.

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