Reflections on OK Computer (from yesteryear)

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OK COMPUTER _ RADIOHEAD

All right, so they made a big statement. Unwittingly of course, as they’d lead us to believe, like some cornered Dylans, shuddering at the thought of being raised to some iconic status. But in this album there are certain notions too strong to discount or even avoid after multiple listens. The truth is -- this is an album about the real Age of Aquarius, the world of automated life, how our computers have created us, easy conveniences, objective reasoning, rational judgments, and easy thrills. All of this brings us to the music -- at times sad, others haunting, yet others exciting, but always and MOST IMPORTANTLY effing beautiful. These are heart-breakingly constructed songs about humanity crying out, to quote Dylan (why not), “like a fire in the sun.” Where to begin?


Airbag
A real doozy of a track. Ten seconds in I knew I’d hit gold. This is one of the few songs that sound like the future. And I guess I don’t mean future, as in this sounds like what music will sound like in 20 years down the line. No it’s not “before its time” or anything like that. Instead, it is music representing how the future will be or feel. With its long sliding intro electric guitar riff and psychedelic sleigh bells and extrapolating drum beat and metal shudder synthesizer and yet angelic, humanizing lyrics it does sound like a world of flying cars and polluted skyscraper cities. Kind of like Blade Runner, but starring Thom Yorke as the one guy who understands the benefit of an airbag. But the fun thing about it is there is incredulity in the line “an airbag saved my life.” That, in the middle of this “jacknifed juggernaut” madness, where the narrator is “born again,” some miniscule apparatus -- as dull in description, as its function -- has aided that rebirth. Are we, like the author, supposed to balk at this result? My theory runs counter. I think we are supposed to realize that this narrator has been so disillusioned by the world of technology and automation, that as a life-affirming humanist, he is literally blown away, that this automatic device could bring him back. To that extent, he is grateful, but there’s something more. Indeed, he is born again, but not as some Christian or follower of another religion. No, he is a born again as a member of the 20th century human race -- no longer ashamed of it, no longer uncertain -- which knew the difference between the current technological empire and good old-fashioned feelings. The revelation is so sublime: “in an interstellar burst, I’m back to save the universe.” And note, universe, not only a play on Thom’s typical one line at a time poetic voice, but truly bringing us all back home to the human simplicity we knew before. He realizes something that perhaps no one else has seen yet -- that this little airbag, though it has saved its life, is nothing but a human creation, some artifical life support. And it is somehow life-affirming because it is humans who have created this marvelous device -- and all irony aside -- we still hold the key to our futures. Machines cannot overpower our souls if we remember that we created them.


Paranoid Android
Some call it their “Bohemian Rhapsody,” others just try to get lost in its acid rain. Either one is valid. Neither one is complete in its approach. Of all the songs on the album, this one has faced the most scrutiny, much to Thom’s chagrin, as he once recounted being bombarded by a horde of drunk fans at a pub, each offering their version -- like competing religions, each proponent’s theory claws and clamors to assert its truth and accuracy. But yet, we find ourselves looking not at a single, big walloping statement in this tune, but really -- like its technical form -- a multi-part essay on Thom’s feelings in the mid-90’s. There is no one exclusive theory to this beast. It is just a reflection of a state of mind, which like all minds, is a confluence of many different thoughts. The narrator is tired. He is tired of the “noise” -- from honking city streets, false shaman talk show hosts, to empty-rhetoric politicians. He is tired of his conscience always intruding, remarkably described in schizophrenic terms (“chicken voices in my head”). He is showing characteristics of the emotionally oppressed, hoping to stick it to the bullies or fakes “when he is a king” by “putting their backs to the wall.” And the sweet, and typically bizarre Radiohead music, creates unease and tension, with that rollicking acoustic guitar, tempering close to explosion, as the narrator keeps taking shots in the dark of his mental cavern, hoping to spark some torch of insight to show the way out: Out of his mind? Well, that works not only on its obvious level, but on some weird dasein echelon, as well. If only to exit existence itself, just for a second. But no, that’s not possible. Even an android is a creature of existence, and what’s more, of human creation, yet another artifice in the familiar landscape, so what can a boy do, but be perfectly and resolutely paranoid.


Subterrean Homesick Alien
Opening with a riff that reeks of repeated listens of “Hosana,” a m-f’n amazing cut on Jesus Christ Superstar, or perhaps just a manifested teenage infatuation with Cat Stevens, so begins this nice, hummable anthem of Britishness. That being British, or human rather, or maybe I’m not so sure anymore, is to be “uptight,” in all of its fun, lending itself to chorus-land variations poppiness, I cannot firmly say. What I can say is that this song -- which really has NOTHING TO DO WITH DYLAN beyond its cute title -- moves at a Floydian pace but moves your heart in the right way. Because we’ve all been there, haven’t we? Ashamed of ourselves, our carefully hidden idiosyncrasies. Ever been the crazy guy in your group of friends? Well, for most of us, that depends on the day or week or month? For others, it may be a permanent slot. But the one thing that’s true is that, when we feel good being “crazy,” then maybe we’re not really crazy at all. Maybe we’re just being ourselves. And that is what this nice song is about really.


Music for Motion Picture
Thom the Romantic at full blast. Though this song is not really that romantic. It’s more about adolescence v. the phonies of the future. This is 21st Century Holden Caufield’s suicide note. Sure, it’s based on Romeo and Juilet but what star-crossed lover -- make that star-crossed human -- tragedy is not. Its more probable genesis is the utter disgust one encounters when finally pushed into irrational conflict. Possibly there is nothing more irrational than the conflict between humans over two lovers -- whether it be the family, friends, society, or whomever. There does not seem to be any justification why two people who love each other deeply and truly should not be together. Love is so powerful and satisfies so much anxiety and doubt, so literally completes whatever is missing in one’s life, that it is sickening to see anyone derive disapproval or rancor toward it. Yet that is what we find year after year, in family after family, when people just can’t get along. The only thing that makes any sense about these perpetual reservations, second guesses, and “priceless advice” (Cobain) is the economics of familial relations. In what seems like B.C. era reasoning -- or maybe before civilization or possibly the tool age -- some families size up the cost-benefit of pairings. And they do so with such backing, too. They have support from many institutions -- religion, prior practice, even outright indifference. But it all resolves to one (arguably ostensible) standby: The Good Old Law. Yes, rules and wisdoms, choke, indeed. Isn’t it the perennial slap in the face to hear “You’ll understand when you’re older,” or “It’s what’s best,” or even more condescending -- “that girl wasn’t right for you.” Indeed, another saying comes to mind: “Easier said than done.” Who’s going to throw away the love of their lives simply to secure some chips on the poker table? I say -- if you want to hold your cards that closely, you shouldn’t even play the game. So yes, for this motion picture of Life, why don’t we play. Then we can breathe, unrestricted.


Let Down
Musically, you might say, it’s nothing special. But fuck all. I love it. Give me more of it. All the time, even when I’m top of the world happy. Even when nothing could sway me. Because nothing is more beautiful than truth, and when truth comes wrapped in clovers, that’s a special day. A rare day. More often than not, it comes wrapped in a Vito Corleone napkin and it fires hot pokers into your face like you’re Fanucci.

The guitar positively glimmers, urgently but softly, like rain hitting a pond, or better yet, puddle. This is music at its most elegiac and without much shame. Because it is expressing one of the more common ailments of humanity: our inability to be what we aspire to be. Whether that inability be through fault or mere fate is difficult to determine. It would seem most self-pitying to blame it all on the steady turn of events that inexorably flow from one’s insistence on sitting there, doing nothing, saying nothing, waiting. But our fair spectors of this earth, our red E.T. pulses glowing, are the unwilling accomplices to a human crime. But yet we need intent, cry the pour souls, you cannot cast black on that which does not wish for destruction. But, ah, at some point the self-sealing ignorance, the typical look away from the TV at the right second rhythm of our careless heads,will shine the finer truth that the book is a fine place to start but a miserable place to end when it concerns affairs of the human heart.

And so the narrator, self-conscious as we know from the declaration of “Airbag,” now is aware of society’s failings. What’s great about this one, more than any other on the album, is its lack of pretension. I don’t think any critic would have guessed that this puppy was the album’s soul and certainly its core thesis. As I’ve said, it is not the rollercoaster of ambition that “Paranoid Android” is, the almost sinisterly inspired “Music for Motion Picture,” the PURE MASTERPIECE OF MUSIC that “No Suprises” is, or even the gifted songwriting that “Lucky” is. In most respects, it is a fairly rudimentary chorus-verse-chorus, almost pop, albeit a sad song. But like many songs of simple foundations, it reaches closer, cutting through the brain’s pleasure of a good tune, right down to the listener’s heart, because that is its aim. And so we have a song that reaches us.

And so much of this connection has to do with the words. The words easily convey the purpose of the album. The album has so much to do with the suffocation of humanity as a result of technology, rationality, and science, that this song, with its humble title, pretty much sums it up. It’s about as simple an image as some drunk folks dangling from a bar, where the only thing on which to cling is a beer bottle. It’s not that people have never drank before. No, but it is a time when the failure of our society to bring out the self-sustaining happiness of people has left us all washed up, as miserable and squashed as a bug on the ground. Why do we let ourselves down?


Karma Police
The most popular song on the album lives up to its hype and more. This is a great song, not my personal favorite on the album, but truly great. That Thom considers this one to be a joke of sorts, not the song, but what it’s about, is all right. Perhaps, it’s no matter. The song will reach people how they want it to reach them. And the music will doubtlessly move people.

It took me awhile to figure out that the musical inspiration is Lennon’s “Sexy Sadie.” Hell, even down to Lennon’s don’t-give-a-shit piano banging at the beginning of that killer Beatles track on the White Album. This, of course, says as much about Lennon’s complacent genius as Thom Yorke’s resourcefulness. But to Dear John: When your on-the-spot improvisations inspire equally great, if not better, songs, then you are a treasure trove, my friend.

Heck, consider what “Sexy Sadie” was about -- the skewering of an Indian guru at the hands of a terrifically derisive man. Lennon is even better than Dylan at tearing apart a perceived enemy. This is because he moves beyond cheap shots and witty rejoinders to stinging his opponent where he is most vulnerable. The line “however big you think you are” or the sassy repetition of the line “the latest and the greatest of them all,” sung with such fine Beatles harmony (God, what a great use of it, in this instance!) just sweat with pure despise. But the beautiful thing was how suger-coated Lennon made it and the happy accident of using an ambiguous name. For years, I thought it was just some chick who had pissed him off. It works either way. You can tell what the target cares about based on Lennon’s careful dismantling of its ego.

But anyway, I got off on a tangent here. Or sort of. The point is that “Karma Police” shares thematic similarities with “Sexy Sadie”. Whether it had a specific target or not, this song is skewering some offender of law or morality or plain civility, and promising him, ever so sweetly, that “this is what you get” for messing with the people who can see what you are doing and, yes, will gladly report it. You, anonymous offender, are being defamed, but only you and the reporter know it. Think of it as Alanis Morisette’s “You Oughta Know,” but on a much broader level (in keeping with the album’s universal approach).

The best part of the song is its outro. Has there been an outro in any song the past decade as riveting as this one? It’s an excellent chord progression (Bm D G D G D E7, to be exact, and the E7 is the clincher, it just ties the whole room together). Editor's Note: It has come to my attention, via a present listen of Replacements, that Sir Thom most certainly stole the wonderful anthemic cathartic chorus of "Unsatisfied" for this outro. Ain't nothing new under the sun, boys and girls, all been done before. And the speaker seems beguiled, maybe secretly disgusted at his own display (he did tell some girl she has a “hitler hairdo”), and now wants to recover with a “who? me? did I do that?” exit. It’s played to perfection. It suggests the silliness of anger. Or maybe I am completely wrong, it’s played straight, and the madness of life has just zapped the speaker good. You tell me.


Fitter Happier
The Humans Are Dead??? Has anyone caught that wry new comedy show “Flight of the Conchords” on HBO? Well, it stars two dry-humored New Zealanders aspiring to make it big as a novelty-folk duo in NYC. Each episode features their own hilarious songs, and some are absurd. Take, for example, “The Humans are Dead,” which is sung in a robotic voice, and has the two marching in 50’s era robot costumes, as they poke corpses to “confirm” they are dead (just before launching into a binary solo 00001111, indeed).

Well, it’s all good fun, but it now reminds me of this piece. It reminds me of how we like to picture robots -- emotionless, pure rationality, and without a sense of context or what philosophers would call inductive reasoning.

Robots know as much about life as we program into them. They are HAL 900, the red eye that could beat you in a game of chess, calculate your worst-nightmare calculation in a nanosecond, and would gladly entertain a conversation, assuming its responses have been provided by its creator in advance. And if that conversation teaches you anything about this creature, it is this: pragmatism, not idealism.

Just listen to that line -- “like a cat/ tied to a stick” -- my God, it has no soul and it’s just... this is poetry. This is a great track. Its artistry is evident in the reaction. Most people just want to skip it and get onto better moments. But that is why this piece is great. It is uncomfortable. It is someone summing up the sad truth in the most emotionally vacant voice imaginable.


Electioneering
The worst song on the album but that says barely anything on an album like this. The most driving and straightforward rocker with a fairly boring rockout exit. I cannot say much about it. Even the theme is forced by the title.


Climbing the Walls
Wow -- someone did their Can homework. Sounds vaguely like experimental rock, yes, but it also approaches the most terrifying moment on the album. It is pure scariness -- this song is all about the unseen. It is about the things that go bump at night. Why do wooden boards have to creak at 1:30 in the morning when you have just gotten into bed after foolishly staying with the horror movie on TV? Damn it!
Recovering brilliantly from the last track’s misstep, this one has an acid rain hurricane of guitar noise that is so riveting, it nearly melts the whole song.


No Surprises
This one is a strong contender for my personal favorite on the album. The nursery melody -- melancholy at its finest -- and the poetic lyrics that beautifully convey humanism in a life-draining, unfair, and simply uncivilized world -- who could ask for anything more? We have gone from the “firm handshake” of Floyd to the “handshake of carbon monoxide” of Thom Yorke. This song’s appeal, I hope, goes beyond its comforting melody, and even its audience-rousing lines “bring down the government/ they don’t speak for us” (which I happily witnessed in Camden in July 2003).

It’s the lines -- “such a pretty house and such a pretty garden” that kill me. My God, this describes me. I don’t need some mansion. I don’t need yachts. I don’t need private jets. I don’t even need a personal chef (well, maybe). No, I need some place I can call home and cram all my stuff into it. And a nice garden -- metaphor for a place of peace, inspiration, and spiritual understanding -- would be nice. And, yes, it can be a literal garden.

Author Comments: 

Since I guess I enjoy writing about music even more than listing it or rating it, I'm going to make an effort to do a series of "reflection" articles. I already have one on Trout Mask Replica (which I hope to update with new observations soon). To kick this off, I am unearthing an old reflection on OK Computer. I think I wrote this in 2007. It seems like I didn't finish it. My reaction to "The Tourist" was not written. Any volunteers? I haven't listened to this album for awhile, but I still stand by some of my reactions here. I don't think Radiohead is nearly as overrated as Scaruffi would lead one to believe. Thom Yorke is a very solid songwriter, and the group's appeal is largely justified. That's to say, I don't think the media is wholly to blame here. I think Radiohead is one of those group that has at least a few songs that EVERYONE likes (even if we disagree on which ones those are). That's not to say they're objectively great either. It's just to say they mastered the art of broad appeal, and to this extent they are superb refiners of their craft -- meaning they don't necessarily innovate anything, they just make what's out there more listenable than it was. They create bionic rock songs.

I'm glad you posted this as I find it quite invigorating. I'm reminded of the profound depth that art can touch our soul, and it feels too long since I engaged with a work on this level. It's kind of ridiculous how us Listologists listen to dozens of new albums/films every month, when the power of one work can be so great.

I also think you've given a great deal of insight into Tom Yorke's songs. Music reviews can often become a linguistic summary of the music itself, but I think you've done a great job of discussing what the music means to you.

I think this analysis is not just good, but epically good. That fact that you were able to give such interesting thoughts for nearly every song is amazing. OK computer may not be my favorite album (though I do enjoy it), but reading your thoughts reminds me how magical art can be.

There are certain quotes that really made me laugh, or were particularly interesting for whatever reason. I thought I'd post some,

"Kind of like Blade Runner, but starring Thom Yorke as the one guy who understands the benefit of an airbag."

"This is 21st Century Holden Caufield’s suicide note."

"In what seems like B.C. era reasoning -- or maybe before civilization or possibly the tool age -- some families size up the cost-benefit of pairings."

"More often than not, it comes wrapped in a Vito Corleone napkin and it fires hot pokers into your face like you’re Fanucci."

"But to Dear John: When your on-the-spot improvisations inspire equally great, if not better, songs, then you are a treasure trove, my friend."

"But anyway, I got off on a tangent here." ---after your Lennon rant

"The worst song on the album" --about Electioneering.

Anyways, it's not like those are the "best" quotes, but those are some I remember liking a lot. I not only enjoyed this, I think it's the best thing I've read on this site, certainly my favorite.

Thanks! I'm pleased that I succeeded in discussing what the music meant to me. More and more these days, I'm convinced that the primary purpose of criticism is self-discovery. There's always the risk that you get carried away, but I like letting my mind run a little wild.

It's kind of ridiculous how us Listologists listen to dozens of new albums/films every month, when the power of one work can be so great. This was written when I was mostly a mainstream rock fan. Once I discovered RYM and Scaruffi, I began plowing through experimental rock and other underground genres. In that giddiness, it's possible not to stop and reflect on what you really enjoy. I think I avoided that here and there -- I got deeply into Zappa and Beefheart and Faust, and certainly R. Stevie Moore, and listened to them endlessly -- but these days I'm making a concerted effort to focus only on music I really really love. It cannot be underestimated how enjoyable it is to cleanse the media player palette of unnecessary flavors.

I will definitely continue writing these "reflection" articles. They are really rewarding for me, and I'm flattered that you think they are the best writing on the site. Personally, I'm quite proud of the Vito Corleone napkin analogy.

The media player pallete, that sounds yummy & metallic. Yeah I mean, without Scaruffi I would never have found the extraordinarily deep world of Trout Mask Replica. Even though I don't consider it a favorite anymore I still remember all the lyrics. "And now we have a famous version of She's Too Much for My Mirror, note the clever slate. She's Too Much for My, or Anyone's, Mirror Take 2. Told ya." I think he did a good job of cramming his whole persona onto that disc and it's an uncommonly deep work. I just feel it's too much of a messy train wreck to listen to regularly.

Anyways, I don't mean to imply that following Scarf or plowing through RYM sites robs you of meaningful bonds to art. Exploration is obviously integral to discovery. I just think it's easy to forget that you will have ultimately a deep respect for only a handful of works. Certainly if there was a film I'd write about - there'd be only 10-12 to choose from. Anything else just wouldn't work and I imagine it's like that for most. In fact I just watched The Godfather, a film I've always admired, after reading your article and it dawned on me how much I was missing. Because you know this time I was really watching it, and not just watching it.

It seems like such a mammoth task to say all the things you want to say about an artwork. I think it's a worthwhile exercise & even a respectable art in itself. If I could compose the movie review equivalent of Wiseau's The Room I could rest easy.

2 years later but fuck it, I could make The Tourist if you want. Lucky is lame.