Ezra Pound’s quip about poetry being “news that stays news” applies to Radiohead’s seminal 1997 album, OK Computer. If that sounds like a bold claim, think about their recent single, “I Promise,” a previously unreleased track from the OK Computer sessions. “I Promise” is 20 years old and still sounds brand new. Lest you think that’s a minor accomplishment or a merely incidental feature, consider Soulja Boy Tell’em’s ringtone-rap anthem, “Crank That (Soulja Boy).” How’s that going to sound in 20 years? Will people even remember it? What about LFO’s “Summer Girls” or Len’s “Steal My Sunshine“? You get the point.
Even memorable songs often sound dated, though. With its jittery fusion of envy, angst, and rage, “Creep” — the song that launched Radiohead’s career — is pure ’90s. The Bends, the band’s solid follow-up album, doesn’t fare much better. There are clear hints of the brilliance that would culminate in OK Computer, most notably during the album’s opening track, “Planet Telex.” That song’s punctuated by surging white noise, staccato distortion, Thom Yorke’s alternately soothing and seething vocals, and a serene outro that plays like a kind of subdued lullaby — all elements the band would soon refine in astonishing ways. But for all its heady exploration of the isolating effects of technology and empty consumerism, The Bends is still an indisputable byproduct of the era in which it was produced. I’ll never hear the riff from “My Iron Lung” without thinking of the movie Clueless.
We encounter this same disparity when we skip ahead in Radiohead’s catalogue. For instance, Kid A is often placed on the same shelf as OK Computer. Though it may represent a step forward in terms of production, something was lost when the electronic components took center stage. Like David Lynch, Radiohead has a preternatural gift for exploring the haunting possibilities of ambient noise. That’s part of the reason why Yorke’s always carrying on about people who “buzz [like] fridge[s]” and sound like “detuned radio[s].”Part of OK Computer’s genius is that it captures the ways in which our technology detaches us, allowing us to hover above our world like disembodied observers.
The band’s most mature recordings have always walked a fine line between plaintive yearning and numbing abstraction, like a choir chanting in the sonorant corridors of a crowded airport or a cellist playing in the screeching hustle of a subway. The sonic dynamics of industrial noise form part of the texture of Radiohead’s best music, which is practically designed for modern transportation. There’s something very fitting about listening to Radiohead in an airplane, especially during takeoff and landing, the beeping seat-belt signs and responsive clicks merging seamlessly with the band’s meticulous soundscape.
But with Kid A that balance is lost, and a good bit of the band’s vitality is swallowed in the dissonant clamor of programmed noise. Not even the forlorn tinkle of a music box or Yorke’s agonized wails can pierce through the title track’s electronic barrier. Ambient noise usually works best when it’s somewhat restrained, otherwise it quickly moves from haunting to oppressive. It’s roughly the difference between the sound in the airplane’s cabin and engine. Like The Bends and Pablo Honey, Kid A now shows its age.
Conversely, OK Computer still sounds brand new, and I’m willing to bet that it will for a long time.
I was a missionary kid living in Vienna, Austria, when Radiohead released OK Computer, and I rode a bus, a train, and a tram to get my seventh-grade mitts on it. On the way home, I listened to Yorke sing about “transport, motorways, and tramlines/starting and then stopping/taking off and landing/the emptiest of feelings.” I couldn’t quite articulate why this music perfectly captured the loneliness and incessant anticipation of post-industrial life or the complex ways in which all our modern modes of transit morph into a kind of perpetual transition. These days, we’re always moving, never arriving. OK Computer is an elegy to postindustrial restlessness.
Twenty years is enough time to make you forget how strange this album really is. I had stepped onto the Vienna bus and inserted the CD into my Sony Discman, an infuriating device that lacked the anti-shock feature that protected CDs from being bounced around. The result was a series of frenetic skips that left me with what must’ve looked like a nervous tic to my fellow passengers. The seat next to me remained empty.
My fractured listening experience aside, I didn’t know what to make of what I was hearing. The symphonic guitar, compressed drums, and yes, detuned radio sounds on opening track “Airbag” were more perplexing than prescient, and the first notes of “Paranoid Android” just sounded odd and vaguely ominous. Like so many great records, OK Computer was initially a bit disappointing.
But “Paranoid Android” is a long song, and something happens when you cross the three-minute mark. Jonny Greenwood ditches the meandering pace and Yorke’s anemic vocals and erupts into what is simultaneously one of the most chaotic and cathartic guitar solos I’ve ever heard. Shrill, clamorous, and violent, Greenway drills into the fret board and produces what sounds, at least to my ears, a bit like the fizzling rotation of a radio being tuned. The sharp audio coruscations have more in common with Meshuggah than anything in the catalogue of Radiohead’s influences. (If this comparison sounds outlandish to you, have a listen to the lead on this song, which runs from 2:13 to 2:40. Pro tip: Adjust your volume.) But just as the dissonance threatens to bury the track, the lead resolves and plays out in a seesawing melody that leaves the listener dizzy, rather than jarred. It remains one of my favorite guitar solos of all time, a sentiment that’s by no means unique to me.
Greenwood ends his solo with a kind of prolonged sonic sigh, and then something truly amazing happens: Yorke’s voice ascends in a diaphanous chant that’s both graceful and mournful, a kind of truncated requiem set against the backdrop of an urban landscape: “Rain down, rain down/Come on rain down on me/From a great height/From a great height, height.” Maybe the words inspire the imagery or maybe they’re perfectly apposite to the music, but the picture that emerges at this point in the song is an elevated one, the kind of view that unfolds as you ascend in an airplane.
I seem to float above a city’s glittering schematic. I see freeways teeming with vehicles. I see numerous buildings — some narrow, some wide, others complexly curved. There are convoluted networks of antennae, wires, and cables. Bridges with their paralyzed reaches. Chimneys of all sizes exhaling into the atmosphere thick blankets of smog and elegant tendrils of smoke.
Back in Vienna, this was the moment I knew that I knew I was listening to a masterpiece.
Philosophers often describe these man-made landscapes as cold, impersonal, and alien. The description may be accurate, but it’s also incomplete if it overlooks our radical surveillance, the ingenious technological strategies that allow us to pass through all this massive scenery like displaced spirits. We can ascend these monolithic buildings in carpeted elevators; we can descend into the subterranean lair of subway tunnels; we can take it all in at a glance from an airplane window with a cup of coffee in our hands; we can stare with the omniscient gaze afforded by the window of a space shuttle. Part of OK Computer’s genius is that it captures the ways in which our technology detaches us, allowing us to hover above our world like disembodied observers.
Detachment is at the heart of OK Computer. At times the theme is blatant. Witness the robotic monologue of “Fitter Happier.” An alien spacecraft offers Yorke the promise of “seeing the world as I’d love to see it” during the surreal “Subterranean Homesick Alien.” And “No Surprises” can stand alongside Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road as one of the definitive portraits of suburban anomie, with a music video that rivals most films on the subject.
With its cryptic threats of reporting eccentric crimes to implacable bureaucratic entities, “Karma Police” wouldn’t sound out of place in a Kafka story. But then there’s that glorious coda: “For a minute there/I lost myself, I lost myself/Phew for a minute there/I lost myself, I lost myself.” Why is this simple phrase so moving? Because the real danger of all our technological innovations is a form of detachment so radical that the possibility of real connection becomes increasingly remote. We move listlessly from place to place until the search becomes nothing more than an excuse to keep moving.
Think of what happens when you fall down the digital trapdoor of a hyperlink. You keep clicking/falling and pretty soon your “search” becomes nothing more than a pretext for perpetual motion. In contrast, Yorke’s lyrics are the words of a man shaking himself awake. He’s telling you that you’re not a ghost, a disembodied observer, or a subterranean homesick alien. You’re human after all.
To mark the album’s 20-year anniversary, Radiohead has released OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017. This is more than a standard reissue with the requisite remastered tracks and updated artwork; it boasts 11 previously unreleased tracks, making it more of a new release. And, rest assured, these songs don’t sound like the odd B-sides that only diehard fans care about; they sound like OK Computer, numbing lullabies punctuated by soaring human notes that momentarily break the spell of detachment.
Speaking of detachment, picture a disembodied android head riding on a bus, peering out the window at the passing cityscape. Though this scenario may sound strange, in Radiohead’s nimble hands it’s heartbreaking. It’s also a near-perfect encapsulation of OK Computer’s central preoccupations.
Radiohead decided to shelve the song “I Promise” after OK Computer was recorded, thinking it wasn’t strong enough to merit inclusion on the album. Fortunately for us, though, they’ve changed their minds. The newly released old song is as lovely as anything Radiohead’s ever done, and few things will show that Radiohead is still news like the song’s gorgeous music video.
If OK Computer dramatized contemporary detachment, it’s hard not to see this glistening robotic head, with it’s expressive eyes and exposed wiring, as a picture of the postindustrial self — alone, disembodied, always in motion, and never arriving. In this sense, it’s fitting that Radiohead’s new album is actually an old album. Like all of us, Radiohead still haven’t arrived.
Far from prioritizing the here and now — a habit of most pop albums — OK Computer uses modern transportation as a metaphor for the transitory nature of our world. It’s an album that asks, “Where are you going?” instead of “What are you feeling?”
As a Christian, I recognize the importance of that question, though I often forget about it in the midst of my life’s frantic motion. Then I stop, I disconnect, I pray, and I think, “Phew, for a minute there, I lost myself.”