Monday, March 14, 2011

Radiohead - OK Computer

Radiohead - OK Computer
Published in 1997

OK Computer marks the moment in Radiohead's career where they stepped off the path and found a goldmine. The album begins in a wholly different way than either of their previous albums.  We are treated to a cello and bells, playing a melody that would sound completely out of place on either of the previous records.  This is the first indication that we are now in a new space.

Airbag, the albums first track, is one of the greatest songs to lead off an album ever.  It is a wide open, strikingly beautiful track, that is inviting and interesting.  The themes of the album are hit on, but the song is just well made and well performed.  No longer are we relying on pure guitar and bass to convey the music, there are synths, strings, drum machines and much more.  The guitar is present, and the bass is pounding, but they are awash in extra touches around the main parts.

Lyrically, Airbag is a sing along song about a car crash, the effects of modernity and the interaction of man and technology.  This is the theme of the album.  In a world where nothing is separated from technology, what happens is recorded, seen, processed and filtered through this technology.  Music is a powerful thing in this world, because it seems to be the one place where technology cannot touch, but as Radiohead shows, it has already permeated the gap, and is now in charge.

Paranoid Android is another classic song.  The bass line is beautiful, the acoustic touch brings an interesting sound on top of it, and to also have an electric guitar come in just adds to the depth of the song.  The music is well performed, the sounds are beautiful, and Thom Yorke screams and shouts with the best of them.  The song progresses from one point in musical space to another, first starting as a bass and acoustic song, developing into a rock anthem, slowing down into a ballad, and returning to the anthem.  These tonal changes make the song develop into much greater than the sum of its parts.

In general, Thom Yorke alternates between a breathy whisper and singing right at the edge of his vocal range, threatening to  either go into falsetto, or playing just on that side of the vocals.  This means that his voice is dynamically attempting to move up and over a certain point, and the failure of the voice to do so intrigues us and brings us further into the song.  The exploitation of this natural feature of the human voice is one of the most brilliant things that Yorke can do.

Subterranean Homesick Alien is a song about longing for a greater experience.  The desire to see something from a different perspective and from a different place is a common one in Radiohead's music.  The voyeuristic elements are also interesting to look at.  Both the aliens and the singer are trying to present the people back home with a different perspective, the aliens in the form of home movies and the singer in the form of words.  Both of these experiences highlight the superficial elements of relating experience to another.  The movies, by definition are only an image of the experience at that time, which divorces them from the time and place that they are being viewed, and can only be experienced fully through the memory of creating them, while the narrative is flawed in that in the end, it must sound crazy to the other people around.  Once again, disconnection from human beings reigns.

Exit Music (For a Film) is another song about attempting to find connection and failing.  The singer is attempting to escape with someone else, and the song is presented as a narrative between this character and the singer.  The quietly whispered quality of the vocals and the layers of music present a strangely conspiratorial sound, that makes the song sound like it is being sung to you alone.  Even as the song expands, it remains a shared experience between you and the singer, a quiet rebellion, huddled in the woods around a fire, having escaped from an oppressive thing.  

There are two parts to Exit Music (For a Film) of equal importance.  First is the Wake and Escape part.  This establishes the narrative quality.  The song is communicated directly to us, the listener, and we are treated as the child in the relationship.  The imagery that is called to mind is of a hushed night time escape, running away from an oppressive force, that has held on too long.  The escape is cathartic and  triumphant.

The second part begins just after the line "Sing us a Song, a Song to keep us warm, there is such a chill, such a chill." At this moment, the heavily distorted baseline comes in.  The song that is sung is one of rebellion toward the force that once held us.  It is a revolutionary anthem, sung between conspirators against an oppressive figure that doesn't present itself to them.  However, this triumphant quality is stamped out by the end of the song, with the repeated refrain "We hope that you choke, that you choke, that you choke" sung in a quiet, high voice, like a child hiding in the woods.  The epic rebellion is only between this child and the original singer, and the hope is one of futility and sadness.  Sitting outside, escaped from the house, not yet to anywhere that could take you in, the end sounds like the oppressive darkness chokes off the lone voice in the cold world.

(Did that just get really dark?  I think it was a little dark.  My fault.)

Let Down is a lovely song, mixing the classic Radiohead sound with a lovely wash of noise effect.  The background has a constant sound of cymbals, which allows the guitar and vocals to ring out over the background, and even the bass comes through clearly.  There are several small repeated samples that make an impact, and the added noise is not distracting, but adds to the wash in a way that makes it interesting.  The main through line, which sounds like marimba to me, but might just be an electric piano, gives a great sound to the whole thing.

Perhaps the most popular song off of OK Computer, Karma Police was ubiquitous on alternative radio for a year or so.  It's a haunting song of great sing along lyrics.  The music once again takes advantage of the layers available, allowing a wailing vocal track in the background.  The piano based chorus segment drops well, and brings the listener in closer to the band.  The space created by the re-entry of the drums allows the effect to occur over and over again.

The bridge, with it's cries of "for a minute there, I lost myself" is well done, sounds like the other parts, and allows a strange guitar non-solo.  The guitar solo sounds more like a repeated alarm sound, not a solo, but it comes through at the moment when you expect the solo to occur.  It is then dwarfed at the end of the song by the lead in to Fitter Happier.

If I were to point to something that bothers me from this album, it would be Fitter Happier.  I think I understand why they used it, but now, over ten years later, the idea of a MC Hawking solo in the middle of this album seems absurd.  However, the background music is pretty incredible, and it allows this not to stick out like a sore thumb.  It is less distracting and thematically fits, I just wish that it wasn't so obvious.  Having human words come out of a robots mouth is a little too easy for me.

Electioneering  (I believe that the title comes from a Kurosawa film called Ikiru, which might be my favorite film of all time.) is a great rock song.  It's simply amazing, driving rock.  It is the closest thing to a normal song structure on this album, but it is just a driving monster song.  The music is well done, the guitar is awesome, and the drums just kick.  It is perhaps the easiest song to just listen to without context, but in context, it gives it a certain power that it is so simple.  The song structure is simple, but the song is not.  The lyrics are powerfully crafted, and the music is too.

Climbing Up the Walls is a pretty great song.  I think the beginning is more powerful than the end, and that it loses it's way somewhere halfway, but I think that it is a pretty fair representation of the insanity and desire that consumes people.  It's a fantastically well done beginning though, and totally fits inside the album, because the outro of buzzes and noises brings us into the prettiest song on the album

No Surprises is a perfect song.  The song is light and poppy sounding, with incredibly dark and strange lyrics. It has a lullaby quality to it, and a bit of a sing songy vibe to it.  The music is just perfectly beautiful and completely detoothed, which allows the lyrics to be biting and vicious.  If it is a lullaby, it is the lullaby that is sung to budding anarchists and criminals, a song of theft and destruction, a prayer to the god of the thieves.  It's also wonderful.

Lucky has a dreamlike quality.  The slow tempo allows the vocals to languish in the time, making the music that much sweeter.  The chorus kicks in with one of the most moving and singable lines from the album, with the note on "pull" almost being drawn out of you, involuntarily.  The song is performed with a tightness and clarity that many other artists lack.  It's a beautiful moment of dreamy clarity.

The Tourist is even slower in tempo than Lucky, and is almost so slow that it forces you to anticipate the beat.  The chorus of the song directly addresses this with "Hey man, slow down, slow down, slow down."  The main vocal sections are sung in harmony between two voices, allowing the snaking between these voices to create tension, and the music to interact with the voices.  It's a beautifully done piece of music.

So, why is OK Computer one of the most important albums of the last twenty years?  I think it is because it looks both forward and back.  It has a structure that is similar to the Dark Side of the Moon, which was a meditation on madness, while this is a meditation on Technology and Humanity.  I think that if it were not for this album, the musical landscape would have lost the diverse epic structure, and I think that we would be worse off for it.

I also think that it is important to remember how different this was than The Bends and Planet Telex.  "We have removed the traditional song structure, and are no longer aping the people who inspired us."  The imagery of stepping off the path is a good one.  The first two albums, while incredibly respectable pieces of work, were in line with what other bands would have done.  For that matter, nearly every album is similar to every other album that artist has done.  When we make something successful, the "that but more" principle comes into effect.  This is why some people get locked into structures, and instead of using the structure to build something new, they just build the same house over and over again.

Radiohead, by stepping this way, opened up an entirely new path for them to go.  Few bands have tried to go in such a different direction, and even fewer have succeeded, but this is a stellar effort.  To adopt this kind of change shows maturity in a musician, and it allows them to move to even newer places.  OK Computer was the first step, but the next one would be even further.

"That's a lot of scalps,"

PS. Yeah, another one bites the dust!  This will be posted on Wednesday, so, whenever you check TAP, make sure to check other times too.  Not only does it bump my view count and thus my ego, it also means that you get more TAP!


PPPS.  Stay tuned for more of the Catalog Project!  Up next, Kid A and Amnesiac and blowing your mind.

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