Radiohead: OK Computer

Like any well-behaved music fan in the '90s, I bought into the OK Computer hype. I basked in the proggy arrangements, I praised Radiohead as the future of rock, and I listened to the album with all the open-mindedness of a newly minted cult member. For some reason, though, I haven't once missed my copy of the record since I sold it in 2000. Why aren't I fondly reminiscing about it? Perhaps the record is overrated, or maybe I simply absorbed its charms so completely that I no longer need to hear the music to experience its greatness. Either way, it's time to check out the EPFL's copy and see how the album holds up, nearly 10 years after my last listen.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
OK Computer is definitely experimental. The band plays with song structures, instrumentation, production, arrangements... really, they took everything that makes up a pop song and messed with it. For the most part, it works well. Some of the lyrics are pretty stupid, but they work in context.

OK Computer is definitely important. The album's influence is vast, and you can find touches of OK Computer in every style of music from reggae to classical. The influence might be most dramatically felt on the generation of post-punk and indie bands who have found moody soundscapes to be just as vital as power chords.

But I can hear something now that I couldn't hear back when OK Computer first came out: the band's brain is trying to dominate its heart. Most great rock has a hefty chunk of smarts in one way or another, but the best rock is special because it comes from the heart. On OK Computer, Radiohead's heart was losing ground to its brain. Fortunately, the band was still favoring passion and excitement over mathematical time signatures and computer-generated bleeps, but the brain was creeping up in an unpleasant manner.

All in all, I'm glad to have rediscovered this album, because it's a solid piece of music. In retrospect, though, it's not quite as perfect as we all made it out to be back in the late '90s.

Packaging: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's strange how this artwork is completely iconic yet completely anonymous. If you ask the typical Radiohead fan to pick out the cover from a display of 50 record covers across the room, my guess is that most of them would immediately identify OK Computer. But what if you ask the same fan to describe what's on the cover? Is anyone going to mention a highway? Or an airplane's emergency evacuation instructions? Or the words "Lost Child?" My guess is no. It's kind of neat how the overall vibe of the design is so memorable, but the individual elements are almost meaningless. I guess that makes it a perfect accompaniment to the album, which is full of music whose overall vibe is memorable, while the individual instruments are almost meaningless. My only complaint is the lyrics are a pain to read, but given the package, their decision to favor form over function is understandable.

Listen if you like: Pink Floyd, TV on the Radio, Sunny Day Real Estate, The Mars Volta, early Peter Gabriel... really, anything that is remotely experimental but still rocks.

If it were food, it'd be: A ripe, juicy, delicious, genetically modified tomato.

1 comment:

The Mad Hatter said...

Ok, you knew I was waiting for this, so here goes: excellent review. I think your mention of the importance of the artwork is almost as important as the music itself. Most artwork nowadays is pretty meaningless, but for this album it mirrors the music.

As for the heart and brain, it's fairly obvious this album was a battle between the two, which on Kid A we see the brain finally took over. I know people don't have much love for that one, but it's certainly a more logical progression than the shock and surprise many people felt on hearing it.

Ok, the music: I will certainly say this is a great album -- not the greatest or even perfect by any means -- but I don't think my opinion of it has changed since 1997 (possibly because I've listened to it fairly often since 1997) and it still seems fresh to me today. You're also spot-on about the instruments -- which I think plays into the whole individual-suffocated-by-the-world theme the album portrays, and that's refreshing to me, too. When I heard this in 1997, I thought, "No bombastic guitar solos, melodies, choruses?" Especially on the heels of the Bends, you'd expect at least something closer to that than what OK Computer turned out to be, but that's precisely why it's so damned good. It's no surprise they haven't come close to to this album again -- and I don't mean to the type of music; I mean all of the ways this album tried to assimilate into a unified force -- because something like that is difficult to do.

And in case you're interested, HTTT and Rainbows come after this one for me. HTTT tries for the same jugular, just from a different perspective methinks.